Last week Niantic rolled out Pokemon Go, an augmented-reality game that lets players explore their city to catch ’em all. The game uses your phone’s GPS and camera feature to superimpose the graphic of a Pokemon on your immediate surroundings. Pokemon GO is the largest augmented-reality game yet, and Poke-mania immediately gripped the nation. Americans young and old downloaded the app at a staggering rate, reaching 21 million active users in the first week and a half.
Now that the real world and the virtual world have become one, we must ask what it means for our health?
Houstonians love Pokemon Go as much as the rest of the country. But this isn’t San Francisco or Minneapolis. In order to play we need to venture outside, braving 100 degree temperatures and tropical humidity.
That hasn’t stopped us.
Usually Houstonians consider the period between May and October a dead zone, a time to hide in the AC and keep the blinds drawn. But the first weekend after Pokemon Go came out Houston’s parks were filled with people searching for Pokemon. And not just the exercise elite, but people from all walks of life, many of whom freely admitted they would stay inside otherwise.
Be The Very Best Walker
The game itself rewards physical activity. Not only do you have to go outside to explore to find gyms and Pokestops, but one feature of the game even requires you to walk a specific number of kilometers to hatch eggs.
We’ve struggled to get Americans physically active for decades. Cell phones and video games contribute as much as anything to sloth and laziness, providing ample entertainment right from the comfort of home.
People realized the health benefits right away. One overweight member of Reddit’s new Pokemon Go Fitness community walked 4 miles in the first day playing the game: “I haven’t done major walking like that in years, especially deliberately, and I feel great.”
Video games incorporated fitness before, and exercise studios are “gameifying” exercise to motivate people to push themselves to the limit. But the fundamental nature of video game counsels require the player to stay planted on the couch. Other technological developments- namely on-demand video streaming- have made slothfulness an easier lifestyle choice than ever.
Enter virtual reality and augmented reality. VR does have potential for some seriously cool exercise experiences, like running on a treadmill in your own home while seeing the sites of a European city. But, ultimately, VR doubles down on the impulse to stay instead of experiencing the real world. Augmented reality games like Pokemon Go force you outside and explore. Pokemon Go is simply the first phenomenon to catch on.
Health professionals can explore other addictive ways to get people outside and walking not because they feel they should or they want to, but because they genuinely are excited by the possibility.
Going Outside: It’s Super Effective!
Video games have long been one of the few comforts for those living with mental illness. They foster a sense of community and give an endorphin-fix to the lonely and isolated. The problem is that they also reinforce alienation and isolation, keeping people indoors and inactive.
Pokemon Go provides an amazing platform to get people outside, exercising, and interacting with others. The game naturally treats symptoms of depression or anxiety while ostensibly designed as just another video game.
People are responding positively, and Dr. John Grohol tells Engadget that it is no surprise why: “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.”
Plenty of evidence shows that exercise and meeting new people are two of the most powerful tools against depression. The health benefits of pokemon go let you do both of those.
A Few Words Of Caution
Of course there are some health threats from augmented reality games like Pokemon Go as well. They could entice users to walk over the side of a cliff if they aren’t paying attention or trip and injure themselves.