The Halo of Pokémon: Fading… Or Shining Brighter?

by: Sara on 08/08/2016

Mari Swingle,PhD, the author of I-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing our Brains, our Behavior, and the Evolution of our Species talks about the effect of the Pokémon Go phenomena on community, our brains, our sense of reality and our behaviour in general.

As the Pokémon Go craze swept over us we were fascinated; first by its wild appeal and then by its rather odd effects.  Many of us were instantly endeared; reconnecting in elevated form with the game of our childhood.  It seemed Pokémon had grown up too! Offering us new experiences in the now real world, the real environment, through the lens of our phones.

Many of us not of the Pokémon generation were equally fascinated, mesmerized by the allure of these little cutie pie monsters popping up in our relative ‘reality’.  Others of us were not; we were rather confused in fact, understanding little of the mass appeal of chasing critters on our phones, … Augmented reality they called it.

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Pokémon Go was the first augmented reality game that completely skyrocketed to such mass appeal (along with its parent body stock)!  Not that it had not been tried before, but never with such instant appeal.  Stepping back, it is genius; the perfect marriage of a gaming platform with nostalgic revival.  And everyone wants to join the wedding party!  Pokémon themed doughnuts can be bought outside a shop that was fortunate enough to have been targeted as a Poké stop. Pokémon taxi drivers are also popping up (pun intended) to assist gamers in their otherwise mad pursuits. A religious program was even celebrating that it was a message from God that a Poké stop was on a memorial, bringing attention to their cause.  

Our mesmerization however is going far, far beyond nostalgic emotionality, savvy business acumen, and some innocent good fun.  People are hurting themselves, rather significantly so; walking into trees, cinder-blocks and traffic, disrespecting persons and property by hunting and catching the little fella’s at none other than the Holocaust Museum and on otherwise ‘occupied’ coffins in funeral parlors. The Poké taxis are arguably necessary as drivers were crashing and driving erratically trying to catch the little buggers while still behind the wheel. The pursuit of Pikachu also became significantly less innocent, with criminals luring unsuspecting Pokémon catchers or tamers into alleys and where they could be robbed of their phones and other valuables.

What’s going on? Beyond the rapture of the game itself that is? What is happening in our brains that makes us forget our own reality? The answer is quite simple, screens and screen based games indeed do have mesmerizing effects.  If you are curious about the science behind this, I refer you to a rather thorough discussion in my book i-Minds.

But essentially the same ‘inability’ to disengage from screens in our living rooms also occurs in the great outdoors.  I, for one, would love to change the name; from augmented reality to something like ‘overlay reality’.  

From a behaviorist’s perspective, when playing we are arguably not really in reality at all, augmented or otherwise.  As our rather oblivious behavior (e.g., walking into cars and structure not shown on the screen of the phone) has undeniably shown, we are in the reality of said phones as per GPS, that just happen to be overlaying on our real environment, as opposed to a virtual, or programmed environment. 

No one seems particularly interested in this little detail however…  Parents are now exalting that Pokémon Go is a godsend, responsible for getting their otherwise sedentary children

outside with ease. Tourism boards are also elated as visitors and locals alike are now re-discovering and visiting sights and scenes where attendance had been steadily dropping. It is now seen as a social miracle too! People are not only tripping over objects, but each other, and romances and friendships are blooming.  Big industry is now also rolling up its marketing sleeves with this new opportunity; news feeds of ‘Pokémon Go is good for you’ are running everywhere and many are fully buying in. --So is McDonalds… now paying to have their restaurants featured as Pokéstops.  

Apart from the obvious marketing opportunity, people don’t seem to be particularly curious as to why we believe this little game is a panacea for all that ails us, socially and physically.  And here I ask all of us to think:  Why are we on our sofas all the time?  Why is it so now so hard to meet people offline? Well,… this brings us back to the first generation of gaming that took us from our gardens, streets and playgrounds to our sofas in the first place.  --And the social networks that reduced (not augmented) our face-to-face social and communication skills.  Social sites are no longer ice breakers.  For many, they are now the only way to interact with complete strangers.  No one now finds it odd to say ‘hey’ on a dating site with someone you know nothing of, other than what is posted in their profile. But we do find the fella in the coffee shop who says ‘hey, want to sit with me for a minute as you drink that?’ odd…

The truth I ask all of us to observe is that screens themselves have been changing our behavior for quite a while…. It should come as no surprise that a screen based game (indoors or outdoors) is changing our behavior so dramatically once again.

We desperately want to see good in it… and that’s OK. It is good.  Good fun that is.  So please play it, have fun. –But also please don’t tell scientists, researchers and practicing therapists that it is a panacea for all that ails us.  And be very, very careful about playing them too much.  When we over engage with screens they change not only our behavior but our brain function too.

Let me leave you with this: There is mounting evidence from the University of Waterloo that the areas of our brain we use when playing Pokémon Go are the same that are used in search and destroy games, not the positive areas used for geo-mapping and orientation that media is promoting. You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out that overdeveloping the ‘search and destroy’ function is not particularly positive for any of us socially or otherwise.

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