Liraz Margalit Ph.D.

Behind Online Behavior

The Psychological Roots of Pokémon Go

Fantasy, surprise, reward, nostalgia, and sociability, for starters.

Posted Aug 12, 2016

Matthew Corley/Shutterstock
Source: Matthew Corley/Shutterstock

When a franchise that virtually died more than a decade ago comes back to life with such fervor, we need to ask ourselves how and why that happened. And if you’re able to stop playing Pokémon Go long enough to read this article, you’ll find the phenomenon is deeply rooted in evolutionary psychology.

Matthew Lynley recently explained the brilliant ploys used by the creators of Pokémon Go to promote engagement, retention, and virality. As a web psychologist, I am naturally inclined to dive deep into the aspects of human behavior that make so many of us prone to embrace the game.

From an evolutionary standpoint, our brains operate much better in a natural environment that’s rooted deeply in our mind, compared to a setting based in virtual reality. Our behavior is governed by two parallel processes—the conscious process that revolves around our immediate tasks (in this case, winning Pokémon Go) and the unconscious process responsible for ensuring that there are no threats or sudden changes in our environment.

When playing virtual reality games, the unconscious computation in our brains is forced to work much harder, because it’s not familiar with this strange virtual reality environment. In contrast, playing Pokémon Go involves our actual environment, with which our mind is far more familiar. Thus, playing within that setting delivers a comforting feeling of cognitive fluency—a mental shortcut that signals familiarity in a treacherous world.

The concept of cognitive fluency might seem obvious: People prefer things that are easy to think about. The experience of the real world is psychologically easier to process than that of the VR world of other games. Fluency guides our thinking in situations in which we have no idea that it’s at work, and it affects us in any situation when we need to process information.

This sense of familiarity has a strong influence over what types of things people find attractive and enjoyable. Playing games in a familiar setting is much more enjoyable, and familiarity has played a strong role in human survival. In prehistoric times, if something (or someone) was familiar, it meant that you had already interacted with it, so it was probably not going to kill you.

Pokémon Go scratches some other basic psychological itches. First, the game itself is simple to understand and easy to play for children and adults alike. Each time a level advances, the challenge is revived and thus the crave is renewed and the desire to continue receiving those fresh doses of gratification causes us to continue playing.

One rewarding building block of the game is the unexpected gratification of finding the monsters as we walk. We don’t know when to expect them; they can appear at any time or place. Our attraction to this kind of action is attributed to dopamine, a neurotransmitter found in our brain. Scientists initially associated dopamine with feelings of enjoyment, a high level of dopamine being visible during activities such as eating chocolate, having sex and hearing favorite music, but research in the past decade has indicated that dopamine has additional functions besides activating gratification and pleasure. For one, this molecule helps us detect changes in the environment.

The system centers around expectations. We can expect high levels of dopamine when we encounter unexpected rewards—three or four times as excited, as measured by the strength of the dopaminergic firing. In other words, the reward is more pleasurable the more surprising it is.

When we receive unexpected cash on a randomized basis, it forces us more strongly into obsessively repeating our action than cash on a predictable basis would. This tendency was illustrated by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s. When his lab rats received an unexpected reward from pushing a pedal, they would continue pushing it even after the reward stopped arriving. This element of surprise helps explain why people just can’t get enough of Pokémon Go.

Additional bursts of pleasure also come from the nostalgia this game evokes. Being outside chasing monsters activates old and enjoyable memories, providing us with a priceless opportunity to relive a piece of our childhood and bring our childhood experiences to life. It activates memories from a simpler time when would play social games outside like tag or hide-and-seek. Those games involved human partners, or at least involved manipulating real objects in real space, like throwing a ball. Pokémon Go players feel as if they are taking part in an actual activity with other people, rather than being a remote observer behind a screen. Throwing the ball at a Pokémon brings up exciting memories that were closed in a box that belongs to the past. These memories have a positive influence on our well-being as we get a secret key to a magical period.

In addition, playing Pokémon Go can fulfill an everlasting fantasy. Walking through the streets fighting monsters that pop up unexpectedly out of nowhere can easily drive our imagination to assume the masterful role of superhero or warrior, fulfilling a fantasy and giving our senses and emotions an otherworldly experience. Such games boost adrenaline levels and awaken strong feelings of power—as well as frustration, gratification and enjoyment.

A central part of the gratification Pokémon Go players experience is that they are going outside and often interacting socially with other players. Many studies have illustrated the mood-boosting effect of physical activity, and social ties are equally important for mental health. Some research suggests that even shallow conversation with strangers boosts well-being.

However, David Sack recently cautioned about the fine line between behavior and addiction, questioning whether Pokémon Go will drive up rates of Internet addiction or pathological gaming. He quoted a DSM-5 fact sheet on gamers:

“When these individuals are engrossed in Internet games, certain pathways in their brains are triggered in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict’s brain is affected by a particular substance. The gaming prompts a neurological response that influences feelings of pleasure and reward, and the result, in the extreme, is manifested as addictive behavior.”

“Such compulsive play pushes aside other interests and responsibilities, threatening relationships, academics, jobs and more,” Sack added. “Although this research focused on traditional online gamers, it’s no stretch to expect the same to apply to Pokémon Go players.”

There may in fact be a thin line between having fun with a game and becoming addicted to it. The problem is that this line starts creating changes in our brain, generating new connections before we even realize we are addicted.