Published on August 2nd, 2016 | from CAMH

Should I play or should I Go?

With thanks to Lisa Pont, Social Worker and Educator, Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario & CAMH

You’re walking down the street when you encounter a group of people, eyes fixed on cellphones cradled in their hands. They seem indifferent but determined. Suddenly they pause as their fingers dance swiftly on their phone’s screen. Moments later, and a look of satisfaction spreads across their faces and they’re back on the move.

You’ve just witnessed a pack of Pokémon trainers in the wild.

This scenario has played out in various parts of the world since the launch of the wildly popular Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game based on the popular Nintendo video game franchise.

And while the fervor behind the app has died down since its initial launch, it’s still extremely popular with users of all ages. We wanted to briefly discuss the pros and cons, and provide guidelines for safe, respectful use. We spoke to Lisa Pont, Social Worker and Educator with the Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario, to get her take on the phenomenon.

The Great Outdoors

The game forces people to go outside and walk around to find and collect various Pokémon. For those struggling with social anxiety or mood disorders – or anyone, really – spending time outdoors can have a positive effect on mood. The app can also encourage people to see new places and seek out different and varied locations, encouraging a joy in discovery – but only if they’re paying attention to their surroundings.

Since the app requires users to constantly check their phones while on the move, players need to be careful. Distractions can lead to accident and injury, as we’ve already seen in the news.

Care must also be taken to differentiate ‘walking around’ from ‘exercise’, and while many advocates will say that the game encourages ‘exercise’, we should point out that exercise is a conscious effort to exert (often more intense) physical effort in order to achieve better health and fitness.

Social Gaming

While this game isn’t inherently multiplayer by nature, it has become a social experience for many. For those with depression or anxiety, the game can serve as a gateway to meeting new people, and help reduce isolation – although this is something that can be useful for anyone.

You’ve likely already seen the videos – throngs of people at the CN Tower or Central Park in New York working together to help each other find and capture rare pocket monsters. It can be an uplifting experience that can lead to making friends with similar interests.

The mesmerizing draw of the screen and the telltale vibration buzz raise questions about appropriate phone use in certain settings. The constant temptation to check your phone, may call for reminders about social norms and proper etiquette. Is it ok to cut someone off mid-sentence when a Pokémon appears? Should people be excused for roaming around a park or playground, almost oblivious of their surroundings? What are the rules for when we’re out with friends for dinner? These and other questions need to be discussed.

As Lisa succinctly puts it, “Does our technology control us, or are we controlling it?” We live in a world where discussions about proper tech etiquette are become more and more important.

Goals, achievements, and that hit of endorphins

Another interesting aspect is the use of achievements to reinforce behaviour – a tactic known as ‘gamification’. The new Pokémon you find are artificially-created stimuli meant to keep you invested the game. According to Lisa, “problems can arise when virtual and real worlds overlap, and the real life priorities lose out.” There have been reports of negligent parents whose children were left alone when they decided to play the game. Conversely, there are stories of non-players assaulting players for playing. It’s important for everyone to be responsible and consider their actions.

When the word ‘addiction’ is brought up, people automatically assume it’s drug-related. But that’s not necessarily the case, especially in this day and age. “One must be wary that games like this are not innocuous, and have compelling, addictive properties. In general terms, there are people who are more susceptible to becoming addicted to technology; boys, those with learning exceptionalities, ADHD, ASD, those who are depressed, have social anxiety – based on evidence, these are a few of the many traits that can be attributed to someone with a screen or technology addiction.”

Despite this, parents should be open and informed, and discuss any concerns with their children, regardless of whether they fall into any of these categories.

Critical Acclaim

Lisa points out that with this and any popular game, it’s important to be a critical consumer.

“While this is a free-to-play app, these games usually don’t come for free,” she says. Whether it is time, money, safety, presence, and mindfulness, there are costs associated. Players need to think more critically of the design behind these games, especially when they introduce commercial aspects to a game that’s billed as “free to play”. Selling items for real world money that result in in-game rewards might seem innocuous at first when the items cost $1 each, but that can easily add up, especially if children are not aware of the cumulative costs.

In Japan, a deal with McDonalds will turn each store into a Pokémon Gym, and the franchise will also offer Pokémon-related happy meal toys. This brings about an entirely different conversation about marketing and branding that can have long term effects on children.

Around the same time the game was launched in Canada we released the results of our recent Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS), and one of the figures that stood out is the increasing amount of screen time and device use. Will a game like Pokémon Go make this worse?

Tips for Parents

It’s difficult for parents to effectively monitor their child’s screen use as it is. But it’s important to keep open lines of communication with kids so that you can have informed discussions about these games.

Some tips:

  • Ask your child to show you the app, and reserve judgment while they show you how it works and how it’s played. This is an opportunity for you to connect with them on something that is new and novel for the both of you.
  • Familiarize yourself with the app, and maybe even download it yourself to check it out. You don’t necessarily have to play, but poke around to find out how the app is monetized, so that you can be aware of ways your child might be tempted to spend money.
  • Discuss reasonable limits on gaming, and have two-way discussions on safe, responsible, considerate use of their mobile devices.
  • If you decide to try the game out, use it as an opportunity to role model safe behaviour when playing the game with kids.
  • Teach responsible gaming. Discuss a list of places where they should not be staring at the screen. For starters, do not use the app in while walking in a crowded space, malls, the gym, swimming pools, in washrooms, on balconies or rooftops, and other spaces where being distracted can be a hazard. Please do not stop in front of doors, in staircases, escalators, on roads or parking spaces or any place where safety is a concern.
  • Model proper behaviour to your kids when using your own mobile device in front of them. Pulling out your phone to answer an email during dinner may seem like a completely different scenario than playing games at the table, but it’s the same principle.
  • If you’ve downloaded the app, go on a Pokémon catching expedition with your kids as a way to model safe behaviour.
  • If they’re going out on their own, encourage them to use a buddy system. There’s safety in numbers.
  • Teach them about privacy. Make sure they’re not accidentally photographing people while they play. We advise that players turn off “AR mode” to avoid accidentally photographing people in sensitive settings – and it saves on battery life too!

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