16th December 2016

Pokémon GO

The health benefits

Have you noticed groups of teenagers, 20-30 somethings, couples, and even parents with children walking around staring at their mobile phones more than usual in the past few months? This isn’t simply due to the continued rise in smart phone use and social media, but Pokémon Go, the record-breaking game that has taken the word by storm, where players find, capture, and train a variety of virtual creatures while travelling the real world. You may dismiss it as just a game, but this latest addition to the undying Pokémon craze is having noticeable positive impact on the lives and wellbeing of players – some members of the Solaris Health team among them.

In Pokémon GO, a player’s avatar follows them through a virtual representation of the world, tracking the player’s real world location and speed using their mobile device’s GPS. While playing, players encounter various Pokémon depending on their surrounding real world environments. The more Pokémon a player captures, the closer they get to completing their collection and the stronger they can make their Pokémon.

Pokémon GO map and Pokémon details screeshots

This emerging type of location-based gameplay provides new insights into the world by encouraging players to go outdoors, visit previously unknown points of interest, and work in teams to achieve greater goals. This has resulted in many physical and mental health benefits, only now being widely explored due to the worldwide popularity, notoriety and accessibility of the game.

Although the game is not directly marketed as a health app, Pokémon GO players do a lot of walking with distance tracked by the game, so it does possess some similarities to a health app. One of our team members has already clocked an impressive 255km in the game since he started playing, and an over 400% increase in the average daily distance they walk. This new active type of Pokémon experience also has advantages for the younger generation: another colleague has found that it helps to motivate their children to walk more.

Pokémon GO start up and distance travelled medal screenshots

According to a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Dr Margaret McCartney, a GP from Glasgow, says players are benefitting from the increased exercise.

“Most health apps that promote physical activity tend to get users who want to be healthy. Pokémon Go isn’t marketed as a health app, but players still end up doing a lot of walking. The possibilities for apps to make the streets an active, reclaimed playground in which to have interconnected fun are boundless. Increased physical activity is a tantalising side effect.”

Dr Margaret McCartney

A more recent study by Microsoft Research, ‘Influence of Pokémon Go on Physical Activity: Study and Implications’, looked into the benefits of playing the game. This study included nearly 1,500 players during the first two months of the game’s public release (July and August, 2016) and, although only a very small sample of the millions who played during the same period, had findings that resemble those of similar studies according to lead researcher, Tim Althoff, lending credence to the results. The study found that players greatly increased their activity while playing the game,  concluding that the game leads to significant increases in physical activity over a period of 30 days, with particularly engaged users increasing their average activity by 1,473 steps a day or 26%. Which, while not quite as impressive as the increase our own team member experienced, still has significant impact, with Althoff estimating that players could see an increase in average life expectancy as a result.

Pokémon Go has been credited by many on social media as helping with anxiety, depression, and mental illness. Depression can often lead to reduced energy levels and lack of motivation, which can make exercise seem unappealing; however, exercise is very beneficial for those suffering with depression as it releases chemicals linked with positive feelings. For those who typically struggle to leave the house and/or prefer isolation, Pokémon Go can help them get out, interact with friends, and meet new people. Dr John Grohol, founder of psychcentral.com, is an expert on the impact of technology on human behaviour and mental health, and has studied how people operate online over the past 20 years.

“The challenge has always been, if you're depressed, your motivation level is non-existent. So, you want to go out and get some fresh air, or even take a shower, and it can be a very difficult thing to even comprehend, much less do. I think the impact of something like this, this game, can really be beneficial."

Dr John Grohol

Pokémon Go is not presented as a tool to help treat anxiety, depression, or mental illness, but this is in-part why it is so effective. It encourages healthy behaviour patterns in players without them realising and without making them focus on their difficulties.

"It helps a person not even think of it as helping their mood because it's not targeted toward their mood. It's a game. Because of the way that they've created the gaming dynamics, they've actually created a very strong reinforcement for people to go out and become more active."

Dr John Grohol

Despite these benefits of the game, it must be noted that it should not be considered as a replacement for proper health treatment, but more a stepping stone towards treatment or complementary to it.

"I wouldn't recommend people look at this sort of game or any video game as an opportunity to treat a serious mood disorder, such as chronic depression, solely with a video game. I think it's a great adjunct to other kinds of treatment, such as psychotherapy and medication, but it should not be the sole treatment that person is using to try and help their depressed mood. If this is what it takes to help you get a treatment or consider a treatment, by all means, this can be an excellent first step, but it shouldn't be a last step."

Dr John Grohol