Science, Now + Beyond

Here’s the big way Pokémon Go is changing us

Pokémon Go raises questions for the psychological effects of augmented reality video games

Over two decades ago, we were all set out on a quest to catch ’em all. On July 5, the newest edition to the Pokémon franchise was released: Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game that allows you to catch ’em all in this world rather than a virtual one.

The game has quite literally taken the world by storm. It is now the biggest mobile game in U.S. history according to Survey Monkey, beating out Candy Crush Saga and Draw Something. It has more users than Twitter on Android and is quickly gaining on Snapchat and Google Maps. Pokémon Go is practically a revolution, skyrocketing Nintendo’s previously low stock, and becoming a virtual success everywhere.

And it does seem like it’s everywhere. On my Facebook and Twitter, I’ve seen dozens of people posting about it. My coworkers are playing it at work. Even my mom is asking about it. What makes Pokémon Go so different is its augmented reality function, which takes you on a journey through your own neighborhoods and cities. From catching rare Pokémon to battling enemies to conquering gyms, Pokémon Go has it all and more.

Video games are nothing new, but the medium is growing. No longer considered an outlet for young boys, the most popular age bracket of video game users is 25–34 with 40 percent of them identifying as women. Video games’ demographic is diverse and Pokémon Go caters to that. It’s readily available and free to download.

While people would have previously set time aside to play video games, Pokémon Go integrates the game into our real world, even forcing us to go outside. This has unexpectedly come to benefit many with mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

Shortly after the game was released, many took to Twitter, citing Pokémon Go as better treatment for their anxiety and depression than a doctor would be able to provide. This is all from just going outside and exploring. 

However, Pokémon Go does get inside our head in more ways than one. The game itself is rife with psychological conditioning, as most games are. Rewards are one of the many ways that games get us hooked, and Pokémon Go has quite the plethora of rewards from training and level up.

There are many other ways video games entice us. Quantic Foundry, a group that studies video games, lays out six major motivations for why people play: action, social, mastery, achievement, immersion, and creativity. Pokémon Go attracts many of its players with those motivations, along with its nuanced augmented reality function and its dedicated fan base.

It’s important to be aware of how games suck us in because they can have quite the power over us. They can affect our social behavior, perceptions of reality, learning, and health. Few studies have been conducted on augmented reality, however, because of its newness. While there have been games in the past, Pokémon Go’s unprecedented popularity brings the question of augmented reality’s psychological effects to the table.

While video game playing and addiction have been linked to feelings of escapism, augmented reality bears the question: Are you escaping reality if you’re in it?

When you play Pokémon Go, you are experiencing the world, just with a few virtual upgrades that make everything just a bit more interesting. But does relying on a virtual game for excitement in reality lose purpose for reality itself? This is, needless to say, a quite difficult question to answer. Furthermore, this curiosity and slight skepticism of augmented reality comes from not Pokémon Go today, but the future of all technology.

As our world becomes increasingly integrated with technology, the amount that we rely on our devices is worrisome. We would like to think that we don’t “need” our phones, but technology is, in fact addictive. When augmented reality becomes so commonplace that we cannot imagine a world without it, how can we classify that as addiction?

Pokémon Go is a great, interesting thing. It gets us out of the house when we’re always stuck inside, and invites us to engage in the world in a way that we haven’t before. For die-hard Pokémon fans, it somewhat lets the age-old question live: What if Pokémon existed in our world? Pokémon Go has helped thousands of people get outside when faced with depression and anxiety.

It has so many benefits. But I think we must remember, this is all not as natural as it seems.