Is Pokémon GO a Virtual Drug?

Is Nintendo's augmented reality game both therapeutic and addictive?

Posted Jul 14, 2016

Wikimedia Commons.
Pokémon Pikachu car at the Expo 2005 Sasashima Satellite Area.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pokémon GO (a.k.a. Pokémon Go) has rapidly spread through millions of people worldwide in little more than a week. It is "the future of fitness" or a fad that "will be gone by Christmas"? That's not so easy to predict, though, when the game's players are engaging in activities distinct from any other fad and when the game may engage players' brains and bodies in its own distinct ways. Trading Pokémon cards never led to so much physical activity, nor did playing baseball send people rushing from one location to another. 

Building on the power of nostalgia, this game came out of the starting gate with a potential population of people who grew up playing the game and many others who at least knew about it. My own university has a Pokémon Club, part of the school's thriving Legion of Nerds - and guess who their faculty advisor might be. Even though I only played the card game with my kids a few times, I understood the power a game might wield for bringing people together and I certainly saw how much enthusiasm Pokémon inspired. 

The new game uses augmented reality, as opposed to virtual reality, by adding to the real world around us and getting players to interact with both their real surroundings and the game elements. The augmented reality mode can use a phone's camera and gyroscope to display an image of a creature as if it were lurking in the player's real location, and so much more. Players can rush from place to place and even convene with other players in locations where they might try to "catch 'em all." That means they're getting out and they're meeting people. People accustomed to keeping to themselves whether they really like being alone or not find opportunities to come together in teams.

Travis Langley
Do you really know what kind of creatures really skulk around your campus at 4 in the morning?
Source: Travis Langley

According to BuzzFeed, Pokémon GO is "helping people with mental health issues feel better." There are people with depression, anxiety, and agoraphobia who are getting out and interacting with others in their pursuit of Pokémon. What many people experiencing these conditions most will be physical and social activity, but those who are depressed can lack motivation to do the things they need most and those who are anxious and afraid might be too stressed by the prospect of doing them. The therapeutic potential is great even for those who avoid formal types of treatment due to stigma toward mental illness and therapy. But when they're "just" playing a game, that's all right. That same BuzzFeed report, however, also asserts that the game is "dominating the lives of many fans." Can both be true? Can Pokémon GO both help and hurt? Can it be both therapy and addiction? Considering how many medicines can be both therapeutic and addictive, this hardly poses any paradox.

Intermittent reinforcement can produce nervous system effects comparable to those elicited by certain drugs. Pleasure can release dopamine and the brain's "endogenous morphines," the endorphins. These neurotransmitters can make us feel happy. Any activity involving endorphin release can also be highly addictive. One reason some people jog until dangerously thin is because some of them are hooked on the "runner's high." Can people get high on Pokémon?

When I raised the question on Twitter,  Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company replied, "Someone just told me half an hour ago that it has done wonders for her depression. In one day." Others expressed a variety of thoughts, hopes, and concerns.

  • "a friend has autistic son, with social anxiety. He has been asking to go outside. This is HUGE for him."
  • "it's good for your mental health all the way till you get run over by a car"
  • "I don't think searching places like graveyards in the middle of the night looking for cartoon characters is healthy..."
  • "Everything in moderation, but gaming that promotes physical activity/exploration + social interaction seems pretty awesome."
  • "My Fitbit about exploded this week, and exploring local art (Pokestop gold mines) does wonders to elevate mood!"
  • "gets people out of their zone quickly and moving comfortably. Nostalgia is a powerful suppressant, it seems."
  • "I'm vision impaired living in a new city. #PokemonGO is awesome, showing me my city in a fun way."
  • "short-term it looks great for anxiety. Potential is there to be an incredible anchor for folks longer term."
  • "from the little I know of addictive behaviour (didn't take psychopathology) - I'm a little uneasy about it. but OTOH - shared interest, getting people outdoors, so there's positives."

So what do YOU think? It is a revolution or passing fad? Is it going to make people healthier both physically and mentally, or are any benefits outweighed by potential risks like addiction, recklessness, failure to pay enough attention to the environment, and annoying non-players all around them?

Will you catch the fever to catch 'em all?

P.S. This is the 100th post in my "Beyond Heroes and Villains" blog. Because I've deleted 7 posts, though, I'll get to count another one as my 100th post a few months from now.

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