Let My People Play: A Psychological Look at the Benefits of Pokémon Go
By Savannah Chapa
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about Pokémon Go— a new addition to the ever so popular Pokémon adventures, where smartphone users can roam their towns catching and training the familiar creatures of their youth. Love it or hate it— it’s a huge hit among kids, teens, and even young adults whose strong nostalgia for the 90’s cartoon and game combo prompted them to download the app.
If you have heard of Pokémon Go, then you have definitely heard everyone’s opinion. Many people, typically adults who never had the full Pokémon experience as a youth, have made it well known that they disapprove of the new trend. They point to articles and news reports, like the teen in Long Island who got his phone stolen while playing, the teen attacked and killed in Guatemala as he roamed looking for Pokémon, or the boy who was shot and killed trespassing at a home in North Carolina trying to catch a rare creature. “See?” they cry, throwing their hands up, “Pokémon Go is ruining our society! Turning us into zombies! What’s next, colored TV?!” Well, I have some news for you…
In all seriousness, the demonization of the new trend is taking hold in the adult community. Sorry, but Pokémon Go is here to stay, and here are some psychological reasons why—because, what’s a new and enjoyable technological trend without an analysis of human nature to justify it?
Amy Morin, a professor and therapist who specializes in business psychology, lightly outlines some possible reasons why we love Pokémon Go in her article. One being obvious— nostalgia. For those of us who remember the original Pokémon crew (Ash, Misty, Brock) of who we looked forward to seeing every Saturday or Sunday morning, this is a reboot of those fond childhood memories. And of course as studies show, nostalgia “strengthens approach orientation, raises optimism, evokes inspiration, boosts creativity, and kindles prosociality”. Another reason, she suspects, is that the game is prosocial. As Pokémon Go draws people to its Pokécenters groups of people are collecting in the same spot with one thing in common—Pokémon. As Morin says “A shared love of the game makes for easy conversation between one player and the next.”
Marc Wilson, in his article on The Listener, describes a more biological aspect of why we love the smartphone app. It’s based on the famous and incredibly simple idea of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. For those of you who slept through Psych101 as an undergrad, American behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed that we learn and repeat certain behaviors when they are reinforced (take a peek at this article to brush up on your conditioning psychology knowledge). A behavior that is positively reinforced is more likely to continue to be repeated because it is associated with a good end result— a reward. Wilson notes that “you’ll get a buzz from capturing your first Magicarp” and that when you “Successfully [approach] something desirable (the reward) [it] triggers the release of dopamine and we feel good.” It’s a little more complicated than that, but we’re not here for a deep lesson in physiological psychology. Basically, when humans succeed or get a reward, dopamine is released in the brain— specifically in the mesolimbic pathway which is known to be associated with the pleasure of a reward, and in short— it makes you feel good. And as studies have it, dopamine plays a big role in motivation which is probably why people are either capturing hundreds of the same Pokémon to evolve it or using their real money to get the job done. It’s the neurochemical aspects that have us hooked and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, Dr. Marlynn Wei in her piece on Psychology Today lists a few more positive psychological reasons why Pokémon Go may be beneficial to us, such as:
- Motivation (as previously discussed): can help relieve common symptoms of depression such as “low energy, fatigue, lack of motivation” due to the dopamine being released in the brain.
- Conversation starter (also as previously discussed): can help those who suffer with social anxiety by giving them a group that they have something in common with.
- Non—threatening aspects of the game: relieves aspects that other apps might push, such as bad feelings of jealousy, bad competition or judgement.
- Makes you go outside: Even if you’re on a phone, you’re still outside catching some Vitamin—D, which honestly nowadays is close enough. Maybe you’ll discover a couple of your city’s landmarks since they’re typically pinned as Pokécenters. In addition, for individuals with depression, physical activity, like the tons of walking you’ll end up doing because of this game, can help relieve some symptoms.
All of this being said, Pokémon Go isn’t without its problems. For one, the placement of Pokémon should be looked into— as to not cause issues like breaking into people’s homes or zoos to keep players out of trouble and out of harm’s way. Undoubtedly, it can distract people while driving or crossing streets, but let’s face it— as LifeHacker put it, “Pokémon Go didn’t invent distracted pedestrians.”
With the explosive popularity of Pokémon Go, as the youth of North America, Europe, and some Asian countries wander around their towns as the Pokémon trainers they’ve long dreamed of being— the backlash of older adults is honestly expected. There hasn’t been one technological advancement/development, or social change that hasn’t been accused of being devil’s work. And that’s okay, because they will play on.
Some helpful tips for all of our Pokémon trainers: stay safe and stay aware of your environment, use your head, and catch ‘em all. For those who are still critical of it: let the people play.