With Nintendo’s latest instalment in the Pokémon series rapidly – and unexpectedly, if their overwhelmed and underprepared servers are anything to go by – taking over the world, the game is having to stand up to the usual questions aimed at addictive, time-draining games: why can Candy Crush become so ridiculously expensive? Why does World of Warcraft have the potential to tear a family apart? And, most recently, is Pokémon Go actually life-threatening?
Video games have often maintained an awkward relationship with the real world; a combination of their interactive nature and increasing artistic immersiveness has led people to forsake their real lives for fictional ones on an extent and on a scale never before seen. And while many developers ignore these legitimate life-altering consequences, and some even take advantage of it, Pokémon Go is arguably the game to have most successfully left a positive impact on people’s lives, specifically their health.
The physical health benefits are obvious. Nintendo has worked to dispel the inaccurate stereotype of the overweight, lazy gamer reclining in a chair with a wrist brace for years, with the Pokéwalker encouraging players to walk around to develop their Pokémon, and the Wii requiring physical activity to operate the console. Pokémon Go is the youngest and most effective member of this family, with walking not being an alternative to traditional button-mashing to level up Pokémon, but by being placed front and centre as the primary gameplay mechanic. You walk to find Pokémon. You walk to hatch eggs. You walk to retrieve items.
The nature of the game, and the series as a whole, has helped immensely in this regard. Fans of the series have long been encouraged to catch ’em all, a deceptively light-hearted phrase that has instilled a generation of gamers with a streak of relentless completionism. Videos of players running to catch a Squirtle are slightly ridiculous in an endearing way, but underline the point: no other game, and certainly no novel, poem or lecture, has encouraged individuals to run across a university campus on this scale.
And this is a demonstrable change; the graph below, taken from the Daily Mail, demonstrates how the release of the game coincided with an increase in the number of Cardiogram users getting at least half an hour of exercise a day. While correlation is not necessarily causation, this is a relationship no other game can lay claim to.
Yet it is the mental health benefits of the game that have been the most pronounced. Players with mental health conditions as varied as anxiety and complex PTSD have been sharing their experiences with the game, describing how it encourages and empowers them to leave the house and engage with the world around them.
Despite the increased emphasis on multiplayer modes in games, and technological advancements such as voice chat, playing games can be a thoroughly dehumanised experience. Scrolling through a forum or dialogue box with only screen names and cartoon avatars doesn’t fully replicate the experience of interacting with other human beings, yet Pokémon Go does. It is the ultimate carrot for people who struggle to socialise: the game exists as an immediate icebreaker as players can chat about their latest captures; the potential for items to be left at Pokéstops to benefit others generates feelings of altrustic dependence on others, rather than competitive antagonism. While the game cannot single-handedly replace conventional interactions, for some it is the most effective gateway to being socially comfortable in a generation.
Mental health experts are even praising the game’s effectiveness at helping players’ physical and mental health simultaneously. With players improving their fitness and easing themselves into social circles in numbers never seen before, the greatest threat to players comes not from the game, but those who dismiss them as obsessives, cult members or fools.
Image credit: Eduardo Woo (via Flickr)