By Jessica Kirby,
Senior Editor of TheGreenGazette –
There is a well-known statistic that says today most kids can name 1,000 corporate logos but can’t identify 10 plants and animals found in their own backyards. This speaks to a vast chasm between people and the natural world that has become progressively wider over the last decade. According to Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods,” lack of nature in the lives of children links to a rise in obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression, and a report from Parks Canada says only 15 per cent of Canadians meet the recommended daily amount of exercise, less than nine per cent of which takes place outside.
Given the headlines and statistics like these, Nintendo’s release of the Pokémon Go app has created quite a stir. Users with depression, social anxiety, obesity, and other activity-restricting illnesses claim the game has inspired them to venture outdoors and get their bodies moving.
For anyone who missed it, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game app downloadable to virtually any hand-held device, that has users walking around “capturing” virtual Pokémon characters from locations in the real world. Positioned in nearly every neighbourhood, at points of interest, and, occasionally, on private property, the Pokémons available for collection are of various kinds and it takes different methods and strategies to catch them. At the moment, the Pokémon Go app is expected to beat Twitter in downloads by the end of the year.
So, what exactly is the deal with Pokémon Go and its purported physical and mental health benefits? Is it true salvation for people in need of an inspiring, creative, and super cute lure, or is it further distancing us from the reality of nature?
Consider Marilyn Wei, MD’s article in Psychology Today, which says, “the use of virtual and augmented reality technology in medicine to improve psychological and physical health is not new and has an emerging role in the treatment of many disorders. Virtual reality games are currently being used and researched to treat depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as to alleviate pain, and even to improve rehabilitation after strokes.”
In essence, augmented realty blends elements of reality with fictitious elements to help overcome certain disorders like phobias, phantom pain, and social anxiety. Wei says research into the efficacy of games like Pokémon Go in treating mental health disorders is not yet proven, though augmented reality is becoming a proven method in many medical treatment cases.
While it may be to soon for conclusive research, Wei says there are some promising benefits worth mentioning. For one thing, it is fun and easy to play. It downloads in seconds and users can get started after a ten-minute primer on the basic rules and functions. Tapping into a basic tenet of cognitive behavioural therapy called “behavioural activation,” the incentive to go outside and be active may begin a positive feedback loop in which users do something healthy, thus feel more inspired to pursue healthier lifestyles. Part of Pokémon Go involves capturing “eggs” that only hatch after the user has walked certain distances—another feature users say has inspired them to keep moving.
The game is immediately engaging with a clear structure, levels to achieve, and attainable goals. These are all attributes of strategies that keep people with low energy and fatigue motivated. In particular, achieving levels and short, accessible goals promotes feelings of effectiveness and success. Besides the personal fulfillment proponents claim, the neutral but inclusive nature of the game as a conversation subject eases social anxiety and promotes conversation. By far the most common feedback from people enjoying Pokémon Go for what they consider therapeutic benefits is that they are talking to people for the first time since feeling isolated by illness or social anxiety.
When you look at the downside of Pokémon Go, it is easy to point at the headlines for proof the game is a disaster in social functioning. People are walking off of cliffs, driving while hunting, leaving their children alone unattended, violating others’ privacy, and luring people to random places to random places to play and then robbing them. However, these are slippery slope excuses—the same ones that say having harm reduction programs will encourage drug use and violent movies create serial killers. Truth be told, people who are willing to commit crimes, violate privacy, and practice unsafe lifestyles are going to do that regardless of whether a video game provides more opportunity for these behaviours.
The reality is, the biggest risks associated with Pokémon Go or any gaming-modelled app are the continued disconnection from nature, the change in brain function that occurs in an instant-rewards type environment, and the lack of grounding in reality and reality-based interactions.
To play the game, users may be outside, but they are still connected to and distracted by technology. The Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle research institute recommends limiting all screen use to two hours or less per day, and the negative effects of excessive screen time are well documented. Canadian health resource Screen Smart says children’s brains develop according to use, and neuroscientists have discovered some basic differences in how some young people think, compared to adults.
“With an average 8.5 hours of daily screen stimulation, the brain becomes wired to multitask and process visual information rapidly,” says Screen Smart’s website.“The mind comes to expect excitement and instant gratification. Young people are spending less time interacting with others face to face, and doing slower, more demanding activities, such as reading or playing board games. Not surprisingly, the areas of the brain responsible for social skills and deep thinking are not as well developed.”
The reference to instant gratification is important because research indicates the connection between this and dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is responsible for pleasure seeking and instant gratification contributes to an endless loop in which “seeking” outweighs “liking” or satisfaction, a sensation created by a less powerful brain chemical.
In other words, the same instant gratification that can help a person feel motivated and accomplished can be habit forming and, most importantly, leave a significant void when the source of instant gratification is inevitably removed.
The game takes people out of reality into a blended state of fiction and fantasy that can be perfectly safe in many cases, but exacerbating for people suffering with certain mental health conditions—not just those involving psychosis, but also, any kind of emotional status where avoiding the reality of feelings and actions is typical. Users are constantly in a state of distraction and low-level distress as they seek and find elusive objects. This heightened state of stress can be detrimental, particularly in people susceptible to emotional upset.
Despite giving users something to talk about, Pokémon Go is a game that requires attention to the device and not on other people. Whether the long-term social benefits will stand as a benefit remains to be seen. And of course, there remains the deepening disconnect between people and the natural world. If it takes fictional characters to draw people out of the house, what becomes of excitement about plants and animals and being truly, genuinely committed to a healthy lifestyle? At this point, without conclusive research into the specific efficacy of Pokémon Go and other augmented reality games, we can only speculate, look at research into similar phenomenon, and make a wholesome plan to game in moderation, if that is the lifestyle we choose, or better yet seek fulfillment in simplicity and in the raw honesty of reality.
“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love of this Earth, and to tell our stories,” says Louv. “These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”