The perks of playing Pokemon

I have a friend who has been suggesting that I write a Pokémon Go blog post for a little while now. I may be a bit behind on the hype here, but it took me a little while to really get my head around the whole thing. My friend has been an avid player of the mobile phone game for a few weeks now and has graciously spent some time explaining the intricacies to me, taking me out into the augmented world of gyms and on the hunt for balls and Pokémon’s and she has very patiently explained that the Tamagotchi is actually a completely unrelated device to this out of touch human.

For those who aren’t aware of the pastime sweeping the nation and the world, Pokémon Go is a game that can be downloaded for mobile devices, which allows the player to enter a fantasy world where Pokémon – the animated, fictional creatures from the television series and games created in 1995 – can be found throughout our world. In the game, the player travels around their local area catching the Pokémon and training them at gyms in the community so they can do all other sorts of things. From what I have gathered from my lovely friend, this is one pretty complex and sophisticated game. A game which exists within our phone AND the real world. Mind boggling really.

There are lots of real world benefits to this game. This is a game that is getting people – younger people, especially – outside. Into the natural environment. Getting oxygen. And exercising. Healthy things.

And things that might be good for our psychological health too.

First and foremost, the hoards of people that are playing this game must be doing so for a reason. And I’m going to guess it’s because it’s fun. At a time when there is so much yuckiness happening in the world, how wonderful is it that Pokémon Go seems to bring a lot of joy and excitement to a whole lot of people?

And all this Pokémon related physical activity is probably going to have some pretty amazing effects on our mood. We know that physical activity releases the feel good chemicals – endorphins – into the brain which helps us to relax, feel happy and boosts our mood. Smart people have also found that exercise reduces anxiety and depression and increases self-esteem. And being outside a bit more gives us the chance to get a little bit more Vitamin D from the sun (with the correct protective measures of course). Vitamin D can also lessen the likelihood of depressive symptoms and can boost the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent brain degeneration as we age, helping against memory loss and even boosting our brain power. Winning!

Secondly, this is a game that fosters some connection. As my lovely friend notes - “Pokémon Go means I am hanging out with my brother”. Apparently this is something that wouldn’t be happening otherwise. She also reported being in areas where there were loads of people playing the game and the effects that that was having. Pokémon Go being a catalyst for new interactions.

As social creatures, us humans need contact with others in order to function. Social isolation and loneliness can have really lousy impacts on both our physical and our psychological health. Some of the risks associated with loneliness include:  depression and suicide; cardiovascular disease and stroke; increased stress levels; decreased memory and learning; antisocial behavior; poor decision-making; substance misuse; poor sleep; and altered brain function. Scientists have concluded that given all the drastic ways in which loneliness impacts our bodies, it represent as great a risk for our long term health and longevity as smoking cigarettes. Indeed, studies have concluded that chronic loneliness increases our risk of an early death by 14%.

Obviously it is too soon for any formal research to have been conducted, but I did some twittering ‘research’ and I got the impression that this game was acting as some form of facilitator for some people, overpowering some of the more antisocial urges that can occur in individuals who have mental health issues. People finding that they were able to get out and interact with others. Meeting other people in situations where they are all doing the same thing: trying to catch the Pokémon.

Of course, there have been the reports that it hasn’t all been good. One player allegedly found a body during her off-road exploration. A few people have reported undue attention from the local police for their late-night skulking. A particularly innovative group of criminals apparently targeted Pokémon GO gyms for victims to rob.

But before we go writing this off as the latest dangerous teen craze, let’s take a moment to remember that those are all risks of going outside. Still I reckon, if Pokémon GO helps you get out there, talk to people, and get a little exercise in the process, that’s a positive step. And like when we all venture into the outside world some attention to our surroundings is required.

Interestingly, it turns out that Pokémon was created by a man diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Satoshi Tajiri has reportedly been described as a recluse and considered as a bit of an eccentric, reportedly working at 24-hour intervals. It’s alleged that he created Pokémon based on his love for catching and studying insects. He is quoted as saying he “wanted to reawaken an awareness of nature in urbanized youth” and it appears that Pokémon Go is a good next step in this process.

What is even more fascinating though is the degree of judgment, shame and stigma that already appears to exist around Pokémon Go and the people who play it.

It seems that everyone has an opinion on the game – whether they have actually played the game or not. When I asked my friend about this, she was able to provide numerous examples of feeling judged and shamed during conversations about Pokémon Go where she mentioned she was a player. Turns out the mere mention of this was met with turned up noses, derogatory comments and pooh-poohs. From people who knew not much about it. They’d definitely not given it a go.

But even with all the collective outpouring of joy over Pokémon Go, I still see and hear people disparage it for being just a "kid's game" and are embarrassed when they're caught playing it in public.

And I've seen it the evident shame out in the public. The other day I noticed  a woman in her mid-30s having a grand smiley time playing Pokémon Go at the supermarket but as soon as she saw me walking by, her smile retracted and she quickly shuffled her phone into her pocket and pretended to be looking for tinned tomatoes. Don't hide it lady in the fabulous red shoes! You were playing Pokémon Go. You caught something awesome! Just embrace it!

Why are we non-players so quick to make judgments before we’ve even given it a go? Is it because we assume it’s a kids game. Having been given the low down and seeing the amount of non-kids playing, I can assure you it’s for more than just the younger generations. Is it because it’s cool to diss on video games? Surely we are over that by now? Haven’t we figured out that what was once considered nerdy and geeky is now very much cool.

But more importantly my friends perhaps before we diss a person completely for engaging in an activity we could  just find out a bit more about it? Be curious. Ask questions. Open up the conversation. Because it could be that the weird and unknown pastime she’s engaging in is having some genuine benefits on her psychological health. Maybe we could be less quick to dismiss.

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