Is Pokemon Go a Health Risk or Benefit?

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Read it at the Calgary Herald! 

“Do you want to know why I hate Pokemon?” Amanda Abarca asks. “It’s because our world is already so full of distractions and this is just another way for people to escape from the real world. I feel like people are forgetting how to think bigger than themselves – like, there is a whole world happening, ISIS and terrorism and we’re chasing Pokemons!”

Abarca is not alone in her feelings toward the gaming craze. Since the Pokemon Go app launched in Canada, everyone seems to have an opinion on the game and at the core of the Pokemon discussion seems to be the topic of distraction: Those who enjoy the game find it a playful way to bridge the tangible and the virtual, and  those who hate the game see it as a dangerous distraction that is literally opening doors to new worlds of harm.

Abarca continues, “I mean, it’s good that people are actually moving, it’s probably healthier than Facebook and videogames, but I think mostly its bad.”  

Her comment resonates with colleague Zuzana Malastova, who nods in agreement. “Sure” she says, “I get the good part about how it makes people walk, but to me it’s just insane that we have to make up games to get up and go outside.”

Malastova, a mother of four, is worried about the game’s repercussions on mental health.

 

“We should just want to go outside and walk” she says. “It makes me sick to think that we are going to evolve to a mental state where we just do things for rewards.”

Abarca agrees. “Walking is therapeutic, it’s energizing and it’s calming. When you have your phone in front of your face I think you lose those simple, natural benefits.”

Both Abarca and Malastova are parents of young children and careful of the amount of screen time their kids have. Abarca wants to implement No Technology Sundays where the family would deter from using televisions and phones so that they could enjoy more face to face connection time. “My daughter is probably the only three year-old I know that doesn’t have an iPad” she says. 

There have been numerous stories of crimes, accidents and even deaths related to the game. Car accidents, privacy concerns and robberies are all top of mind safety concerns and in one particularly alarming story, Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Co. is worried that players on the hunt are now being lured into the Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone.

For many, though, the danger is a secondary concern to the positive benefits they feel the game provides. Professional Play Researcher and Educational Community Partner Lynn Campanella says that playing Pokemon encourages people to connect.  

“People are naturally social creatures. We have just been out of practice for the last couple of decades due to technology. Yet now technology seems to be the one thing that is re-awakening some people to the social morale.”

Campanella points out that people often play Pokemon Go with a couple of friends, which is giving them exercise as well as having them practise fundamental social and communication skills. 

“When we go for a walk in the evening, it is wonderful to see so many young people out in the evening, hanging around in town and chatting with each other.  It . . . brings a positive energy and buzz. One father told us that his sons have walked 30 kilometres in the last two weeks.  That’s a good thing. People are . . . up off their couches and meeting people – real people, not video chatting or connecting with others on line.”

Campanella enjoys the playful and imaginative nature of the game but it’s this imaginary world that worries Abarca as she fears that the evolution of these games could have people going outside and not catching things, but killing things instead. “That’s really scary because that violence in the virtual world could translate into the real world” she says. Another worry for the expecting mother of one toddler is the idea of luring Pokemon. With a small fee, those less inclined to go out searching for Pokemon have the option of setting up “hotspots” to attract Pokemon to them. Once purchased, this spot is active for approximately twenty minutes and anyone playing the game will be drawn to the location.

“I think what this is doing to our brains is very unhealthy” Malastova says and there are plenty of researchers who would agree. Constant exposure to virtual worlds can give rise to a schizophrenic, or fragmented sense of self and the management of multiple avatars can cause feelings of displacement for individuals. While healthy distraction from the real world is a good thing sometimes, when it goes too far people can become confused to unhealthy degrees.

Campanella, on the other hand, sees this as the beginning not of a world of danger but of a world of possibility. “The only negative thing I can see right now is that people don’t look where they are going. They are so immersed in their phones that may not what is literally in front of them. I wonder what will be the impact once kids have gone back to school, when the weather gets cold.  Will they continue to get up and move around?  Will there be another active game to follow this one?”

What has made Pokemon Go so wildly popular is that it is the first mobile, location-based mixed-reality product and our first glimpse of the virtual world that will one day be all around us. Of course there will be both pros and cons to technological advancement, especially when there are already reports of benefits and risks to people’s health.

The other day I opened Facebook and saw a picture of a Pokemon that was found inside a Buddhist temple and it reminded me that there is good and bad in all things, but perhaps the best part about Pokemon Go is that it could bridge two worlds and maybe help us see the magic of everyday.

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