If you don’t know what Pokemon Go is by now, you’ve either been living under a rock or are incredibly good at avoiding conversations with anyone under the age of 30 - the Niantic augmented reality (AR) game has taken the world by storm. In less than two weeks, the game has racked up more daily active users than Twitter, and users spend more time on Pokemon than on WhatsApp, Instagram or Tinder. In a week, Pokemon Go added £15 billion to the value of Nintendo and companies are springing up left right and center looking to exploit its success.
Nintendo is at a six-year high. The game’s popularity is not particularly surprising - Niantic have managed to exploit both emerging AR technology and a nostalgic love of the world Pokemon inhabits to hit a wide user demographic, and daily revenue from the game stands at more than $2 million. Users have been quick to note the obvious fitness benefits the game encourages, too - users are made to walk certain distances to hatch Pokemon ‘eggs’ and the nature of the game denotes exploration and outdoor play. Suddenly, the streets are lined with users following their mobile phone screens like dowsing rods and everyone seems to have anecdotal evidence of skipping public transport to walk with the hope of catching something rare.
And more scientific evidence of the increase in exercise is beginning to emerge. Cardiogram, an Apple Watch app that analyzes heart rate data, registered an increase across 35,000 of its general users since Pokemon Go’s release date, a spike that would be even more pronounced if only Pokemon users were included in the data. ‘The fact that it’s a population-level effect that’s visible is actually pretty impressive on Pokémon Go’s part,’ said Cardiogram co-founder Brandon Ballinger, and it’ll be interesting to see if the craze can sustain exercise levels as the world catches its breath.
Results from Jawbone have been even more pronounced. According to the Washington Post, users that mentioned Pokemon Go in their comments walked a staggering ’62.5% more than usual,’ and anecdotally I know people that are traversing their cities in search of hidden gems where ordinarily they’d never leave their neighbourhood. Say whatever you like about the game itself, but the effect it’s having on exercise and public interaction has been astounding and unprecedented.
More impressive still is Pokemon Go’s apparent effect on those with mental health issues. Many feel a lack of motivation to go outside, interact with the world and spend time amongst nature. The evidence is largely anecdotal at present, with research into the game’s actual effects yet to be properly conducted. Those with agoraphobia and other severe mental health obstacles have reported the game giving them reason to take walks and explore their surrounding areas, though, and the weight of evidence from tweets alone is persuasive.
‘The challenge has always been, if you're depressed, your motivation level is nonexistent,’ Explains Dr. John Grohol, an expert in the impact of technology on human behavior. ‘So, you want to go out and get some fresh air, or even take a shower, and it can be a very difficult thing to even comprehend, much less do. I think the impact of something like this, this game, can really be beneficial.’ Exercise has been known to positively affect certain mental health issues for decades, and exposure to nature is separately known to have positive effects on mental and physical health - the explorative side of Pokemon Go hits both.
One of the most vehement criticisms of video games is the often solitary, exclusively indoor environment in which they’re played. The stereotypical image of the teenager sitting in a darkened room playing shoot-em-ups is challenged by the notion of AR more generally, and Pokemon Go is the first wildly popular outdoor video game that has the potential of changing the image of gaming for the better. Whether you find the game charming or tiresome, anything that positively impacts both mental and physical health is worth lauding.