As a game, “Pokémon GO” is a runaway sensation.
But there’s also a curious side effect at work: People who might otherwise call themselves couch potatoes are starting to embrace the physical aspect of the game.
If the trend keeps up, some experts suggest “Pokémon GO” could hold important insights for public policy that tries to help people lead healthier lives.
“This is having unbelievably transformative effects for people who say they want to exercise, but do not actually, at a physiological or neurological level, have this positive connection to exercise,” Jane McGonigal, director of games research & development at the Institute for the Future, tells Tech Insider.
The biggest way “Pokémon GO” promotes physical activity is its system of endless rewards, evolving, and levelling up
Players need to travel to Pokéstops and gyms, hatch eggs, gain medals, and outperform their friends. Even the slogan of the game — “Gotta catch ’em all” — serves as a “prompt to form an intention,” according to Ian Kellar, a University of Leeds social psychologist who focuses on health and behaviour modification.
Kellar says that because the “Pokémon GO” interface creates an incredibly strong desire for you to seek rewards, the game harnesses many techniques that are successful in convincing people to change their habits.
“In studies that reported a significant intervention effect, prompting self monitoring and prompting intention formation were the most common behaviour change techniques,” Kellar told Tech Insider via email. “After that, the next most commonly reported were ‘provide instruction’ and ‘prompt specific goal setting.’ As such, the game is leveraging 3 out of the 4 most well evidenced behaviour change techniques in this context.”
McGonigal also points out that catching a new Pokémon or other prize causes a rush of dopamine that surges through your brain.
“When we have this increase in dopamine levels, what that effectively does is it makes us more goal-oriented,” says McGonigal, author of “SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient — Powered by the Science of Games.” “We discount the effort required, we discount the energy required, and we think more about the positive possible outcomes.”
That’s how you get the kind of scenario in which throngs of people on Twitter complain that a smartphone app made them exercise on accident: The game’s pull is so powerful that people forget they’re making themselves tired.
Doctors haven’t necessarily jumped on the bandwagon yet. Since the game is so new, there still isn’t any reliable data showing that catching rogue Pidgeys for an hour will make kids or their parents any healthier.
Plus, “Pokémon GO” probably won’t single-handedly get anyone the amount of exercise as they truly need. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommend adults get about 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity combined with muscle-strengthening activities, and says kids should focus even more on the time spent getting out of breath, closer to an hour each day. And as with any healthy lifestyle, both should maintain sensible diets.
But experts have already observed some mental-health benefits afforded by “Pokémon GO” — it can help people with depression and anxiety see the world as a little less threatening. “Their brains can’t anticipate that anything good could ever happen,” McGonigal explains. “That is the opposite of ‘Pokémon GO,’ where the brain believes everything good can happen.”
Assuming the people who are obsessed with the game stay obsessed, the best-case scenario for public health is that policy makers could look to these mechanisms for guidance. Relying on the science of reward-seeking behaviour, they could develop other games that get people motivated to move around.
But policy makers would still have to be careful about the lessons they draw, says McGonigal.
“Pokémon GO” may gamify exercise, but it never makes exercise the priority. The game is always the hero. Less successful games fail to motivate people because users know they’re supposed to be getting “tricked” into enjoying exercise.
“Pokémon GO,” meanwhile, “comes at it from the opposite angle,” McGonigal says. “People don’t have to want to exercise; they just have to want to play this game.”
On top of that is the need for legitimacy. Someone like Michelle Obama, who has made fighting childhood obesity a top priority, can’t just invent a carbon-copy app and think it will catch on.
She may be beloved, but Michelle Obama probably lacks the “cool” factor that “Pokémon GO” has in spades.
“Intellectual property is extremely important, and the existence of a community that loves that property is extremely important,” McGonigal says. “So if Michelle Obama wanted to do something, she’d just need to call up J.K. Rowling and be like, Hey, ‘Harry Potter Go.'” The same could be said for Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, or anyone else with a gigantic fan base.
So while “Pokémon GO” may not be a panacea for America’s ongoing obesity epidemic, there are countless people who’ve gone outside, walked on their gently-used legs, and sweat for the first time in a long time — all in a span of a week.