The Convergence of Gamers and Health with Pokemon Go’s Augmented Reality Bubble

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As a gamer, counselor, and physician at Gumshoe Health in Seattle WA, I am loving what Pokemon Go is achieving with its unique blend of gaming and fitness. While there have been many attempts at the gamification of fitness before this, Pokemon Go with its secret weapon of augmented reality is shaping up to be one of the first to actually reach its goal.

My first foray into the world of Pokemon Go was actually just this morning (I think that makes me a late adopter). A walk with a friend the night before had resulted in my collision with what first appeared to be a zombie gathering at Bellevue Downtown Park. There was an unusually high number of people at the park and everyone was constantly referring back to their phones and walking all around, coordinating with their team mates. Periodically, you’d hear someone yell “PORTAL!” and all of a sudden the whole mass would rush over to that spot, with several in a flat out run. Groups of friends, families, and couples of all ages were outside.

Together.

On grass.

Here is some photographic evidence, courtesy of my friend’s phone:

bellevuepokemongobellevuepokemongo2

 

 

 

 

 

 

…so I decided to give it a go (pun intended). I signed up, downloading the free app and creating my avatar and then immediately put on my running shoes so I could catch a pokemon that was hanging around just outside my bathroom window. Then, since I was already outside and in my running gear I jogged over to the local park where I could obtain more pokeballs so that I could catch more pokemon.

…and so it begins.

So what has this got to do with health, really?

First, some game mechanics. The pokemon, the gyms (where you practice battling your pokemon), and pokestops are all located in the real world physical space around you, so you actually have to go to them in order to interact. You can also collect eggs in the Pokemon Go reality, which will only hatch after you have walked a certain distance. The longer you have to walk, the more rare the mystery pokemon inside.

Obviously this game is encouraging a lot of exploration and walking/jogging. As a naturopathic doctor, how can I not love this? The game has constant reminders about staying aware of your surroundings which is about as much as it can do. If you look at your map and know roughly where you’re going, you don’t have to keep your eyes glued to the screen the whole time, the app will buzz you if a pokemon materializes near you. Despite this, accidents can still happen and this is probably one of the strongest arguments against it although incidence rates would need to examined first before conclusions are drawn.

One of the basic philosophies of naturopathic medicine involves strengthening the determinants of health. Exercise is huge. It has massive benefits that have been demonstrated time and again not only for our current physical and mental states, but also our future health and our ability to experience life. With the advent of technology, we have become a sedentary society and it has been killing us. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease, diabetes, and strokes are all ranked amongst the top ten causes of death in the United States (1), all of which exercise and movement can help. According to The Washington Post (2) fitness trackers have seen an increase in movement since Pokemon Go’s release including Cardiogram and Pacemaker.

A photo another friend took while parked on the ferry (thanks Kerrie!):

pikachuferry

Let us not forget either, that mental health stands to improve from Pokemon Go. This is not only from getting people moving and exercising, but getting them into parks and greener areas and by getting them into community. What I saw last night were groups of friends going out together to catch pokemon. Single players were there as well, mingling with the crowds. Players have reported less anxiety, depression, and it’s helping those with social anxiety to go out and interact. From this angle, I’m excited about the possibility of these types of games to be used as tools in the mental health setting as well.

The great initial success of this game has overwhelmed its servers, creating some login issues for users. As the game develops and progresses though, I’m sure the developers will get a quick handle on the situation and be able to match the demand they are creating. I am hoping that the magic of the augmented reality platform will not wear off and continue to get people to move more, despite a few folks who have already figured out ways to game the system (3).

What we are seeing now is just the beginning of a more integrated and motivated fitness future. Meanwhile, I’m going to go on another run…

 

Written on 7/17/2016 By Dr. Samantha Desmond ND, MACP, BHC, LMP

References:

  1. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus15.pdf#019
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/07/15/pokemon-go-leading-to-a-population-level-surge-in-fitness-tracker-step-counts/
  3. http://www.bustle.com/articles/172610-how-to-hatch-an-egg-without-walking-in-pokemon-go
  4. http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/mental-health-effects-of-pokemon-go-and-other-news-0715161
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