What Itch is Pokémon: GO Scratching?

I never did find the Ninetales!

It’s 10:30PM on a Friday night in a quiet suburb north of Minneapolis. A friend and I have come voluntarily to walk around an American Legion parking lot – and we are not alone. We are first encountered by two teenagers that appear to have fallen out of the pages of Scott Pilgrim; tattered jeans with brightly dyed, floppy hair. The boy wipes his blue hair away from his eyes and gives us a knowing nod as I inquire, “Hey, find anything good around here?”

He easily responds, “There’s an Evee by that water tower. Somebody set a lure off so we’re waiting to see what comes by from that.” We thank him for the tip and swing by the Howitzer Statue to refuel on PokéBalls before hitting the Water Tower. We find the Evee and return to the parking to in time to be approached by a vehicle transporting a family. The driver slows down next to us, “How’s it going?”

We update him on our progress and share some stories from earlier in the day, “We found a Jigglypuff down the road, but that was a few hours ago.” The driver is not impressed, “Oh, I already have one of those anyway. I’m just going to hit all the PokéStops to get more balls.” A few more pleasantries are exchanged before we go our separate ways, “Well, good luck!”

My friend and I continue our laps around the American Legion to hit the four PokéStops. Our last encounter is with a taxi driver and his fare for the evening. The couple exiting the vehicle remarks that they have not started to play yet and advance inside the Legion Hall; so far, they are the only two people we’ve seen that are on this property for something other than Pokémon: GO. The taxi driver expresses his curiosity about the roamers around the building, “You think if I advertised to drive around PokéStops, people would be willing to pay for that?”

We informed him there is likely a market for such as service considering there are already drones available to cheat the game. He hopped back into his car while letting us know, “Yeah, I think I’m going to try that. Thanks, and have a good night. And remember my name if you need a ride for more Pokémon or whatever.”

We get back into my car, laughing at the absurdity of the past 30 minutes. We just spent quality time on a weekend wandering around a parking lot speaking to strangers that in no other context would we encounter.

What is happening with Pokémon: GO? Why did it become more popular than pornography in less than a week?

What follows is my attempt to answer those questions, and to discuss the benefits of Pokémon: GO.

The Obvious Caveats

The number of ethical, legal, and moral questions posed by Pokémon: GO is astounding. We are only scratching the surface of understanding the wide-scale implications of this game. There will be more accidents as players walk around without paying attention to their surroundings. There will be concerns about trespassing as players go to locations they do have to right to traverse. There will be opinions that Pokémon: GO is just another time-sucking, blackhole of an activity that draws us into our mobile device and away from the “real” world. There will be deaths, and not the stories of players finding dead bodies or  walking through graveyards, but of players dying because they are distracted by the game. It’ll happen (this guy survived he PokéCar Crash), and then there will be an outcry that “something must be done” to save our children and society from the Pokémon: GO menace.

I encourage everyone that over-reacts to the first Pokémon: GO-related death to remember that we don’t do nearly enough to regulate firearms, and we have plenty of scientific evidence that firearms increase suicide and homicide rates. So if you want to ban Pokémon: GO because a child walked into traffic or some dude is playing while driving and crashes – fine. Then let’s also do something about the other “handheld devices” that serve the solitary purpose of pushing a piece of destructive metal through soft tissue.

Let’s not be hypocrites about this!

Pokémon: GO is not a perfect game. It does not make everyone happy (my lovely wife can attest to that). It’ll be fascinating to see how long this game holds onto the attention of the masses. But it most definitely captured the imagination of people this month. With these caveats set aside, here’s my sense of why it’s become so popular.

We Can All Get Along

This year has featured one national or worldwide tragedy after another. It has been relentless, and around-the-clock cable news has escalated the pace and tone of the drama. Each news story burns hotter and brighter, then it flames out quickly only to be replaced by the next alarming story. The cycle repeats so quickly to the point that major news from a week ago is barely mentioned. Something happened a month or two ago? Forget about that! No longer important. We barely talk about one major mass shooting because another one just happened. We are in the midst of a year that feels like it is on fire.

Trump Pokemon
The wonders of Google Image Search.

Race relations in the United States seem to be spiraling in the wrong direction as fear and misunderstanding seem to result in violence. People are openly targeted – and sometimes legislated against – because of their religion or sexual identity. The Republican party has nominated a candidate for President that is a life-long con man that has taken every advantage of his inherited wealth to bilk money and concessions from those under him. He’s advocating a ban for Muslims, a wall against Mexicans (and other Latinos), a punishment against women for abortion, and his running mate is a Governor that signed into law some of the most-aggressive anti-LGBT legislation in the country. He’s running a campaign of fear and divisiveness, and that campaign is covered by mainstream media of if it’s normal. It has legitimized the anger and racist, sexist, homophobic thoughts that were previously kept to the outskirts of society. Now the hate and anger are front and center, and it’s heartbreaking.

Why the political tangent?

Because Pokémon: GO is an adorable elixir to the fears stoked by “us verses them” rhetoric that is shoved down our throats by cable news and one of the major political parties in this country. Rich or poor, young or old, straight or gay, Christian or Muslim, black or white, trans or cis, Democrat or Republican, we’re all the same when we’re wandering around the local park looking for Pikachu.

Like my encounter on Friday night, people are getting out of their silos and interacting with each other – people they would normally not meet – because of Pokémon: GO. It is too easy to cultivate a world where we only get exposure to the viewpoints and people we are most comfortable with. We can block people on Twitter, unfollow them on Facebook. We can only visit websites that run stories we agree with, or watch cable news that aligns with our beliefs. We can choose to blur the lines between opinions and facts. It’s a world where the “us versus them” narrative makes everyone feel wary, including those of us that feel we’re enlightened, progressive thinkers, “How can those people be so close-minded?”

