Putting a brand into games

So I've already proved I really like Foursquare. I joined in on the fun the moment I could... But not long after that I started hearing rumbles about Gowalla. My initial reaction was

"Wow. They have cool graphics but I can't join in on another location-based game. I'm a busy person."

But as I got closer to SXSW Interactive, I decided I should at least check it out since there was a party during the conference. On its face value the fun is collecting stamps for various locations in your town and earning pins in a "passport" that tracks your activities. When compared to Foursquare, Gowalla is a lot stricter about your check in location. There's no fudging and checking in after you've left the location. And randomly you pick up "items." They're little graphics of things like cowboy hats, running shoes and coffee cups. I didn't understand the point for a while. I'll explain it in a moment.

When you play Gowalla, you get a pin for creating location and founding locations. A founder is a person who takes one of those "items" and leaves in a location. Here's how it works. Say you checked into work and you decided to drop a cowboy hat into the location. If another person checked into the location, they could swap the item and/or drop an item. A founder helps extend the game in that location.

So trading little items sounds silly, right? Well, what if those items were cool things like coupons or discounts for businesses? What if you didn't want one of those items and wanted to trade with a fellow Gowalla users?

Here's my story. One morning of the SXSW conference I was talking to a person I had just met about Gowalla. He mentioned he didn't understand the point of the items. So I offered him my item that was a One Taco coupon. Yup. I had an item that allowed me to go to the One Taco truck, show the item and an employee would hit the "redeem" button. (I took a great screen shot of it on my phone... But I dropped the phone in an Austin cab. It's sad that the thing that bothers me most about losing my phone is the various Gowalla screenshots I had on that phone. Gone!) I convinced my new friend to check into our location, I dropped the taco coupon and he was able to trade out one of his items for the coupon. He was free to enjoy a taco when he was hungry.

Social sharing with a location based phone game? That's cool.

But I haven't even talked about my favorite location-based element of Gowalla. It's called trips. When I got to the Austin Convention Center for the first day of the conference, it was a beautiful day and my friends and I had a few hours before any of the sessions started. We decided to give a Gowalla walking tour a try. It was a chance to see spots in Austin that we had never seen before.

As we walked, we took pictures and checked into additional locations in the city for the fun of it. We saw neat spots and had a great time. When we returned to the conference center, my team of three were honored to become the first people to complete the walking tour! Our Gowalla passports earned a Chevy Walking Tour pin and we even won little Chevy Hot Wheels cars. It was fun and we had a chance to see portions of the city that we would never see without Gowalla. I talked to a member of the Chevy team who grew up in Austin. He said that was exactly what he had hoped to do with the walking tour. He picked spots that a regular tourist would miss.

That's when I started thinking about journalism. Why shouldn't newsrooms get involved? So here's what my newsroom is working on: We are working on a New To Columbia Trip. (I'm thinking about calling it the Noobie CoMo Tour.) A person who is new to town will get all of the locations that are worth visiting. Once a person checks into all of the locations, they will earn a Columbia Local pin and feel a lot more knowledgeable about their new town. What if I took it up another notch and added hidden QR Codes to give the noobie a chance to learn more facts about the location.

I realize there are dozens of location-based tools that are emerging, but since I work in a newsroom with a small budget for online innovation, I'm excited to play with games and tools people are already using. The depth of Gowalla is a lot of fun and I look forward to finding new ways to enjoy the game and insert my newsroom's content in fun ways.