Why Pokémon GO Can Be Good for You

Can an augmented reality game help us augment ourselves?

Posted Aug 02, 2016

The new mobile app Pokémon GO is sweeping the world, having made over $1 billion in the first week since its release, although its glitches soon grew to infuriate some players. Glitches aside for the moment, what is the value of this game? I discussed this with fellow nerd and psychologist Janina Scarlet.

Q. Are there any benefits to playing this game or is this a massive waste of time?

A. In order to play the game successfully, the individual needs to walk, sometimes for great distances. For example, in order to hatch a Pokémon from an egg, a player often has to walk 5 kilometers (3.2 miles) or more. Many people around the world, including several of my patients, most of whom have never exercised before, are now reporting to have lost several pounds and are excited to continue to exercise. Regular exercise, such as walking, has been shown to reduce depression, improve heart health, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s.

Janina Scarlet/original screen capture.
Source: Janina Scarlet/original screen capture.

Q. Okay, those are mostly physical benefits. What about mental?

A. The game allows people to pick a team (i.e., Team Valor, Team Instinct, or Team Mystic) and work on common goals with other members of that team. Team members can work together - virtually or in real life (IRL) - to meet common goals, such as to take over Pokémon gyms, desired locations. Working on common goals with others, even in a virtual setting and even if the player does not actually meet other players, can have great psychological benefits such as increasing self-worth and reducing depression.

Q. So its psychological benefits are, to some extent, social?

A. Many players report that while they are playing the game, they meet other players and are able to help one another in capturing the Pokémon, even if they are on different teams. Many people with anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety, have found great benefits in being able to remain in social situations over a common goal. As a matter of fact, working toward an important goal can in itself create great physical and psychological benefits by increasing the amount of the “feel good” chemicals, dopamine and endorphins, in the body, and has been shown to reduce the probability of developing PTSD after exposure to trauma. In addition, interacting with others (such as that which occurs when many players play the game together) can increase the amount of oxytocin in the body. Oxytocin increase due to social interactions has been found to be associated with healthier neurovascular response and increased lifespan.

Q. I previously considered that it might be drug-like, partly because of its potential neurochemical effects. Overall, as you see it so far, is Pokémon GO good medicine?

A. Overall, it seems that the mobile app may have positive effects on the physiological and the psychological functioning of the body. Of course, more research would be needed to further support this claim.

Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full time geek. She uses Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and PTSD at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management and Sharp Memorial Hospital. Dr. Scarlet also teaches at Alliant International University, San Diego. Her book, Superhero Therapy, is expected to be released in 2016 with Little, Brown Book Group.