Playing Pokémon Go may seem like just a fun way to pass the time, but a new study by researchers at Australia’s Macquarie University has shown it can help keep people sane during times of extreme stress and isolation.
In recent years, our scientific journals have been full of studies about the negative effects of gaming on our brains, but in what amounts to a more complimentary study Dr Kathleen Yin, research fellow at the Centre for Health and Informatics at Macquarie University, has found a positive link between playing augmented reality (AR) games and health.
Dr Yin's research was first described in a story that appeared in Macquarie University's Lighthouse. In her study, Dr Yin and her colleagues surveyed 2000 people aged over 18 from around the world during the COVID-19 lockdown in May 2020, during which time there was a global rise in people reporting poor mental health conditions. Those surveyed were mobile gamers who played either Pokémon Go or Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and had reported a decrease in their physical and mental health because of self-isolation.
The games the respondents were playing were not your average mobile phone games. Being AR games, they required gamers to travel to real-world locations to interact with virtual characters as well as other human players, so players had to get off the couch and outside to play and socialise.
To measure players’ mental health, the researchers embedded a clinically approved mental health questionnaire into their online survey. They also quizzed players about their gaming habits, their exercise routines before and after COVID-19 lockdown and made note of descriptive keywords for signs of the respondents' mental health status.
What the researchers found was surprising. Despite more than half of the respondents admitting that they had experienced a drop in their physical and mental health because of COVID-19 restrictions, approximately three quarters said playing AR games significantly boosted their mental health.
During lockdown gamers turned to their games for solace, increasing their gameplay time from 16 hours per week to 20 hours per week and the research showed a positive correlation between how many hours respondents played and their psychological wellbeing.
Being happier was one of the most common responses to how gaming made respondents feel during self-isolation. Respondents were also more likely to use keywords associated with feeling better about their mental health, including words like ‘sane’ and ‘sanity’ in their answers to the survey.
Other studies showed that lack of exercise was a major cause for a decline in people’s mental health during lockdown, however the researchers found that AR gamers were able to largely maintain a high level of exercise and stave off these negative psychological effects. The respondents found time for 6.5 hours of exercise per week compared with 7.5 hours before lockdown.
In her research paper, Dr Yin said the games worked their magic in a number of ways: “Used by populations under isolation and distress, these games can improve physical and mental health by providing virtual socialisation, sustained exercise, temporal routine and mental structure," she said.
In other words, AR gaming helped people get outdoors and keep exercising, connect with others, and gave them a sense of purpose and routine when their lives were otherwise upended and lonelier than before.
So, does that mean games are now good for our brains? Well, the findings do provide a counter-narrative to the many studies that show how gaming harms our mental and physical health. But more importantly, it also reveals a broader real-world dimension to gaming and psychological wellbeing that may be overlooked in some studies. Take games addiction as an example. In an interview with Lighthouse Dr Yin said:
“My team hypothesises that video game addiction is often a symptom of a deeper problem. Perhaps people are also dealing with being bullied at home or at 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,” she said.
Dr Yin hopes further research will help uncover some of the grey areas in these studies by taking into consideration the extrinsic circumstances in gamers' lives. But researchers will need to design studies that dig beneath the surface and take a more holistic viewpoint of psychological health and gaming. Time will tell if this happens.
In the meantime, Yin's results give us two more reasons to get out and capture even more Pokémon Go MagiKarp, which considering new COVID-19 restrictions in parts of Australia, can only be a good thing.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a personal crisis, you can contact Lifeline Australia’s 24 hour crisis support line on: 13 11 14.