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Why ‘Pokémon GO’ Is The World’s Most Important Game

Pokémon GO is the most successful mobile game of all time, breaking records like fastest to earn $100 million and most-downloaded in its first month of release. To date, it has grossed almost $2 billion in revenue and been downloaded 800 million times. Although no longer the global phenomenon it was in 2016, the game remains incredibly popular.

I’m one of many people who still plays Pokémon GO. I’m not ashamed to admit being a bit addicted (500,000 XP from level 40). And while some friends mock me for playing a “kid’s game”, that ridicule is often based on not really understanding why Pokémon GO is so appealing or what makes it special: innovative, award-winning gameplay mechanics that use Augmented Reality (AR) technology — superimposing computer-generated information over your physical surroundings — to put virtual creatures at real-world locations.

Pokémon GO is the world’s most important game. Thanks to its success, it will almost certainly influence the design of future AR experiences for years to come. But the game could also have a broader impact on society through its potential health benefits. This article covers the science behind five ways the game is good for you.

1. Getting Sunshine

Anyone whose childhood included video games in front of the TV will have heard parents yell, “Go play outside!” Well, Pokémon GO forces you to do just that. Whereas almost all smartphone games can be played anywhere, Pokémon GO must be played somewhere — you can’t do it while sat on your backside.

The game involves catching pocket monsters (Pokémon) at specific places via your phone. You also need to visit ‘Poké stops’ — check-in points at landmarks — to collect items like the ‘Poké balls’ needed to capture those creatures. A tracker shows Pokémon at nearby stops and the weather at your position determines which kinds are available, enticing you to rush out and catch them. Your collection of creatures can also be used to battle other monsters in ‘gyms’ that earn rewards such as coins, which are used to purchase useful items.

One big benefit of playing Pokémon GO is that it exposes you to sunlight, which is required to make vitamin D: skin cells use energy from the Sun to turn cholesterol into one of several fatty compounds collectively known as ‘vitamin D’, a hormone needed for absorbing molecules vital to your diet, like the calcium in bones. Vitamin D deficiency raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and other conditions, and yet almost 1 billion people worldwide have insufficient levels and over 40% of Americans are deficient. And while some try to compensate by popping pills (vitamin D supplements reduce mortality by 11%), too much can have harmful effects.

Low vitamin D levels are usually a consequence (not cause) of disease, and the best source is safe exposure to sunlight. Getting enough light at certain times of year could also help fight the depression associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). So for a Pokémon GO player, walking to your nearest Poké stop to maintain a daily streak bonus and catch a few creatures might provide all the sunshine you need to stay healthy.

2. Physical Activity

Motivating yourself to exercise is challenging if you don’t enjoy it. I find running monotonous, for example, so making it less boring encourages me to do it more often. ‘Gamification‘ — turning something into a game to make it fun — can help motivation by offering achievements and other rewards. Although some people are able to gamify physical activity with a fitness tracker or smartwatch to compete against themselves, for others shaving a few seconds off a personal best isn’t rewarding enough, which is where an actual game could work better.

Pokémon GO offers numerous incentives that encourage exercise. Players put eggs into ‘incubators’ so they hatch after travelling a certain distance (up to 10km), for instance, and can assign a ‘buddy’ who walks with your in-game avatar to collect candy en route (used to power-up and ‘evolve’ Pokémon). You can also buy a ‘Pokémon GO Plus’, a badge-sized device that connects to your phone via Bluetooth so you can catch creatures or spin stops at the push of a button.

Pokémon GO Plus

Several scientific studies have shown that Pokémon GO increases physical activity. From reports provided by players, one study found that the game increased the proportion who walked over 10,000 steps a day (about 4 kilometres) from 15% to 28%, another showed that playing raised moderate to vigorous physical activity by about 50 minutes per week and reduced sedentary behavior (such as watching TV and online gaming) by 30 minutes a day. Both studies revealed that the effect is stronger in people who are overweight or obese.

Physical activity is only significantly higher in young people who play three times a day according to research that monitored movement via a smartphone app. Pokémon GO‘s potential impact is illustrated by data taken from wearable fitness bands: researchers estimate that at its peak in summer 2016, the game added 144 billion steps to US activity — equivalent to walking around the equator 2724 times — and dedicated players raised their daily exercise by 26%.

An early survey of new players found that people walked almost 1000 extra steps during the first week since the game’s release. But six weeks later, that additional activity returned to pre-Pokémon levels, leading to provocative media headlines like ‘Exercise impact short-lived’ and ‘Sorry, Pokemon Go addicts, playing the video game doesn’t count as a real workout‘. Such statements draw the wrong conclusions, however, as they fail to distinguish between the impact on public health (a population) and personal health (an individual).

Personalized medicine is the future of healthcare, so whether an intervention affects the group as a whole is largely irrelevant. The most important outcome is for people to find an activity — whether it’s sports, yoga or AR games — they enjoy enough to continue doing, so that it improves their personal health. While Pokémon GO won’t suit everyone, it can help certain people stay active (whether it encourages you to keep exercising is predicted by three personality traits: agreeableness, perseverance and premeditation).

3. Exploring Nature

Visiting the open countryside or a local park can feel great when you’re finding urban environments claustrophobic. But our busy modern lives can make an aimless wander around seem like a waste of time (in the UK only 40% of people spend time near greenery during the week, and the main reason they give is ‘lack of time’).

Through gamification, Pokémon GO gives extra reasons to explore green spaces. As the cartoon theme tune said, the main aim is to “catch ‘em all!” But with hundreds of different ‘species’ available, the chance of finding the ones you need can be low, and whether a given Pokémon is common in your area depends on geography — you find different species near water versus a desert ‘biome’, for instance. One way to help complete your collection is to visit parks, which are ‘nests’ of particular Pokémon. As the species at nests usually migrate every two weeks, local Facebook groups and online communities like the Silph Road often keep an updated list or map of which ones can be found where.

Benefits of exposure to nature include getting the fresh air released by plants. Children’s lungs work better and have fewer respiratory conditions or asthma (that require hospital) when there’s less pollution. Green spaces are good for gray matter too: from testing attention and working memory, cognitive development is better when kids commute along green routes between home and school, with 20-65% of that link down to air pollution associated with traffic.

Urban living is bad for your brain: psychiatric disorders are more prevalent, with 20% of people more likely to develop anxiety and 40% more likely to develop mood disorders compared to rural areas. But spending time in greenery helps: by comparing brain activity in people who walked through woods for 90 minutes with those who walked in urban surroundings, scientists suggest that nature could reduce your risk of depression.

As playing Pokémon GO reduces psychological distress in adults, it could help improve mental health. The game has physical and psychological benefits for dog owners too — an added bonus for those who visit parks anyway. Based on its many health benefits, a group of scientists has proposed a research agenda for improving contact with nature, and cited the success of Pokémon GO to suggest you could design smartphone apps to identify trees and birds to help people connect with their environment.

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