Pokemon Go, the first large-scale “augmented reality” game, is settling past its hot trend phase after becoming the video game phenomenon of the year. Many articles have noted unexpected positive effects of the game; that it has helped some people overcome mental health issues like social phobia, agoraphobia, and depression, as well as encouraging exercise through its bonuses for walking distances. Here I briefly discuss how and why these effects occur:
Depression: One common symptom in depression is anhedonia, or lack of motivation which leads to isolation and trouble functioning in daily life. It becomes a vicious cycle where inability to complete tasks demoralizes the depressed person and increases their helplessness and hopelessness. Through the easy motivator of searching for Pokemon, the game helps jump start people who feel otherwise paralyzed or indifferent to activities. The game is simple enough to feel slow steady gains as they collect Pidgeys and Rattata, while being challenging enough to keep players hooked as they try to go for the higher candy evolutions or search for rarer Pokemon. Video games are known to act on dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in reward and motivation behaviors, that sometimes lags in people with depression and may be implicated in anhedonia. Hypothetically, the act of collecting Pokemon and associated rewards can help jump start dopamine in a depressed brain and increase motivation.
Also the game can help with the ruminative symptoms of depression and anxiety by providing a focus point that for some almost feels meditative; a benign way to distract from the cycle of tormenting thoughts and worries that often occur in those conditions by allowing someone to focus instead of the pure goal of finding a cute Pikachu or winning battles at a gym for coins.
Social Phobia: Pokemon Go provides a simple, clear mutual commonality between players who encounter each other in real life. Having a mutual goal helps people talk with less fear about being too judgmental or different from one another. This fear is a fairly common theme amongst people with social anxiety. People can easily chat about looking for the rare Lapras or being part of the same Team Instinct planning to take over a gym. They can laugh about being in a park looking for Pokemon.
Agoraphobia: The fear of going outdoors often co-occurs with depression and social phobia, as well as other anxiety disorders like panic disorder, since any unfamiliar environment or trigger may set off an anxiety attack. Gentle exposure is known to be an effective treatment for anxiety, as the afflicted individual learns to tolerate and unlearn extreme fears in a safer setting. Through the highly structured nature of the Pokemon Go game, players can go outside to search for Pokemon, and gradually realize they are doing okay, that their worst fears about being outside are not coming true. Often the Pokestops are located in settings like public parks that are scenic and placid, yet novel enough to inspire a sense of newness. Their confidence and ability to tolerate leaving home can increase accordingly.
Exercise: An added benefit of the game is its rewards for distances walked, leading to hatched eggs and buddy candy for Pokemon. The physical activity associated with the game, such as increased walking and/or running to gain rewards can also have a salutary effect on mood. Exercise is known to release helpful neurotransmitters in the brain that combat depression; exercise also has a direct physical effect on the stress hormone axis that affects people’s fight or flight responses implicated in anxiety. Sometimes despite exercise’s known positive effects, it’s hard to initiate when depressed or anxious to begin with; the game helps overcome that hurdle by providing direct, concrete incentive for people to go outside and start walking.
Of course the game is not a cure-all or a substitute for professional treatment when needed for significant mental health conditions. And like anything done in excess, Pokemon Go should not replace other important life goals or activities. But Pokemon Go can provide a gentle means for some afflicted individuals to make positive progress in their lives, and a step towards feeling better.