‘Gotta catch em’ all’
For an app that has been praised for (albeit unintentionally) helping sufferers of social anxiety, Pokémon Go‘s catchphrase is fittingly one that promises rewards and suggests a progression based on capturing and training these illusive little mini beasts.
Yet, its approach to gaming is not one that is completely foreign to the mental health community. Virtual reality games have already and continue to be ‘researched to treat depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as to alleviate pain, and even to improve rehabilitation after strokes’ for instance. So taking into consideration that the app’s user base is about to surpass that of Twitter,(at least among Android users) there is clearly promise in its ability to provide some solace to the mentally afflicted.
In fact, Pokémon Go actually works in a similar way to CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), in which there is a psychological term called ‘behavioural activation’. What this means is that if you can ‘go out and experience the positive rewards of healthy behavior […] then you are more likely to feel better and create a positive feedback loop to pursue more healthy behaviour’, and in a franchise such as this one, your reward comes every time you capture and train a wild Pokémon.
However is the game as therapeutic as the media would have you believe? That is the question I wish to answer. And more importantly, as revolutionary as it might seem for helping those with psychological problems, does it run the risk of generalising the nature of mental illness altogether?
First let’s take a look at the positives…
Let me start off by saying that to deny the games impact on people’s mental health all over the world would be foolhardy, as numerous tweets like the ones on this site illustrate, or, if you’d prefer, just take a look at this video below;
In short, it has bought us all together in a completely unprecedented way. People of all ages, race, class and sex are now communicating with each other precisely because of the augmented reality aspect of the game -for those that don’t know the game uses your smartphone and GPS to overlay the physical world around you with these virtual creatures. So in a sentence, players are forced to actually go outside into the world and explore their neighbourhoods;this is a technique which is worlds away from the playing format of most games out there.
Though as much as it has been praised for being revolutionary in its ‘unique’ game play structure, there have been others before it. There are a collection of apps out there that claim to be mood altering, and yet have failed to catch on, with fewer people continuing them to use them past the first week of release. Even Ingress , a game produced by Niantic, the makers of Pokémon Go, used a similar structure – except instead of finding Pokemon, players have to find and capture portals for their team .
The main difference between these titles and Pokémon Go is that the latter has caught on in an explosive and far more imaginative way. The main reasons for this are due to it ‘centered around a theme and cartoon that is non-threatening and kawaii’ and also because of its reliance on 1990s nostalgia. In what other context would you see two strangers from entirely different social backgrounds come together and socialise? Even if it is by using lure modules to attract other players to your vicinity and going on a quest to capture the endearing, if elusive Bulbasaur or the fire breathing Charizard.
That’s one of the most appealing things about this app – it allows people to meet other human beings with little risk of triggering their anxiety. They have something in common to talk about, meaning there is less chance of triggering irrational fears such as ‘I don’t fit in’ or ‘These people despise me‘, and who can fault the game for acting as a form of social lubricant in ways such as this. I know I can’t.
This is not to mention the actual physical benefits there are in playing the game. This of course has a direct impact on your mood by reducing loneliness and increasing self esteem. Indeed, research has suggested that ‘even a 10-minute walk can have a measurable, positive effect on mood’ – a more than sufficient amount of time to explore your neighbourhood whilst bagging one or more of these little ( or some cases, not so little) critters along the way.
Does social media coverage of Pokemon Go simplify the complex nature of mental illness?
I can already hear the enraged cries of committed players as they protest towards the game that has bought so much enjoyment to their lives.
Yet hear me out.
I personally suffer with social anxiety. As any other sufferer will know it can be a severely debilitating disorder which makes communicating with people difficult- and that is putting it mildly. Yet, the more news stories I read about Pokémon Go, the more I get the impression that everybody who suffers with this mental illness is someone who will not venture beyond the safety of their front door. Or at least, they find immense difficulty in doing so.
This is simply not true.
Speaking as someone who teaches young children on a daily basis , I work in an often stressful environment surrounded by around extroverts. Yet, as I covered extensively in my article about mental illness in the workplace, being able to work does not mean I am not subject to the symptoms of this disorder. I just hide it like so many others – the truth is that every day is an internal struggle which does not end until I reach the safety of my home.
While I am not denying that many sufferers of this disorder do find it more difficult to leave the house than I do, I do feel slightly uncomfortable that the media seem to be painting social anxiety in such a generalised fashion.
However you could accuse me of finding fault where there is none. After all, the game raising awareness of mental health issues either way is it not? Even better, it is raising awareness of.how people can potentially help alleviate the symptoms of their disorder. Considering the overtly negative stories out there surrounding mental illness, this in itself is a promising development!
So is Pokemon Go actually a replacement for therapy? Can I disregard my prescription of antidepressants completely?
Well, in short the answer is a concrete no. A big no. While there are evidently a lot of benefits to downloading and playing the app, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that it should not be the sole crutch for your anxiety/depression. Here are a few factors to consider:
- This game is currently in its early stage of release, so it is important not to be too premature with people’s excitement at this game. Let’s wait and see if its claims stand the test of time first.
- If you do play the app, make sure that you set yourself a time limit (say around 30 minutes), as by doing otherwise and playing it for too long a time, you run the risk of making it your only interaction with the outside world,
- It places your mind in a blended reality state, as your eyes are in the phone focusing on something that is not really there. For people who experience psychotic symptoms and have difficulty distinguishing between what is real or not,playing Pokémon Go could exacerbate this issue.
- For the above reason, playing this game might get you outside, but it does not allow you to fully appreciate your surroundings, thus making it less effective than say, mindfulness or meditation.
In summary, I will quote Ben Michaelis, PhD, an evolutionary clinical psychologist , who says that ‘games shouldn’t be seen as a cure, but as a useful tool,’. He also emphasizes that it is still important to work with a mental health professional to help your condition.
Who knows. Maybe in the future there will be an app that will provide with us therapy so effective that we won’t have need for human beings to administer it – it would certainly help with the current overlong waiting times there are for mental health treatment.
Instead lets see this app as a stepping stone for your journey towards recovery , rather than the instantaneous relief from depression/anxiety that is being uncomfortably perpetuated by the media at large.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off outside to try and find myself a Pikachu. Only for about 30 minutes mind. Then I’ll just admire the setting sun before heading back home.
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here