Pokémon Go and Its Underused Potential for Well-Being

  • 27 July 2016
  • sjanicke

Can Pokemon Go Increase Well-Being? 

Whereas the sight of people staring at their phone screens in public is nothing unusual anymore, the release of Pokémon Go three weeks ago put this scene to a whole other level. Now, a full zombie calypso broke out where people, often in groups, walk around the streets with their eyes glued to their phones, looking for virtual Pokémons that are “hiding” in various corners of a city.

For those of you who are not yet completely familiar with the game, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game in which players capture virtual Pokémon characters that are mapped to real-world locations. 

The USA today reports that 15 million users downloaded Pokémon Go already and it is the most used app on a daily basis since its launch, amounting in 33 minutes per day (which is more than Facebook = 22min and Snapchat = 18min).  Survey Monkey estimates that the game is making $6 million a day from in-app purchases in the U.S. alone (the game is available in 27 countries).

The most precarious sight is probably the gathering of crowds of people in “designated Pokémon gyms.” What is an immersive game-play experience for the gamers, is a very alien like sight from an outsider perspective:  Having 25-30 people standing all in one spot, staring at their screens, not looking up once to check their surroundings. You could have an actual alien stand amongst them, and I bet, they would not notice it.

As with any hype, various “D’oh!” moments have been reported ranging from players falling from a cliff in California (luckily only moderately injured), being shot because they looked for Pokémon in a dangerous neighborhood (this is really sad, and my thoughts go to the teenagers families), to thousands of people streaming into central park on the hunt for a rare Pokémon (pretty crazy if you ask me).

Besides these negative consequences associated with the Pokémon Go, I believe the game could (with a small add-on) carry some large positive effects for societies' well-being.  

For one, the game already makes people get out of their living rooms and go outside and actually walk around (yes, moving our sedentary bottoms more is a major contributor to health and well-being in this country).

Two, the game is obviously highly entertaining and may elevate people’s mood.

Most importantly, however, I think the game could potentially also provide a platform to build real world connections and relationships with people one would probably never meet otherwise.

Here is the scenario I envision:

When you gather around the Pokémon Gyms to train your Pokémon or battle others, you are encountering a very rare opportunity of connecting with real people you have never met before, but with whom you already share a common interest with (i.e., playing Pokemon Go, living in the same neighborhood).

What if the game involved some form of incentive for actual face-to-face, real world interactions while gathering at the “gym” locations? It is so rare nowadays to get strangers, who don’t know each other together in a room that share the same interest, and connect with each other. Sure, we still have the traditional events of musical concerts, conferences or meetups, or art exhibitions where people might connect, but more and more do we entertain ourselves in the privacy of our homes and with our core group of friends and family. Consequently, building community and connecting face to face with strangers based on a common interest has become a rare occurrence.

Stanford Psychologist Emma Seppala summarizes the incredible health benefits (including, but not limited to, lower rates of anxiety and depression, stronger gene expression fro immunity, 50% increased chances of longevity) from feeling socially connected, which means “feeling close to and a sense of belongingness with others”.

How cool would it be if a game, such as the Pokémon Go, could facilitate such social connections through the building of “real” social networks. For example, when people meet at a “gym” spot they could, through location tracking, be incentivized to ask other players close by, some personal questions (i.e., favorite food, favorite restaurant in town, favorite hobby etc.). After entering this info into the social network aspect of the game, they could be allowed to join forces in the battles or get another upgrade in the game, before moving on.

I understand that this is not the main “goal” of the game, but wouldn’t it be such a nice side effect?

The game already gets us out and about, which is great. How about it uses what is already there—people meeting at the same spot—as an opportunity to facilitate what has become a rare phenomenon in our culture: actual face-to-face conversation. It does not have to be long, nor does it need to distract attention from the game. But what would be a small step for Pokémon game developers could be a great step for the digital society we live in.