How mobile location-based games will impact the future of youth ministry

How mobile GPS gaming will impact youth ministry Just as many of us are becoming familiar with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, here come two more big contenders that some tech sites are claiming will be the next big wave of social interaction. In fact, CNN calls them “next year’s Twitter.” True to my prediction about why teens will leave Facebook within the next two years, both of these services fall under the categories I suggested would characterize what’s next in the social media industry: It will not be tethered to a computer, and it will still enhance and lead to face-to-face socializing.

About the games

Imagine that the entire world is a giant game board. As you travel from place to place around town or around the world, you receive points via your GPS enabled cell phone for the places you visit and how you interact there. At some venues, you can pick up virtual items left there by other players, leave one of your own items behind for others who visit in the future, and view a log of how each item was picked up and passed along from place to place around the world, like a virtual geocache. If you visit a venue more than anyone else, you could become mayor of that place and earn a reputation with everyone else who visits it in the future as long as you retain your mayorship. (Some restaurants and stores now offer perks to the mayors of their venue, such as free drinks or special coupons.) Race to earn the most points among your friends, see their last location and choose to join them (no more calling everyone to see where they are, just check your friends list and drive over), and also race to earn both a local and global reputation as you travel your community and the rest of the world. There are leaderboards to climb, fun badges to earn, pins to unlock, collectable items to find, new venues to be the first to discover, and so much more. You can also leave notes for other visitors who check-in at that spot later (i.e. “I definitely recommend the chicken sandwich”) or leave notes for yourself that pop-up the next time you visit that venue (i.e. “Try the house salad next time instead of the caesar salad”). It’s a local game combined with a global game with both your friends and everyone else in the world.

The game names

The two big services in this mobile location-based game market are Foursquare and Gowalla. I’ve been playing both of their games for a couple weeks with my Motorola Droid and love it! As a guy who loves role-playing video games, the idea of being able to unlock badges, find items, rank up, and interact with other locals as I do my normal every-day activities around town is quite addicting.

GPS enabled phones with data plans are becoming more and more mainstream (Blackberry, iPhone, Android-based phones, etc.), which will lead to see a rise in the popularity of these mobile location-based games, first with the young-professionals 20-somethings, but then with teenagers. Within the next year or two, the mobile social networking games will become more robust, more competitive, more social and much more helpful and valuable as you travel to new places.

These services are still very new and there’s not much on the web that explains what they are or how they work in really simplistic terms. Foursquare as a half-decent explanation on their site, but Gowalla doesn’t have an explanation save for a brief video on the front page of their website that really doesn’t do it justice. This YouTube video is the best I could find if you want another (better) explanation of the two services side-by-side.

To see Foursquare and Gowalla compared, Mashable has a slightly out-dated chart of the two since Foursquare recently changed the game to be both global and local instead of just local. Now you play not only with your friends, but you’re also ranked again people who are within a 25 mile radius of you.

Another big player in the location-based mobile gaming industry is MyTown. It looks really sweet because it allows users to earn virtual currency, buy venues they frequently visit and charge rent to other players who check-in there, kinda like a big monopoly game in real-life. Unfortunately, I can’t play because it’s limited to the iPhone. Grrr… recently got in the action by adding location-based gaming to their existing user-review community, and it’s only a matter of time until Facebook gets in the game, taking their millions of users with them to immediately dominate the industry (thereby somewhat negating my previous prediction).

The implications for the future of youth ministry are numerous

  • At a glance on your phone, see where your youth group kids are all hanging out and go join them.
  • Not familiar with the venue the teens are at? Check with the mayor, or read some of the notes posted about it.
  • Know who your youth group kids are spending time with every day.
  • Running some errands? Make your trail available so a kid can catch you if you’re nearby.
  • Notice that a new visitor who checked in to your church’s venue last Sunday is working at the check-out lane in the grocery store. Go do some shopping there and make sure you check-out on their isle to introduce yourself.
  • Leave virtual notes for kids at a venue for the next time they visit. (“Hey John, I talked with the store manager and I already pre-paid your next coffee here. Surprise! This one’s on me. Love ya, man!” Or, “Welcome to school today! Praying for your test, Jill!”)
  • Track attendance at youth group. If someone’s missing, see where they are. Notice the youth group guy is with a girl, probably on a date? Take the entire youth group over there and crash it!
  • Become mayor of your church to interact with guests, visitors, and even regulars who check in.
  • Thinking about grabbing dinner at Taco Bell, but see a couple kids just checked in at Subway across the street? Eat over there instead. (Plus, it’s healthier for you.)
  • A visitor comes to church and you notice they’re the mayor of a local bar. Great piece of info and background as you spark a conversations. Or maybe you notice that this person checked into 5 different churches each Sunday for the past 5 weeks. Again, helpful info. Maybe they’re searching for a church home. Drop a cool virtual item for them to take as a souvenir of their visit along with a note.

The list could go on and on, but you get the picture. Some of these location-based features aren’t available yet, like leaving private notes at a venue for a friend, but given some time I’m sure we’ll see this soon. (Remember The Milk already does location-based personal notes and “to do” reminders for GPS enabled phones. Walk into a grocery store and your phone automatically detects where you are and pops up your reminder, “Hey, remember to get cereal while you’re here.” Or, walk into church and your church “to do” list automatically comes up on your phone.)

My take

Personally, I like Foursquare the best because it has a native app for my Droid, the game is easy to learn, and it feels more social than the others. Plus, Foursquare seems to be pioneering the market more aggressively than the competition, which is still pretty limited. However, I really like Gowalla’s “virtual geocaching,” so I’ll probably play them both for now and see what happens.

Feel free to add me as a friend both on Gowalla and Foursquare. If you see that I just checked in somewhere close by you, come over and say HI! This will be especially fun to play with all of you at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference next month!

[ Tim Schmoyer on Foursquare ]

[ Tim Schmoyer on Gowalla ]

Note that there’s no gameplay on the site – you have to be on a GPS-enabled mobile phone for the actual game.

Preempting your criticisms

Before anyone gets too critical about the dangers of location-based services, let me remind you of the cycle of youth culture: everything from Elvis to MySpace is first met with criticism from the older generations before it’s eventually adopted as commonplace just as the new generation is moving on to something else. Since the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is women over the age of 55, I’d say it’s about time to see the cycle start to repeat itself again very soon. Maybe mobile location-based networking will be where criticism comes next before everyone is eventually doing it, maybe not, but I’m guessing it is.

Yeah, there will be some crazy stalker stories surrounding the games of making your exact location known, and most of us (myself included) still feel a little uncomfortable about giving away that kind of information on a regular basis, but I remember feeling the same way about Twitter and letting everyone know, “What are you doing?” all the time. Now it’s normal. I remember way back when it was a privacy concern to post a picture of yourself online! Given some time and wider acceptance, I expect the same will happen with location-aware social networks, too.

What do you think?

Do you think mobile location based services will catch on? How do you see it impacting youth ministry?

Posted on January 18, 2010

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