Pokemon GO is a mobile game that gets people walking around with their phones in the real world to collect virtual animals, items, and experience points. The app uses your phone’s GPS to work out where you and then allows you to collect different rewards in the game.
Already people are reporting that it’s helped them get out and about and as a consequence they feel more positive and are overcoming mental health issues such as depression. (Check out this article from the ABC for details.)
Although there’s not yet any published scientific evidence that playing Pokemon GO will improve your mental health, the rationale that Pokemon GO will improve mental health disorders like depression is pretty strong. However, there are also risks, and it’s possible that playing a game like this could also worsen some mental health symptoms.
Depression symptoms include low mood and a reduced level of activity. There is strong research evidence that exercise alone can improve depression symptoms, particularly for mild to moderate depression. Another key intervention is called ‘behavioural activation’ or ‘pleasant event scheduling’, which involves helping people to engage more in activities that they used to find enjoyable. Pokemon GO encourages people to get our more and increase their activity levels, so it’s likely that it would help with symptoms of depression.
Fear of the outdoors (agoraphobia)
Some people feel very anxious being outside or leaving the house, and if these issues significantly interfere with their daily life, they might be struggling with agoraphobia (fear of being outdoors). Cognitive behavioural therapy treatment involves gradually encouraging people to challenge themselves so they become desensitized to the feared situation. Pokemon GO could enhance motivation for people to overcome this fear, so it’s likely to help.
People with social phobia have an overwhelming fear that they’ll make a social faux pas or won’t know what to do or say in a conversation and so avoid social interactions and isolate themselves from others. Pokemon GO could help someone with social phobia to get out more and it also gives people something to talk about with other gamers, but a game like this can encourage people to avoid interacting in social situations and instead to get out their phones. Although the game has social aspects, it doesn’t really encourage people to use or improve their social skills and may not help people feel more confident in real life social situations.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
People with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have an overwhelming preoccupation with things being ordered and clean (contamination) or difficulty getting rid of possessions (hoarding). Pokemon GO encourages people to collect and collect and collect so that they can be the best and is likely to involve the same neural reward circuits in the brain that reward people for following their OCD impulses. Pokemon GO could encourage hoarding-type symptoms of OCD and also encourages people to spend more and more time on their phones to the exclusion of other activities.
People with gambling issues are so focused on the next reward or payoff that they neglect their other responsibilities or values. Pokemon GO encourages people to spend more time chasing after rewards and points and also allows you to spend real money to improve your status. If you’ve got a gambling problem Pokemon GO might be healthier than blowing thousands of dollars on the pokies but isn’t likely to cure your addiction.
Games like Pokemon GO can really help to improve people’s motivation to get out and about but they have a real potential to become addictive and lead to people neglecting other important areas of life. When used carefully they are likely to improve mental health for a substantial number of people, however, you need to be aware of potential negatives. There’s no blanket rule about when things like Pokemon GO should and shouldn’t be used but if people monitor both their game use and their mental health symptoms they can make a decision for themselves about whether or not a strategy like this is helpful or harmful for their situation.