Blog: On Pokémon GO and its potential as an aid to promote healthy behaviors


When Uppsala Health Summit opens its doors in October for a two-day meeting on how to tackle childhood obesity, many different strategies will be discussed. Among them, technical aids to promote behaviour change. Could Pokémon Go – the virtual game with worldwide popularity have the positive public health effect we hope for? What risks do we need to be aware of? And anyway; will the trend last? Here are some reflections from our workshop team on Empowering for Positive Behaviour Change.

Pokémon GO has conquered the world. Suddenly this summer, the streets filled with children walking around, or even running, with their phone in their hand chasing Dragonites, Eevies and Fearows. Suddenly there are stories of children walking 2,5 or even 10 km before breakfast to hatch Pokémon eggs. Children who previously mostly sat in front of their computer, iPad or phone now chase their parents, friends and siblings asking: “Can we please go for a walk?” 

Chasing water Pokemóns in the Swedish archipelago (private photo)

The main idea of the game is to help a professor find Pokémons, and the Pokémons are out in the streets for gamers to catch. As one of the kids we talked to described it: “Those who just sit at home get nowhere in the game. You need to move”.  It is plausible to argue that Pokémon Go can help to prevent childhood obesity in a number of ways. Probably the most obvious argument is the claim, supported by a large number of anecdotal evidence, that it persuades children to move. The game itself encourages walking (or slow movement) instead of going by car or public transport. It should be noted here that it is quite possible to game the game using an airboard or even an robot lawnmower-- without actually getting any exercise yourself. There are also many other considerations health promoters need to bear in mind before prescribing Pokémon Go: 

Safety: Walking and not looking 

Walking has well known benefits to your health, only normally you’re look where you walk. Unfortunately, there are numerous stories in the press giving vivid examples of what can happen when you play on your mobile while walking (or even worse, driving). Of course, texting has the same effect–but it is often a more temporary activity than playing immersive games. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon GO: are quite aware of this and each update has seen even more alerts to players. How to reduce those risk is of course an important challenge to the IT community at large, especially if we wish to use games to improve health. 

Sustainability: Beyond novelty value? 

While there are still new markets for Pokemon and Niantic supposedly have new challenging upgrades up their sleeve, the big question is really if the momentum can be sustained.  Pokemon has been around since the mid-nineties and will no doubt continue to be a part of our culture. Yet many believe we witnessed the peak of Pokémon during the summer of 2016. As there has been forerunners of Pokémon GO (such as Zombie, Run! or Turf) there is bound to be followers – but will they have the same massive and broad appeal? And just around the corner are VR headsets, ready to take gamers back onto the couch again  Still, this is just the gaming perspective.

From a health perspective the big question is really if these games can sustain the momentum enough to contribute to a permanent and positive behavioural change? A look at the shelf life of a majority of mobile applications suggest otherwise. Then there is an equity question: What about those who can’t afford it?  While the app in itself is free, GO is still an expensive option for parents with low income. The app would not help the kids who do not have their own phone, or who have too little data traffic to be able to play the game.

There is also an ethical debate around online games targeting kids with direct or indirect marketing. The not-so-recent sponsorship deal between Pokemon GO and a fast food chain is a good example. The use of sponsored locations is not a new concept in gaming, but as a user or a parent of a user, it is certainly food for thought. On one hand, we talk about the potential benefits in terms of walking, On the other hand, there is a risk that we negate the benefits with junk food. 

Dependence: addiction and other psychological impacts 

Varying degrees of dependence and addiction ranging from ‘nomophobia’ (No Mobile - Phobia), mood swings and ‘extreme tech anxiety’ to full-fledged depression, obsessive compulsive disorders and other psychological conditions have been associated with use of mobiles as well as mobile and video gaming.  It may be worthwhile to ask the question: Are the potential health benefits worth the risks? Of course, avid users and parents need to consider this in each individual case. If Pokémon GO is riding a wave, then the impact is temporary, as newer and more sophisticated games will come into the market. However, the mobile and gaming revolution is here to stay. Solutions and strategies that minimize adverse psychological effects and promote healthy behaviours should be a serious consideration both for game developers as well as for game users. 

Blog by: Åsa Cajander and Gerolf Nauwerck, Uppsala University, Department of Information Technology, Division of Visual Informaiton and Interaction, Meena Daivadanamn, Uppsala University, Dept. of Food, Nutrition and Dietetics, Isto Huvila, Uppsala University, Department of ABM, Jo-Anne Dahl, Uppsala University, Department of Pshychology,