The wildfire spread of a new smartphone game, Pokémon Go, which blends technology with the real world via something called “augmented reality,” could have an unexpected effect beyond gaming – it might improve people’s health.
People young and old around the country are downloading the game onto their phones and walking around neighborhoods and towns catching fictional creatures called Pokémon. The game connects to your phone’s GPS and places Pokémon onto a Google map of your location. As you travel the real world, you move along the game’s map and continue to collect Pokémon and other items of interest and battle other players. The game is free, but you can buy things to enhance your game.
The other day I was going for a run when I saw groups of people walking down the sidewalk in Durham pointing their phones at invisible objects. I quickly realized they were collecting Pokémon. When I got home, I read news reports that Pokémon Go was encouraging gamers to exercise. Even more, special prizes could be earned by the distances covered. For example, walking 10 kilometers can unlock a special egg.
As a nursing professor who has been studying new “mobile health technologies,” I believe this could be the start of a wave of phone-based health apps that could promote exercise. For years we have heard concerns that video games encourage people, especially children, to be sedentary. Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. Research has found, though, that children are 6 times more likely to exercise if it involves a video game. By weaving popular games such as Pokémon with real-world activity, this might encourage people to get off the couch and move. Moreover, Pokémon Go might also encourage people to be more social by getting them out in the neighborhood and walking around town to see new things.
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Pretty cool, right? Sure, but unfortunately the craze might be short-lived. We don’t know how long people will stay engaged in collecting Pokémon, and we don’t know what adverse effects there may be. The game will need to continually update its offerings to keep people engaged over the long run. A week is one thing, but keeping people involved three or six months to see the positive benefits of exercise is another.
Already there are mounting data privacy concerns about the information that may be transmitted to the game’s developer. The good news is that the game developer is already offering updates to address privacy concerns. There are also many real-world risks because of people not paying attention to their surroundings and trespassing. Some people have fallen into ditches or had car accidents while playing. Not to mention the game eats up battery power and consumes a good amount of data – so just wait to hear about all the phone charges next month.
Despite concerns, Pokémon Go is a step in the right direction to develop games that encourage people to get off the couch. This no doubt is just the first of many similar apps that will blend the real-world with the virtual world. And while we have a lot to learn regarding the effects of Pokémon Go over the long term to get people to exercise, today we’ve got Pokémon to catch!
Ryan Jeffrey Shaw is an assistant professor in the Duke University School of Nursing.