Pokemon Go Works the Brain in Glorious Ways, Just Beware those Real World Issues

Posted on September 3, 2016


Augmented reality is not just Pokemon Go, though you’d think it was, but by hooking gamers into the real world it may be much more than a brain workout. Cue the science.


Welcome to the benefits of Poke-cise

Apparently Pokemon Go refreshes the parts that other games don’t. Writing in the British Medical Journal, Dr Margaret McCartney talks about the special moments she and her children share hunting Pikachu monsters around their native Glasgow. The streets a “reclaimed playground in which to have interconnected fun.”

With all the media headlines, both positive and negative, surrounding Nintendo’s newly minted AR version of the popular monster-catching game, she wonders whether science will reveal whether it’s good or bad for us. Pokemon Go is obviously not marketed as a health app, but its players still end up covering a lot of ground – “Increased physical activity is a tantalising side effect,” she notes.

Some link the effects of the game to weight loss and tackling obesity (one UK player walked 140 miles and lost two stone – roughly 13kg), helping ease depression and type 2 diabetes (based on research for walking and standing).

Pokemon Go gives our brains a boost.

Pokemon Go gives our brains a boost.

Pokemon Neuroscience

Others praise the game’s psychological benefits. In a TED Blog about the Neuroscience of Pokemon Go, Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya describes how we get a boost every time we turn on the app, thanks to our natural narcissism.

“You get a little boost in self-efficacy every time you open the game and something happens, because you recognise that you govern this virtual layer on top of your existing environment,” she says.

Pokemon Go’s novelty factor activates the brains dopaminergic reward pathway, accessed when we talk about ourselves or experience new things. The game’s primary driver is to get players to go to new environments and capture rare beasts. This in turn triggers positive emotions because the brain does not distinguish between virtual and real world achievements.

Gimme yer phone.

Gimme yer phone.

Real World Intrusions

But beware the corporeal. Real world threats to this magical Pokemon nirvana include crime and injury. Reports about people being robbed and even drowned in the search for Pokemon, puts the positive stuff in perspective.

Be careful, says lawyer Brian Wassom, because until smart eyewear becomes the norm, players continue to wander around the physical world staring through their phone screen and that’s a recipe for personal injury. Other hazards include “competition between players of various games for use of the same physical spaces — conflicts that could disrupt the ability of players and non-players alike to enjoy the venue, and even lead to violence,” he says.

Pokemon Capturing Your Data

Besides that, says Buzzfeed, the Google spin-off company, Niantic, behind both Pokemon Go and Ingress collects a LOT of personal data from your phone that it may share with third party companies and law enforcement agencies. You thought it was all just playful Poke nonsense, but it’s a Kafka-esque tale of guilt and paranoia. Some things never change.