Pokémon GO: a Public Health Intervention

When Pokémon GO was first released in 2016, I was on it like a rash. I have fond memories of my teenage years, with my Gameboy, trading pokémon with schoolfriends via a cable. Pokémon was one of my favourite games as a kid – I played it constantly with friends, collected the trading cards, and have a stuffed toy Pikachu to this day. To be able to relive some of that childhood magic, with the addition of GPS-informed local events and augmented reality, was irresistible to me.

It was irresistible to millions of others across the globe too, children and adults alike. The app saw over 10 million downloads within its first week of release, and within a month, that number had increased ten-fold on Google Play alone. For those of you unfamiliar with Pokémon GO, the game involves trying to catch various cute little creatures all over the world. Some Pokémon are rarer than others, some are more likely to appear in certain places (and now in certain weather conditions), so for example there are lots of bird Pokémon near me, but lots of water Pokémon down near the seaside. As the original slogan goes, “gotta catch ’em all!” – you have a Pokédex, which registers each new type of Pokémon as you catch it, but also shows outlines of ones you don’t already have. You can also evolve your Pokémon, battle them in gyms, and trade them with friends (find out more about the game here).

Eventually, the novelty wore off, and I dropped the game from my phone. But recently, owing to updates, events and new features (you can trade with your friends now – FINALLY!), I’ve picked it up again, as have many of my friends. And what I remembered happening in 2016 happened all over again. A few days ago, I found myself at 21:30 “just going up the road for a walk” because there was a Pokémon I didn’t have, up at the church on the other side of the village (I live in a little village where we have a community centre, a petrol station and not much else. Hence I very rarely “just go for a walk” here – I usually drive somewhere else for a walk). I caught some Pokémon, but I also bumped into a villager I’d not met before, and we had a chat, and it was a lovely random interaction that wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed at home, working on my laptop (as usual).

I’m also more regularly joining my husband for dog walks (where I would usually tell him “I’m working – can you just take them?”) and even suggesting we go for another walk later in the evening (as it’s so hot during the day right now).

Image result for dog walk pokemon go meme

As an adult (I use the term lightly), I’ve received some schtick about playing Pokémon GO. My husband hates it, and some of my friends think it’s a bit weird. But as mentioned before, many of my friends still play it, too (and not just ones who have kids!). I’m here to argue that Pokémon GO isn’t just fun, it’s also revolutionary in terms of gamification of public health, and here’s why.

“Go outside and play!”

Most video games involve sitting indoors, sat on the sofa, staring glassy-eyed at a screen. Not so with Pokémon GO – you are limited in what you can achieve in the game by sitting still in one place (trust me – I’ve tried). In order to catch a broad range of Pokémon, you need to get outside and get walking. Different Pokémon inhabit different locations, and in order to visit Pokéstops and battle at gyms, you’ll need to go to them, they won’t come to you. The game Ingress is another good example of this – I’m by no means a phone-gaming connoisseur, but both Pokémon GO and Ingress are great examples of games which force you off the sofa and into the great outdoors. For kids (and adults!) who are addicted to gaming, these are great ways to promote going outside.

Clock up miles

Playing devil’s advocate, you could visit Pokéstops, gyms, and different geographic locations in your car, get out, catch everything, and then go home. But Pokémon GO has other features that encourage you to actually get out and clock up the miles, such as egg hatching. Throughout the game, you can collect Pokémon eggs which you place into an incubator, and then have to walk a certain distance in order to hatch them. Eggs come in 2km, 5km, 7km and 10km varieties, and each egg has a different range of Pokémon that might hatch from it (some of them are pretty rare!).

You can also assign one of your Pokémon to be your walking buddy, and for every 3km you walk with your buddy, they will “find a candy” – collecting Pokémon-specific candies is another way of evolving Pokémon, and can be particularly useful for evolving those Pokémon you encounter only rarely (fyi, I’m currently working on evolving my Charmeleon). I’m not just speculating, either – early research data suggests that the release of the game saw an increase in step-count across a cross-section of users. Although the effect was short-lived, this is arguably an issue shared by many interventions aiming to increase physical activity. Here’s another study that saw similar positive effects on physical activity in Pokémon GO users, and frames the findings more optimistically.

Pokémon GO designers pre-empted players just driving around in their cars to clock up the miles, by the way – if you travel over a certain speed, not only will a “don’t play Pokémon GO whilst driving” warning message pop up, but it will also temporarily disable the distance-tracking function. So, get your walking shoes on!

Explore your neighbourhood

Earlier, I mentioned that I had gone for a walk across the village to visit the church (which is a Pokéstop). I think this might be the second time I’ve visited that church in the four years I’ve lived here. And there are plenty of other places I’ve now been, with the explicit intention of visiting a Pokéstop, taking over a Gym, or catching specific Pokémon. I go for more “aimless wanders” now, which is unlike me – I usually plan my walking routes to get as efficiently from A to B as possible. A few weeks ago, I clocked up about 7 miles just wandering around Bury St Edmunds, where usually I would have holed up in a coffee shop to work on my laptop.

This has also meant I’ve discovered more about my wider neighbourhood – did you know there’s a 19th-century postbox in Lowestoft? I didn’t. Thanks, Pokémon GO! I’ve discovered fun routes around my usual stomping grounds, found little points of interest I didn’t know existed, and occasionally bumped into other people doing exactly the same thing.

Some criticisms

Pokémon GO has received its share of criticisms, besides “positive impacts on physical activity were short-lived“. Nay-sayers point to incidents of accidents caused whilst users were distracted, or trespassing or game-playing in inappropriate locations. It’s a great shame that a few people spoil the fun for the majority, but this irresponsibility is not particular to Pokémon GO. It’s a wider issue around smartphones in general. With that in mind, when you’re using your smartphone, abide by the advice given in game in Pokémon GO –

  1. Always be aware of your surroundings – whether it’s walking into traffic, walking into lampposts, or bumping headfirst into strangers on the street, don’t let gameplay turn you into a zombie
  2. Never play whilst driving – in fact, never use your phone at all whilst driving. Ever.
  3. Don’t trespass – the game designers are working hard to remove Pokéstops that have been placed in inappropriate locations,  but remember to also use your common sense. If it looks like you’re wandering into an off-limits, private property, then turn around. No excuses.

And as a final consideration to your fellow man – stop phubbing! I mentioned this recently on my Facebook page, as I am guilty of being surgically attached to my smartphone. I’m working on it. You should too. If you’re hanging out with friends, unless you’re all playing Pokémon GO together, put the phone away!

I could wax lyrical endlessly about the positive impacts of getting outside, walking, being in nature, having a shared interest with friends, and my general love of gamification (particularly in teaching, and in health interventions), but at the end of the day, it is just a game. Enjoy it, but don’t let it consume your every waking moment.

Now, get out there!


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