So wandering around a city street, or a local park, or an American Legion parking lot and meeting other people doing the same, goofy activity is downright a restoration of faith in humanity. Maybe other people are realizing through Pokémon: GO interactions that they don’t need to be scared of “the other group.” Maybe part of the allure of the game is learning that “those strangers” are in some ways like you – they are enjoying the simple task of searching out Pokémon. And other than battling other players through the Gyms in the game, there is no competition. Players can avoid the Gyms altogether and still enjoy the Pokémon: GO experience. It’s not like once one player catches a Pokémon, it is unavailable for everyone else; so players are not actively competing with each other.

Which is great, because I imagine a Hunger Games-like scenario if Pokémons were awarded that way!

In this hellish, foundations-of-society-being-shaken year, experiencing a piece of humanity – even through a simple game – is something to be celebrated. We need more unity and togetherness; more reasons to engage with our neighbors and those from different backgrounds. We should be doing that anyway, but it’s too easy to remain in our homes – isolated and binge-watching whatever series is the latest craze. The last time I experienced anything like the vibe from gathering with random Pokémon: Go players was when I camped out for tickets to Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

And look how well that turned out!

Behavioral Activation: Doing What You Enjoy

In my professional capacity, I interact with a number of patients that present with symptoms of depression. There are a variety of effective treatments for depressive symptoms, including individual therapy and medication management. One therapeutic approach is behavioral activation, which helps the patient increase the frequency of engaging in pleasant activities. Here’s an example of how depressive symptoms can spiral:

Sebastian (Skid Row came to mind while writing for some reason) recently saw his relationship with a romantic partner end. He feels rejected, and experiences trouble falling asleep. The increased fatigue makes it more difficult to concentrate at work, and he makes several mistakes on the job. His boss calls him into the office and he is reprimanded. Sebastian is sad about these things and decides to blow off meeting up with friends because he’s not feeling up to it. He instead gets drunk, passes out, and oversleeps his alarm, which makes him late to work the next day.

The cycle could continue with increased avoidance (staying away from friends, not leaving the house) and inactivity (no exercise, poor health behaviors like excessive drinking). The key is to recognize the cycle and find a place to make a behavior change. One way to do this would be to ask Sebastian what he misses most about his life before the depressive symptoms increased; perhaps it’s feeling connected to others or a hobby such as music. The goal in therapy would be to get Sebastian to increase the time he spends on enjoyable activities and less time on avoidance strategies such as staying alone in the house, drinking alcohol, or sleeping the weekends away.

In its most simplest form, behavioral activation is all about doing more of what we enjoy. Sounds easy, but we really SUCK at this as human beings. We are great at finding excuses to not do the things we enjoy. Pay attention to this dynamic for yourself over the next few days; you’ll be amazed.

Pokémon: GO is behavioral activation in so many ways. Unlike other video games (that I thoroughly enjoy), the player has to move. Humans are meant to move around; we are meant to exercise. There’s a major campaign to convince people to exercise at least 30 minutes a day. Think of how ridiculous that is! There are 24 hours (or 1,440 minutes) in a day, and most Americans do no even cross a daily bar of 30 minutes of exercise each day. That’s about 2% of the minutes each day, and we can’t do it because our lifestyles are so sedentary.

Pokémon: GO gets us out of our home and walking, which is one of the best things we can do for our physical and mental health. The walking is combined with a game that relies on tried-and-true behavioral reinforcement principles that have fueled all manner of games for a long time. Complete a quest, earn experience, level up, gain access to better items, which is turn opens the door to complete more-difficult quests, and so on. The game tracks how far the player walks, and when the player walks far enough, a PokéEgg cracks open as a reward.

It’s not that far off from a carrot at the end of a stick!

The game promotes movement, exercise, and combines reinforcement principles that make us feel a rush of positive emotion when we accomplish something, whether it’s completing a devilishly difficult level in a game or nabbing a tough-to-find creature to get closer to filling up our Pokédex. And it does this while exposing us to other people that are doing the same thing, which provides additional reinforcement and positive benefits.

I have seen anecdotes about people with a variety of mental health concerns like autism and posttraumatic stress disorder benefiting from Pokémon: GO, and the underlying principles are behavioral activation and exposure. It is wonderful that more people are realizing the benefits of leaving their bubble and interacting with the world. We can quibble over whether it should be for something other than a silly game where you chase down cartoon monsters, but the benefits are legitimate.

Summary: What Does This Mean?

Pokémon: GO has entered our lives at a time when the country appears to be fraying at the seams; it’s hard not to feel that way if you watch much news. The game fosters a sense of togetherness and unity through exposure, which is more than most other things in our society can say at the moment. The “get a life” crowd will surely enjoy their backlash, and the game does present many fascinating questions about property rights and safety.

In the meantime, players can enjoy the behavioral activation benefits of playing as long as they keep their head up and don’t get into an accident. Hopefully after the Pokémon: GO fad ends (whether it be a few weeks, months, or longer), the players remember some of the reasons this whole experience felt so good to begin with. It’s because they broke out of their personal PokéBall – if only for a little while – to explore the outside world and meet new people.

Instead of demeaning the game, let’s find more ways to capitalize on the elements of physical and mental health that it gets right. How can we have more exposure and behavioral activation in our lives?

Let’s solve the problems the game can cause, and truly understand and embrace why it’s pierced our collective indifference and motivated vast behavior change.


Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

One thought on “What Itch is Pokémon: GO Scratching?”

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