UPDATED 18:39 EST / JULY 13 2016


Augmented reality’s peculiar psychological impact

By now, you may have noticed an influx of people of all ages walking around parks and public spaces with their cell phones in hand, wandering in strange circles before swiping a few times on the screen and exclaiming “Caught it!” Maybe you’ve even seen groups of people huddled around a single spot with their phones out, tapping and swiping wildly as they talk about “leveling up a gym.” These are people out playing Pokemon Go, a mobile game using augmented reality (AR) and GPS location-based services, and for some of them, this is the most social interaction they’ve had for some time.

Mental Health

One of the most noteworthy effects the game had after its recent release was on the mental health of its players. Several players have been tweeting about the profound improvement the game has had on their depression or agoraphobia, simply by giving them a reason to go outside, walk, and socialize.

Yes, socializing is a part of the game too; it’s a team experience. Walking down the street the other day, on the hunt for Pokemon, I helped teach a mother and child just learning the game how to catch wild Pokemon, got directions from another player to the location of a rare Hitmonchan, and hung out in a park with people I’ve never met before as we worked to improve the gym belonging to our team. When I saw that a PokeStop (landmarks or other noteworthy real-life locations that provide items and other in-game benefits when you visit them) had a lure to draw in wild Pokemon, I sat down at a table with the people who set the lure up, and we talked about the game and got to know each other.

As anyone can tell you, going outside, getting fresh air, and socializing can be good for one’s mental health. Even people suffering from depression know this, the hard part is getting the energy and motivation to do it. With games such as Pokemon Go, which rely on real world locations to catch Pokemon, gain items, or train at a gym, there’s suddenly a purpose to getting up and going out those doors. Gotta catch ‘em all, as the saying goes.

Community and Camaraderie

With the social aspect comes a sense of community, as trainers find ways to help each other out. Items called “Lure Modules” can be placed on any PokeStop, attracting wild Pokemon not only for the player who used the module, but for anyone else nearby; the game automatically syncs data between the server and all players in the area, so the events and conditions are consistent between games. There’s a feeling of camaraderie between players, particularly those on the same team.


Which does bring up a darker side of the game: the tribalism. At level 5, players are asked to choose between three teams: Mystic, Valor, and Instinct. There is literally no difference between the teams in terms of gameplay, the players just battle to claim and hold on to in-game “gyms” for their team as long as possible. Maintaining a gym will earn the players gold (rather than having to spend real-life money on it), so there’s an incentive to claim one and hold on to it.

Similar to how sports fans will turn against each other for rooting for a different team, players can also grow fiercely loyal to their team. Online, that can take the form of playful jokes between opposing team members to flame wars over teams (which, I must reiterate, is an entirely arbitrary and meaningless decision), while there have been scattered reports of players growing angry and aggressive towards anyone from another team, particularly any trying to take their gyms.

As noted by BigThink.com, “Tribalism is pervasive, and it controls a lot of our behavior, readily overriding reason.” People will form “tribes” over any number of things, from large-scale things like countries to minor things like crunchy or smooth peanut butter. People become fiercely defensive of their teams, leading to rivalries over a decision that could very well just be based on one’s favorite color (red, blue, or yellow).

MMOs, AR, and Their Impact on the Psyche

While these psychological effects can be most clearly seen now, with the Pokemon Go craze on a sharp rise, the behavior is nearly identical in many other games. Players of Ingress, Niantic’s previous game (which Pokemon Go is heavily based off of), note that the game also uses teams and location-based bases, and rivalries between the two have been fierce. Even players of World of Warcraft have been known to shout “For the Horde!” or something similar for their own choice of in-game allegiance.

Photo by Robbie Pleasant

Photo by Robbie Pleasant

What cannot be replicated by a typical MMO, however, is the real-life engagement that the augmented reality game provides. The gyms and PokeStops are tied into actual buildings and landmarks, which players may not have looked at twice before, and there are flesh and blood people walking around, instead of virtual avatars. The Pokemon appear on the phone screen, but the screen itself is showing the world in front of them, giving the virtual characters a presence more tied into reality.

While Pokemon Go may be somewhat basic as far as augmented reality goes, it still represents a significant step of bringing AR into the mainstream. It’s a different kind of experience than sitting in front of a console; it brings people together in unexpected ways, creates bonds of friendship and rivalries, and draws people out of their shells, combining virtual gaming with the real world.

Augmented reality has moved its way into the center stage, and we’re just beginning to see the type of effect it has on people.

Header photo via YouTube

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