If you haven’t heard about Pokemon Go yet then you’ve probably found yourself, like I have, staring in confusion at groups of 20- or 30-somethings walking around the city, congregating around seemingly meaningless spaces. The first time I saw this spectacle was in Prospect Park, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this group of people thought “Hey, wanna meet on a random piece of grass and text with me?
It turns out they weren’t texting…they were hunting. Pokemon Go is the second in what may become a flourishing area of gaming called Augmented Reality (AR). Unlike virtual reality, where the real world is entirely replaced by virtual data, augmented reality only supplements or adds to a viewer’s perception of the real world. A common example of this technology would be the first down line in televised NFL football games. The yellow line doesn’t actually exist but is added or overlaid onto the field by a computer. Pokemon Go uses this technology to make the pokemon world come to life through the user’s phone. So what seems to be a group of people meeting around a sewer cap is actually a group of trainers surrounding a Charmander with pokeballs ready to fly. Unfortunately this article won’t be explaining things like what a pokemon is or even how to pronounce it (there is debate in this area), so for those readers who feel lost…just stay with me, it gets better.
The beauty of Pokemon Go is it’s ability to force players to Go outside to play the game. The game uses a real time map of your area and places various pokemon around that map. So, if you want to catch a pokemon, you’re forced to leave your bed/apartment and find them (though I did find one in my room). For the first time since dating apps, a cell phone game is getting people out of their homes and into the world.
This isn’t without its drawbacks. There have been several stories of people searching for pokemon and getting hit by cars. Despite these random occasions, there have been multiple reports about the positive benefits of the game on individuals mental health.
Many people say Pokemon Go has helped them to be more socially engaged, active, and motivated, which can be the biggest difficulties for people experiencing depression. One client recently told me that they had met more people this week than they had in the last year. This is no small gain for people struggling with depression and anxiety, and suggests that augmented reality can be a promising tool for people trying to improve their mental health.
This is not the first time people have noticed augmented reality’s ability to help with mental health issues. For people with phobias, a common form of treatment is called exposure therapy, which basically involves exposing a person to their phobia gradually until the fear is extinguished. For example, you might show an arachnophobe a picture of a spider, then a video of a spider, then a real life spider. Augmented reality has allowed clinicians to do just that, specifically for people with phobias of insects or small animals. An individual can look through their phone or VR headset and face their phobia while remaining in a controlled and safe environment. The research around the therapeutic use of AR and phobias has shown some very promising results which means that Pokemon Go may be one small piece of a growing field of mental health and technology.
What’s really important about this technology is that it’s getting people to become more socially engaged. In a time where most people say technology is taking away from relationships and hurting our ability to interact, Pokemon Go has shown the opposite. Unlike other technologies that exist today, augmented reality encourages people to meet and interact in the physical world. Anyone who has lived in New York City can agree that meeting people can be tough, and surprisingly Pokemon Go has started to make that easier for thousands of people. And that, my friends, is pretty cool.
What has your experience with PokemonGo been like? I’d love to hear your comments!
James Robinson, LMSW