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Will Augmented Reality Be the New Therapy?

How can video games help to combat mental illness?

Pokemon/Nintendo 2016
Source: Pokemon/Nintendo 2016

Over the past two days something strange has happened in my practice. Three separate patients of mine, who do not know each other, don’t usually get out much, or exercise basically at all, told me that they started leaving the house more and walking around. One of them said that she has gotten more exercise this week than she had in the past several years.

Something big is happening.

What stirred them into action? The same thing: augmented reality.

When I finished up my day I started looking into it a bit further and I discovered that these people are not alone. A Buzzfeed article published a couple of days ago noted that this is happening all over the country, and possibly the world. People who rarely leave their houses due to agoraphobia, social anxiety, or depression have begun emerging onto the streets.

Pokemon/Nintendo 2016
Source: Pokemon/Nintendo 2016

All of them are playing the same game: Pokemon Go (I am not being paid to endorse this product, which is free, though there are in-app purchases), an “Augmented Reality” game which uses your smartphone’s GPS to get you to interact with Pokémon, which are integrated into the “real-world view” via your phone’s camera. This game encourages players to travel around their neighborhood to find and catch new Pokémon.

If my brief experience with these patients is not isolated, and it appears that it is not, this app, and others like it, could help gamify mental health treatment by getting people people to interact with the world by hooking into their natural sense of playfulness. These augmented reality apps have the potential to help people by giving them concrete goals to interact with the world in new and interesting ways. The possibilities for helping people with their symptoms of mental illness seem virtually limitless. Something is happening here. Perhaps augmented reality will be able assist clinicians treating people with all sorts of mental illnesses.

In the words of Neo from the Matrix, "I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell how it’s going to begin.”

This is the beginning of something very big. I can’t wait to see what happens.