When Pokémon Go was released, it immediately became a cultural phenomenon, breaking download records and spawning merchandise, fan art and hashtags like #CompareYourselftoAPokemon. The app’s potential to benefit to people suffering from illness first caught public interest with a viral tweet by a popular unauthorized Pokémon Go fan account that suggested that players drop lures near children’s hospitals to benefit young patients receiving treatment.
Despite the schmaltziness of the sentiment, it reflected a real phenomenon; patients at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan are leaving their rooms and interacting more since the release of the app. A physical therapist responded to the article on Twitter, noting that he’d used the app to create walking programs for his patients.
Concurrently, mental health advocates began reporting their own success with the Nintendo game. Jenny Lawson, who writes under the nom de plume The Bloggess, shared how playing Pokémon Go helped her with her anxiety and agoraphobia. British newspaper The Bristol Post interviewed Miranda Montano, a woman with myalgic encephalopathy, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and anxiety. “With Pokémon Go, I have found the confidence, energy, and the determination to come out and I’ve made new friends, it’s just been absolutely fantastic.”
Gaming’s potential as viable psychiatric treatment is nothing new. A group of German researchers who studied the effects of playing Super Mario found that test subjects had significant increases in grey matter volume in areas crucial for spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor performance. The study’s success suggests that patients with brain regions altered or diminished in size due to schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder or Alzheimer’s dementia could use video games to create positive structural changes in their brains.
A number of developers have created video games specifically designed to assist children and adults with learning disabilities, brain injuries and psychiatric disorders. Joseph Sandford, a psychologist with a computer programming background, created Captain’s Log to assist patients recovering from traumatic brain injury. The suite of simple memory and impulse-control games is now used as therapy for children and adults with attention deficit disorders.
In addition, doctors are researching the use of neurofeedback as treatment for patients with ADHD. Using sensors that monitor their EEG brain waves, a test subject can manipulate an onscreen image. When they’re concentrating, a race car may move quickly and steadily; when they become distracted, the car slows to a halt.
Pokémon Go was not created specifically to help people with depression and anxiety. It’s unique, however, in how the gameplay mechanics encourage players to go outdoors in search of the PokéStops, training gyms and wild Pokémon plotted on Niantic’s global location dataset. The “real world gaming” platform is a far cry from the isolated offices and research centers where therapeutic video gaming has traditionally taken place, and offers real-time positive feedback for venturing out in the world.
“Pokémon Go has given me a reason to get up, dress up, do my makeup and socialize in the real world, even when I am at my lowest,” author and web personality Ramona Knives texted me when I asked her about the game. “I used to be a recluse, and now I’m able to be out in the world.”
I also asked my friend Carrie about her experience. “I spent a night in my hometown teaching a high school friend who has been going through depression how to play Pokémon Go, and it was great to physically see her relaxing around me, letting herself be herself,” she told me, going on to confide that she herself was coming out of an extended depression.
“I’ve found it really hard re-engaging with people after what feels like several years of mental isolation. Pokémon Go has been such a good go-to for me. I’ve had people who I know would normally never talk to me come up to me to ask what I’m catching. I’ve watched college kids go up to elementary school kids, high fiving for Team Mystic. It’s really cute, and one of the few things lately that makes me feel hopeful about humanity.”
Generally, the only contact I have on the streets of Chicago with a stranger is negative: catcalls, getting followed and a chorus of car honks, hisses and kiss-y noises. After the game’s release, I was shocked to encounter friendly young men brandishing iPhones asking me about my progress in the game.
“I like this new world where strange men in public just ask me if I’m playing Pokémon Go and not where I’m going or what’s my number,” I tweeted right before I caught my first Zubat. I kept playing intermittently, but didn’t truly delve into the game until my cyclical mood disorder made it’s inexorable progression from a manic episode into depression.
You know how movies illustrate a power grid going offline: a section of brilliant cityscape, suddenly blinking into nothingness? That’s what happens to my ability to converse and be productive when my mood cycles. Like many, I have a self-defeating tendency to isolate myself from people when I’m depressed. I decided to meet some friends at a bar walking distance from my home, telling myself that even if I barely talked I could sit and listen and leave whenever I wanted.
I logged half a mile into my egg’s incubation on the walk to the bar, where I sipped a ginger beer and did my best impression of someone who didn’t desperately wish to be put into a medically induced coma. Overwhelmed and drained, I weakly waved goodbye and skulked over to the small Paseo Prairie Garden outside the Logan Square train stop. The small wildflower and native grass garden dotted with tables also boasts multiple PokéStops, and all three were glowing with the vibrant violet shower of flower petals that meant that another player had placed a Pokémon-attracting lure.
For an hour, I sat under the shade of a tree with 15-20 people doing the same thing I was. I didn’t need to talk to anyone to feel a sense of community as we all happily caught the same fantastic virtual creatures.
A woman walked into the garden with her two sons, one a small boy with Down’s Syndrome. “Lemme drop another lure,” she offered, as they contently settled down on the edge of the prairie garden steps. Lined up with their phones in hand, the group had the exploratory spirit and boyish energy of a scout troop, hunting Clefairy instead of an elusive snipe.
My Tourette Syndrome often causes me to walk or run loops, and I was relieved to find that I could disguise it as a dash to a further PokéStop or the gym around the corner. I walked home feeling calm, fulfilled and proud of my new Jigglypuff.
Research clearly shows that socializing and exercise are closely linked with positive mental health outcomes. However, people with depression and anxiety may struggle with motivation, and become overly fearful of negative outcomes in encounters with others. Establishing a common basis with a lighthearted, somewhat silly game full of lucky eggs and sludge bombs lowers the bar for social interaction.
“Even though I’m way too shy to talk to other people playing Go in real life, getting out of my apartment and seeing them in the world doing the same thing as me generates this momentary burst of community,” music writer Sasha Geffen explained via DM. “A little while ago I tweeted a joke along the lines of “what good is a mobile game if I can’t play it during a fit of immobilizing depression,” but that’s exactly what works about Go as a mood lifter.”
While everyone I spoke to mentioned social interaction as a positive effect of the game, even just playing the game alone may be beneficial. Physical activity is proven to be beneficial to mental health, and many gyms are located in urban green spaces, near landmarks and bodies of water. Scientist Princess Ojiaku wrote a piece that vividly illustrates how living in a city is linked to anxiety, depression and social stress.
The good news is that doses of nature (whether it be a potted plant in a hospital room or a hike through a forest) seem to have positive effects on human health. That late-night stroll through your favorite park may have a significant influence on your mood, in addition to giving you the opportunity to attack a rival team’s gym.
With so much data showing favorable outcomes for people who go outdoors and socialize, any app that encourages and rewards those behaviors can be a godsend to those dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
“Being stuck in the same environment for hours and hours can be a real bummer, especially if you’re prone to negative self-talk,” Geffen mused. “Depression feeds and is fed by isolation, and getting visual proof that other people like this game too helps me feel like I’m not the weirdest dude in the world.”
Convinced Pokémon Go could be good for you? Check out our beginner’s guide.