Healthy Living

Explaining Pokemon Go Through The 'Science of Social'

Many in the medical community are more focused on the game’s positive impacts, both physically and mentally.
07/21/2016 07:56pm ET | Updated July 25, 2016

My friend Jason’s love of Pokemon Go is nothing short of fanatical. The day he downloaded the game to his phone his Fitbit logged 50,000 steps, five times what he walks on an average day. He’s taken to standing up every day at work, not because of the many health benefits, but rather so that every five minutes he can pace from one end of the office to the other to collect PokeBalls and experience points at a nearby PokeStop. Several days in, he started walking home every day from his San Francisco workplace ― a journey that takes him daily through the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of the Tenderloin. Jason hardly even noticed as the buildings got more and more rundown ― his face was glued to his screen. That was how the mugging happened.

Of course, Jason isn’t a real person. But his story illustrates the strange and unusual controversy surrounding Pokemon Go. Just one week after the game first hit the app stores, we started hearing news of people getting themselves into nasty situations—getting stabbed or falling off of cliffs in the pursuit of rare and elusive critters. Some museums and landmarks have even gone so far as to ban the game outright.

But many in the medical community are more focused on the game’s positive impacts, both physically and mentally. Players are getting so much exercise, fresh air, and social interaction from playing the game that some health experts are saying it could be one of the most beneficial non-prescription products on the market, especially for people with mental illnesses like depression.

But wait, isn’t this a video game we’re talking about? Shouldn’t exercise, fresh air, and social interaction be some of the last things players are getting from spending all day staring at a screen? Well, Pokemon Go is no ordinary video game.

The idea that just about anyone can walk around the world and catch their favorite Pokemon is like a dream come true for longtime fans of the media franchise. But Pokemon Go is not only popular with millennials; 40% of people who downloaded the game are actually 25 years old or older. So, what has made Pokemon Go so engaging to such a broad audience?

Our Institute for Prediction Technology does a lot of research on what makes technology popular or unpopular to a wide audience. I believe that what makes Pokémon Go such a big hit is its mastery of what I call the “Science Of Social,” as well as something I like to call “Restless Elevator Syndrome.” Let’s break down what each of those means.

Have you ever been on an elevator with a large number of people, and noticed that there’s always at least one person who can’t seem to survive without pulling out their smartphone? I call this “Restless Elevator Syndrome,” and it’s just one facet of the growing technology addiction our culture has developed. Pokemon Go capitalizes on this willingness to spend long hours each day staring down at a screen. In some ways, it turns the whole world into one long, restless elevator ride.

The other thing Pokemon Go takes great advantage of is something call the “Science of Social.” Recently, I wrote about why so many attempts at wearable technology and augmented reality have failed to become mainstream the way that Pokemon Go has (i.e., by using social psychology to bridge the gap between online and offline worlds).

In a nutshell, there are three major elements to harnessing the Science of Social: social norms (what do we perceive as “normal” behavior?), role models (who plays a part in influencing our social norms?), and social support (how does the behavior get sustained over time?).

Pokemon Go has done an excellent job of incorporating all three of these elements to become a viral phenomenon. The Pokemon franchise has grown in the 20 years since its inception, from the domain of comic book geeks and anime enthusiasts to something recognizable ― and generally accepted ― by pretty much everyone. Look around and you’ll see that the world was full of Pokemon long before Pokemon Go ever came along. You’ll find them in toy stores, movie theaters, TV shows, costume shops, not to mention in the childhood memories of an entire generation of young adults. That’s the hallmark of something that’s truly become a social norm.

Role models are another social resource that Pokemon Go has in spades. If you grew up with Pokemon, you likely also grew up with friends or older siblings playing, talking about, and otherwise pulling you into the Pokemon universe. If you’re a parent of someone who played Pokemon as a child, that’s a kind of role model too. And that doesn’t even mention role models like Hillary Clinton, who recently made headlines by hosting a rally at a particular PokeStop in Pokemon Go.

Finally, the inherent social element in Pokemon Go makes it a perfect example of the third element of the Science of Social: social support. Once again, we see this taken to a much higher level in Pokemon Go than other video games have done. People are taking the game outside of their houses to play as a team sport with their friends, their family, and even complete strangers. It’s hard to imagine a better support network than that.

Do you play Pokemon Go, or know someone who does? Tell us about whether you think the game has made you more or less healthy in the comments section below!

Sean Young, PhD, is Associate Professor in the UCLA Department of Family Medicine and the Executive Director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT). In his spare time he writes about issues related to technology, health and medicine, and psychology.