By now, most who are reading this have probably at least heard of Pokémon Go, the new cell phone game that has been sweeping the nation and world. For those who aren’t aware, this game is an app that can be downloaded for mobile devices, which allows the player to enter a fantasy world where Pokémon—the loveable, fictional creatures from the television series and games created in 1995—are real and strewn throughout the real world. In this game, it is required for the player to travel around their community catching these Pokémon and train them at gyms, which are also strewn throughout the environment. There are a lot of other nuances to the game, but the real-world benefits are undeniable: This is a game that is getting people—kids, specifically—out in the world exercising. Of course, this is a major step in tackling the childhood obesity epidemic that is sweeping the nation, but one aspect that people aren’t noticing is the effects that it’s having on mental health.
Many people probably aren’t aware that Pokémon was created by a man named Satoshi Tajiri, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a condition on the Autism Spectrum. Tajiri has confirmed this information, but does not speak publicly about it. Like many with autism, Tajiri has also been a bit of a recluse and considered eccentric by some. He’s known for working at 24-hour intervals, and created Pokémon based on his love for catching and studying insects. He is quoted as saying that he “wanted to reawaken an awareness of nature in urbanized youth.” Pokémon Go is the next step in this process, and this author agrees that it is definitely a success.
One out of every four people in the United States deal with mental health issues, which mean that even if those reading this right now don’t deal with a mental illness of some sort, it is a guarantee that they know someone who does, and that’s only counting the people in one country; mental illness is a world-wide condition, so the reader can understand that the numbers are probably far higher. Since the release of Pokémon Go in July of 2016, there have been countless reports spreading across the internet from parents about how helpful the game has been for children with mental health issues, especially those on the autism spectrum. In an article written by Elizabeth W. Barnes for the mental health organization, The Mighty, she is quoted as saying, “His willingness to leave the house was a huge sign, and to me a big deal.”
It has long been known the beneficial effects that exercise can have on mental health. It is known to reduce both physical and mental stress, as well as release endorphins, which create feelings of happiness and euphoria; in some cases, exercise can be just as effective in treating depression and anxiety as antidepressants. Exercise also exposes the person to Vitamin D from the sun, which can lessen the likelihood of depressive symptoms, and can boost the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent brain degeneration as the person ages, helping against memory loss and even boosting measurable brain power.
Pokémon Go is not only getting people to leave the house and exercise, though; it is also getting them to interact with others. As social animals, humans need that contact with others in order to function properly. Famously, movies like Castaway, starring Tom Hanks, and books and television programs such as Robinson Crusoe, illustrate excellently the mental effects of isolation on people. Of course, these are extreme examples, but they do show how lack of interpersonal relations can severely damage a person’s mental stability. Due to the nature of the game—the trading card game and the video game—it has always been a catalyst for those interactions, but Pokémon Go, specifically, has caused this phenomenon to explode. What does this mean for those with mental health issues? A major effect of many mental illnesses is the aversion to social contact for one reason or another, be it agoraphobics unable to leave the house, or those with social anxieties not wanting to be around people, or a multitude of other examples. Due to the fact that nearly two full generations of people have lived with and/or grown up with Pokémon in existence, it has become something of a past-time for children and parents alike, which means that, in many cases, the excitement of the game is acting as a facilitator that can overpower the antisocial urges of those with mental health issues, causing people to go out and interact with others. Children who have never had friends are finding themselves not only instantly having something in common with others, but they’re meeting them in situations where they’re doing the exact same thing: Trying to catch Pokémon.
In such a short time, Pokémon Go has spread like wildfire, tackling the obesity epidemic that has plagued an entire generation. However, in addition to that, it is also doing wonders for those with mental health issues. It is not forcing them, but causing them to want to go out and exercise, and it is also causing them to interact with others of all ages and creeds. Whereas, not that long ago Minecraft was the leader in the gaming industry for helping people with mental illnesses, this game has overtaken it and increased its benefits. It is possible that this game is a hallmark of our time, and may have a more positive effect on mental health than anything like it.
A Note About The Author
Many of you are probably not aware, but my youngest son has Asperger’s Syndrome, and my wife and I deal with our own mental health issues. Since we started playing this game, I have seen a notable improvement in all three of our morale when it comes to exercise and social interactions. On one of our many outings specifically to catch Pokémon, my son said a phrase that I’ve never heard come out of his mouth, “Let’s go over there; we might meet some people!” As someone who deals with mental health issues and whose son is on the autism spectrum, I personally wish I could thank Satoshi Tajiri, Nintendo, and Niantic Labs for introducing this game to the world and to our lives.