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Pokémon GO Isn’t Destroying Society, It’s Making It Better

I don’t like people. I don’t like going out, saying hello to neighbors, or gathering in groups. Everything about social interaction stresses me out, but I’ve been tolerating it, even seeking it out, because of the craze that is Pokémon GO.

Pokémon GO is an unprecedented phenomenon. We see this economically and digitally — Nintendo is $8 billion more valuable than it was last week and the app is used more than Tinder and Twitter — but look around; we see this socially. Catch anyone swiping quickly upwards on their smartphones and there’s a great chance they are throwing a poké ball at some elusive Rapidash (more likely Pidgey). Go to a park or walk down the main drag of a city and you will see dozens of people playing Pokémon GO together.

The knee-jerk reaction to this, to all media-based crazes since there was media, is to say the game is destroying society. Yes, kids are on their phones now more than ever, yes, people are inappropriately playing in sacred locations like holocaust museums and graveyards, yes, people have been robbed while looking for lures, or have found dead bodies. Such Poké Alarmism rings of previous social panics over pornography, or cell phones, or banned books. If you focus on the negative and buy into the bias that fueled those panics, yes, it does look like Pokémon GO is making society worse.

Look up from the tall grass and see all the ways that Pokémon GO is making society better.

If your first phone was a smart phone, you’ve never lived in a world without the Pokémon franchise. Everyone who is actively using a smartphone today is in Nintendo’s target demographic. That, plus the meme-ability of the game, its simplicity, familiarity, and nostalgic appeal have contributed to the app’s tremendous uptake. It seems like everyone playing it because everyone is. Imagine if everyone who used Twitter gestured in public such that you could tell they were tweeting. You’d notice dozens of people on your way to work, in the park, pretty much everywhere. Pokémon GO has reportedly surpassed Twitter’s number of daily users.

What Pokémon GO has on other apps is that it encourages and requires people to come and work together. Sometimes this means an interaction that scares us. The idea of being literally lured into a mugging or worse is terrifying. I like to remember Mister Rogers when our bias to focus on the negative takes over: “Look for the helpers.” Set aside the scary stories for a moment and look at what Pokémon GO is doing for people.

Businesses are already capitalizing on Pokémon GO‘s ubiquity with discounts and deals, but so are groups looking to do something beneficial for society. Above, an animal shelter is encouraging users to walk their “Pokemon dogs” while they play. It’s just one viral example of the good this particular game can and will do.

According to health experts (and anecdotally from players themselves), Pokémon GO is helping fight depression. When the engulfing specter of depression has your ear, it’s hard to even imagine what happiness is. You can’t find a reason to eat, to talk to others, to leave the house. Pokémon GO is a good reason to do all of these things on your own time, at your own pace, with a built in reward system for doing so.

Reddit user Forexal posted on the Pokémon GO subreddit about how the game helped his severe depression:

I’m a twenty three year old in Australia with some serious problems with mental health, which translates to not caring about anything at all…I don’t look for sympathy, as I find that to be a weak quality in someone but… for a while I’ve been incredibly weak, so weak that my three goals each day are starving myself, regret and trying not to think about suicide. When I’m out in public the few times I am, I put on a happy face to let everyone know I’m ok but in reality, I just wanted to die.

NOW, Pokemon GO releases on the 6th of July in Australia and a friend of mine tells me to give it a go because I’m such an avid pokemon fan, so I go finally buy some phone credit and download the app…

In the past 4 days, I have walked over 50km, I’ve met some cool people, I didn’t cry once, I’ve gotten rid of some semi-permanent artist block and photoshopped some things, I got a date with a girl for Saturday and I walked into a bar and got an interview for Monday.

Video games can change lives, but it’s rare that you see an outpouring like this in such a short time, or from so many people. Forexal is not an isolated case, he’s the norm. “This has changed everything,” Forexal posted, “This one simple game on a phone has changed my life for the better and I hope it happens to so many more people.”

Because the game requires physical movement (based on GPS coordinates), health experts are already lauding the benefits the game is having and will have for people who, let’s face it, may not exercise very much if at all. The expert’s testimony is backed up by anecdotal evidence from users. Reddit user Kaysauce took to the Pokémon GO subreddit to say how the game is his motivational device for losing weight:

Trying to use PoGo as a motivational tool to get my ass moving. With my girlfriend at work and both of us low on Pokeballs, I took it upon myself to gather a few ‘balls for the both of us. Must have hit 30 PokeStops in my travels, hatched an asston of eggs, and sweat through every article of clothing I own (worn and otherwise).

A user responded named AGreenCat responded, “Good job man, it may not mean much but I’m proud of you…I hope you keep doing this, it’s great for you and it inspires young, overweight individuals to get to it themselves.” Kaysauce isn’t going to just stop either.

“My girl and I went on a pair of walks over the weekend and had a great goddamn time doing it.”

Scientists are even using Pokémon GO to help catalogue the real animals players are encountering on their quest to be the very best (like no one ever was). A war veteran with PTSD is finally speaking to people again. Marines using the app helped catch a murder suspect. The game is saving families, helping users meet new people they otherwise would never talk to in their lives, and teaching Americans the metric system. Hundreds of Facebook groups are springing up to form IRL groups of people that meet up in real locations and have real interactions. Families are going for spontaneous hikes together, albeit phone in hand. I walked 26 kilometers over the weekend and met neighbors I didn’t know I had.

For whatever reason, we are wired to focus on the negative, to take a handful of reports and assume the world is going to hell. Cognitive biases like confirmation bias — only remembering confirming evidence and ignoring or discrediting disconfirming information — make it natural to do so. But remember to look for the helpers. There are a hundred stories of something good coming from this logical endpoint of our increasingly connected lifestyles for every one report that confirms our fears. There are still legitimate concerns over privacy and data acquisition, but no more so than over Facebook or Google, companies you probably already have an account with.

So take a deep breath. Gozer the Destroyer won’t appear as a 100-foot tall electric mouse. But your next best friend could very well be swiping up at a pikachu on their phone right now.

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