Pokémon Go Update: Research Weighs In

Back in August, we posited that the new trend of “enhanced reality” gaming—known to many people solely from the rise of Pokémon Go—may not simply be an irritating distraction preventing kids from enjoying the unenhanced outdoors. There seemed cause for hope that Pokémon Go and more games sure to follow in its wake could possibly lure people into activity who otherwise may be more sedentary.

Now, a study published in BMJ finds that, indeed, there is some promise here. The cohort study used online survey data to estimate the effect of playing Pokémon Go on the number of steps taken daily up to six weeks after installation of the game.

About 1,200 iPhone 6 users in the U.S., ranging in age from 18 to 35 years, were recruited for the survey, which gathered information on the number of steps each participant had taken in the four weeks prior to installation of the app, as well as during the six weeks after. Steps were recorded automatically in the iPhone Health app and reported by the participants.

Just under half of the participants reported playing Pokémon Go. These folks walked an average of 4,256 steps per day in the four weeks before game installation. During the first week after installation, the daily average steps for these users increased by 955 steps. This amounted to about 11 minutes of additional walking daily. Gains slowly declined from there over the next five weeks, presumably as the novelty of the game wore off. The effect appears to have completely receded by week six, as the number of daily steps returned to pre-game installation levels.

There were no significant differences in effect by gender, age, race group, body weight status, urbanity or walkability of players’ areas of residence.

While this increase in activity was moderate and short-lived, it provides some evidence that enhanced reality apps can change whether and how much we move. From here, it’s not hard to imagine the development of a different game, specifically designed and optimized to increase physical activity in participants. There may also be more dramatic behavioral change in children; the present study was only of U.S. adults.

Through Cloud technology and the features built right into today’s smartphones, the automatic acquisition of information on people’s physical activity itself presents an opportunity for many more cohort studies and may be a useful tool in the formation of public health recommendations down the road. More research is needed, but it’s a promising start and quite literally a step in the right direction.

BMJ, Vol. 355, Published Online Dec. 13, 2016, http://www.bmj.com/content/355/bmj.i6270

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