I live in Santa Monica, an overgrown beach town partially subsumed by the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Near my house there are some really great walkways, both on the bluff overlooking the beach and lower down, adjacent to the beach itself. It’s a great place to get some exercise while enjoying the sunshine. Lately, however, I’m seeing more and more people not power walking and monitoring their Fitbits as usual, but shuffling along and staring at their phones, paying no attention whatsoever to their heart rates, other pedestrians, the lovely weather, or the semi-treacherous ascents and descents between the lower and upper paths. Sometimes it looks like AMC is shooting an episode of The Walking Dead.
The culprit, of course, is Pokémon Go, the latest smartphone gaming craze. In case you’re wondering, Pokémon Go is based on the eponymous children’s TV show, which debuted in the US in the late 1990s. The game was released a few weeks ago, in early July, and manufacturer Nintendo has since watched its previously sagging stock prices skyrocket. For whatever reason, folks just can’t get enough Pokémon Go. It’s become the crack cocaine of digital gaming.
The premise of the game is that our world is filled with cute little creatures from the Pokémon universe, and it’s up to us to capture them. The twist is that the game takes this experience into the real world via the camera and GPS features in our phones and tablets. Essentially, we hold our digital devices in front of us so the camera can capture the world while also scanning for Pokémon. The app then inserts these weird little beings into our phone’s vision of the world, and we see the combined version on the screen of our digital device.
While out searching for Pokémon it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the hunt, with the anticipation of locating the next Pokémon providing a steady dose of adrenaline. Then, when we spot a Pokémon, Bang! We capture it. And we get a bigger bump of adrenaline plus blast of dopamine for a job well done. So we’re out wandering the world, getting some exercise, maybe taking a friend or our kids or at least our dogs along for the walk, and we’re enjoying a cute little game at the same time. What’s not to love?
For most people that’s the end of the story. Some people, however, are “losing themselves” in Pokémon Go, no longer tracking the real world and potential hazards within it. In San Diego, for instance, two men were so engrossed in the game that they walked off a 90 foot cliff. In upstate New York, a driver playing Pokémon Go wrapped his car around a tree. In Pennsylvania, a teenaged girl chasing a Pokémon was run over when she walked onto a busy street without looking. And this list of Pokémon Go related accidents grows longer by the day. So far, nobody has perished, but that’s sheer luck more than anything else. It’s only a matter of time before we hear about a real world “death by Pokémon.”
The vast majority of people, of course, are perfectly capable of using the Pokémon Go app without becoming so obsessed that they lose touch with reality and experience negative consequences. But it’s clear that some people can disappear into the game and suffer as a result. This is a little bit like alcohol, addictive drugs, gambling, porn, or any other potentially addictive substance or behavior. Most people can use the substance or behavior in healthy ways, for a bit of relaxation or enjoyment, but some people can’t.
As an addiction treatment specialist I’m actually not surprised by what we’re seeing with Pokémon Go. And no, I’m not saying that all of the people who’ve had problems are addicts needing treatment. I am, however, saying that some people are becoming preoccupied to the point of obsession with this game because their neurochemical pleasure circuits are being activated in the same ways they’re activated by addictive substances and behaviors—anticipatory pleasure followed by the occasional bigger payoff.
That’s right folks, Pokémon Go is designed to get you hooked just like cigarettes are designed to get you hooked. Or, more accurately, it’s designed to hook you the way Angry Birds, Candy Crush, video poker, and all sorts of other games are designed to hook you. Basically, game designers insert algorithms into these games to make sure you get the aforementioned stream of pleasurable anticipation plus an occasional bigger hit. In other words, programmers have learned how to get you and keep you a little bit high when you’re playing their games.
So now, perhaps, my statement about Pokémon Go being the crack cocaine of digital gaming sounds a little less farfetched. But, once again, I’m not (as of now) willing to say this odd little game is creating addiction in its users. After all, addiction requires more than a short-term preoccupation. In fact, with addictions, obsessive use needs to last for six months or longer, with individuals unable to control their use (typically evidenced by failed attempts to quit or cut back) despite a string of negative life consequences. As of this writing, the game has only been out for a few weeks, so the first requirement is not fully met. Nor do I know of anyone who’s decided to walk away from the game and been unable to do so. But the early warning signs are out there…
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician, Rob has served as a subject expert for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is also the author of several highly regarded books. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.