How Pokémon GO ‘kept people sane’ during lockdown

Macquarie University/The Lighthouse
Playing mobile video games that use augmented reality encouraged people to be physically active during the pandemic and prevented many from becoming depressed, an international Macquarie University study has shown.

A counter narrative on video gaming emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic showing it can have a positive impact on mental and physical health.

In May last year, when many countries were locked down and millions were forced to stay at home, Macquarie University Research Fellow Dr Kathleen Yin realised it provided a controlled environment to test the effect of mobile video games on gamers’ mental and physical health.

Yin and her team at the Centre for Health Informatics surveyed people aged over 18 years who played either of two augmented reality games, Pokémon GO or Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, to gauge their experience of gaming during the lockdown. They received responses from 2000 people worldwide.

“People who played these games reported that playing them had made them feel happier,” says Yin.

Gaming was one of the only ways to socialise and be connected to a group of friends when you couldn’t go out for dinner.

“Statistically, we found a positive correlation between how many hours people played the game and their mental health.”

Because most people were unable to go to workplaces or school or engage in recreational activities, lockdowns led to a significant rise in psychological distress and increased use of crisis helplines and mental health services, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Social interaction and a sense of purpose

To play Pokémon GO, players download a free app onto a mobile device with GPS. The app uses augmented reality so the player can then find, catch, train and battle with 600 different virtual creatures called Pokémon that appear to be in the player’s real-life location.

Harry Potter

Spellbinding: Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and Pokémon GO provided players around the world with social interaction and a sense of achievement and purpose during the pandemic.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite also uses augmented reality and players catch snitches, werewolves and other stray creatures and make potions while travelling through the imaginary world created in the Harry Potter books and movies.

The researchers embedded a clinically approved mental health score in the middle of the survey. They were surprised that more than half of survey participants used the words ‘sane’ and ‘sanity’ in their responses: they said playing the game had stopped them losing their sanity during the lockdown. Games provided them with social interaction, a sense of achievement and purpose.

Gaming also kept them in a routine and encouraged them to go outdoors. On average, respondents said they took 7.5 hours of exercise a week before the pandemic and during the lockdowns had still managed to fit in 6.5 hours each week.

My team hypothesises that video game addiction is often the symptom of a deeper problem … online they might feel validated and have some control.

Some people said gaming gave them a reason for family and partner exercise or for being with their grandchildren.

Even under tight lockdown restrictions, they’d schedule in time to play games while they did tasks such as walking the dog or buying food at the shopping centre. The average age of respondents was 30 but many were in their mid-50s.

You can read the paper here in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“Gaming was one of the only ways to socialise and be connected to a group of friends when you couldn’t go out for dinner,” said Edison Chen, a new media artist who enjoyed playing games during the pandemic. “You also meet new people and now you have a shared experience.”

Addiction’s deeper causes

While the survey showed some of the positive sides of gaming, Yin acknowledges that many parents worry that spending a lot of time on a screen may still lead them or their family into a gaming addiction.

Game-changer: Dr Kathleen Yin, Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation, and Pokémon GO character Pikachu.

Yin points out that in some instances, addiction to video gaming can be an indicator of underlying untreated mental health or relationship issues.

“My team hypothesises that video game addiction is often the symptom of a deeper problem,” she says. “Perhaps people may also be dealing with being bullied at school, home or work.

“Online they might feel validated and have some control. They might make attachments to virtual characters more easily than humans because they might not feel safe with other people.”

This latest pandemic survey is part of Yin’s gaming passion. She advocates games as tools for self-directed learning, training and behavioural treatments. She’s particularly keen on promoting serious games in industry, the defence forces and health care to teach people skills, knowledge and attitudes.

In 2018, she was the only academic recipient out of 10 others who received the International Game Developers Association Next Gen Leader award.

‘Serious games’ research is gaining traction across Australia, she says, with more than 300 organisations and companies now involved in related projects.

Dr Kathleen Yin is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Health Informatics at Macquarie University’s Australian Institute of Health Innovation.

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