Gaming for Personal Well-Being: How Pokemon Go is Good for You

Pokemon Go is a bit of a social craze. At just a week since it’s launch town centers are being flooded with players. People outside the game complain that the players look like zombies, while players report huge improvements to mood, engagement, and well being. It seems strange to the outsider that a game can create such marked changes in an individual but game designer Jane McGonigal has written two books on the subject.

Her two books; Reality is Broken: Why Gaming Makes Us Better and How They Change the World, and Superbetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient -- Powered by the Science of Games, explore how games help us, heal us, and make us better. I enjoyed both immensely and recommend them to gamers and non-gamers alike. One thing I think most readers are not expecting is just how much research is behind gaming. I was astonished at just how much games could affect my body and my mind. But then perhaps as a dog trainer, I should be that surprised.

Dog training is rooted in psychology. Behaviorism is the theory most dog trainers focus a significant amount of their skill and education on. Behaviorism examines how we learn based on how things are delivered to us. Either something is reinforcing or it is punishing and that influences how we will continue to interact with it. Games are highly reinforcing. They have to be to be fun. Some are addictive. In the same way gambling can be, players become fixated in when they will get the next reward.

So here is where we get to the personal part. I’m playing Pokemon Go. I installed it July 7th. About 36 hours after launch. I smiled with glee when I say my first Pokemon superimposed on my living room floor. Partly it was the nostalgia coursing through my veins of my first experiences playing it on my Gameboy in 1998. The other part was the novel experience of merging real life with game play. For the first time a game had reached out of my gaming device and touched the real world, if even just through my cellphone camera lens.

I put it away shortly after but the next day, through the cajoling of a friend I opened it back up and wandered into town in search of these silly digital creatures. When we were finished two hours had dissolved, we had walked approximately 4 miles. Our dogs who had come along, were tired out and I felt a kind of exhilaration I had not felt in a long time.

That night I slept like a rock. It was some of the best sleep I had had in a long time. I was honestly shocked. My husband decided to give it a go and his face lit up as mine had. He wanted to go play immediately. So we made our way into town to teach him the ropes. One marvelous aspect of the game is that it gives almost no instructions. You have to learn it from other players. You have to talk to people and socialize in real life! I mean sure, you can read all about it on the internet too, but there is something special about the fact that you’re encouraged to interact with people and discuss the finer points of the game. Conversations evolve into other topics like work, the present location, and even social issues. But all safely under the pretenses of this innocent game.

The best, most notable part of this game experience was the nonplayer interactions. Locals would chat with you on the street about what was nearby or what you had caught. Some would tell stories of other players. The elderly on their porches loved chatting it up with people who normally would have never given them the time of day and my heart melted watching parents and their children playing together with enthusiasm, chasing around after invisible monsters.

When you immerse yourself in something, pain goes away. Jane McGonigal makes reference to this many times in her books. To erase pain, fear or frustration even for only a short time can be life changing. I am doer. Really I'm an over doer. This means I do way too much, overwhelm myself, crush, and feel terrible about it. To remove all that for just a few hours. To shut out the demands and the to-dos for a few hours, has be life changing.

It is well known in psychology that when you apply positively reinforcing association to things, they are more likely to happen. The reason this game creates such an impact is because it is immersive and reinforcing the two healthy acts - exercise and socialization. The two things we have lost the most with in influx of technology.

Most socialization today takes place with present company and social media. And unfortunately the latter usually tunes out the former. It is unheard of to start a conversation with a stranger. Heck I remember when my mother and I were walking once and someone waved at her, I assumed it was a case of mistaken identity, not just a polite greeting. People don’t talk to strangers anymore. We have our social network, we don’t need to talk to that scary person over there. Except we do. Socializing with people is an important part of our health. Studies have shown that a lack of social contact makes social animals sick. That includes humans. Yet we wall ourselves up behind screens.

The naysayers of this game call players zombies as they stare at their screens, but these observers are not looking deep enough. They stare no more than cellphone users normally do. In fact it’s usually less. The main reason they are noticed is because they are moving and usually in groups. But look closer and most of them are talking to people. Usually their friends or the strangers around them. Eyes come off phones often. Players stop, get their bearings, converse and then move on. In fact they are using social media less! Because you have to close the game to use any other app.

Then there is the exercise. There are hundreds of apps that try to make exercise into a game. Zombies Run is one of my favorites. But they never did what this does. I would put my headphones in and walk or run till I was done. But I never spoke to anyone. In fact I avoided people, because a conversation would force me to pause the game. I did the exercise required to get the entertainment I was seeking and then I was done. But here the reward is constant. You want to keep going. You want to walk or run in the rain, sun, snow, or whatever the weather. You want to see what is in the next town, next neighborhood, next trail. You are invested in the game and the side effect is you’re invested in your health.

Reports of dangerous activity and terrible experiences flood my Facebook and my phone. People warning me about muggings, personal data risks, and pedestrian dangers. Those warnings are coming from people who have not played and likely will not play. People who are afraid to play. Who have forgotten how to play. You can break something or be hit by a car riding a bike. You can get mugged going running. You can get killed in any kind of activity. And your data, has already been compromised (plus the game fixed that issue on July 13th).  The number of incidents involving this game are actually shockingly low but people who are afraid will fly their flags of fear regardless of the value this game brings. Meanwhile the good is miraculous. People clean up litter while playing. They walk shelter dogs. It brings trauma victims, introverts, and socially awkward people outside. It makes exercise fun for those too intimidated and out of shape to do it on their own. It creates a safe conversation space for people who are not comfortable talking to other people. Children and adults have a common ground to interact on. Race, religion, gender, all melts away. We are just outside playing. Heck even the police are outside playing with locals, repairing a bond much needed in society today.

Who cares if this game is silly, weird, or crazy popular. Care about the fact it has reinvented gaming and provided us with much needed a vehicle for the human need for interaction and exercise. Be excited for the future of games and how they can continue to heal us and make us whole. I could go on, but there is a Pikachu across the street and my dogs could use a walk. I could too. Time to go play.