Experts Explain How ‘Pokémon GO’ Gets Inside Your Head

When a Pokémon GO player sees an elusive Pikachu pop up on their game screen, there’s so much more to the game than just capturing the Pikachu. Americans are obsessed – while the parent company Niantic has not released any official numbers, it had been downloaded 7.5 million times in the first week after its debut on July 5, according to Wired. It was also reported that the average Pokémon GO player spends 43 minutes per day playing the game. That may seem extreme to some people, but for many, it’s just the newest trending game they play.

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HONG KONG - JULY 25: Pokemon species Tentacool is seen in the Pokemon Go game on July 25, 2016 in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. "Pokemon Go," which has been a smash-hit across the globe was launched in Hong Kong on 25th July. Since its global launch, the mobile game has been an unexpected megahit among users who have taken to the streets with their smartphones. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

There’s a significant psychology behind why Pokémon GO and other games attract people, and it’s more than just a way to pass the time. Jamie Madigan, a psychologist who studies theories related to games, says there are actually six core stimuli or feelings you are seeking when you play a game such as Pokémon GO. The motivators include action, social experiences, mastery, immersion, creativity, and achievement experiences. However, each individual may not seek the same motivator at the same levels; one may be much more important to one gamer than the next. Madigan says what each individual gamer gains may vary, but it is rooted in motivation and achievement.

“There has been some research around motivation to play games and what kinds of things that different types of people find engaging and motivating.”

Research has also shown that games that offer trophies – which do nothing for the gamer in real life – are far more likely to be played because the gamer feels a sense of achievement when he or she earns them, which may actually trigger dopamine or “feel good” hormones than can cause a “natural high,” similar to what people experience after exercise or sex. This type of motivation is different from a person who gambles, who is attempting to gain monetary value in reality, along with the dopamine high of winning.

HONG KONG - JULY 26: People play the Pokemon Go game at a park at Tin Shui Wai on July 26, 2016 in Hong Kong. "Pokemon Go," which has been a smash-hit across the globe was launched in Hong Kong on 25th July although shares in Nintendo Co tumbled on Monday after the company said the mobile game would not be a strong earnings driver. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

Madigan has certainly not ruled out that Pokémon GO is addictive – particularly because it enables users to “collect” Pokemon figures, from common to very rare, and most humans already enjoy the behavior of collecting, which may go back to early time periods when hunting and gathering were necessary to survive. Madigan says the game rewards you for collective behavior, which is evidenced by the fact that there are 250 Pokémon to be captured and ways to make them change to bigger and more powerful figures.

“You get more Pokémon so you can not only fill in your Pokédex, but also so you can get resources to train and level up what you already have.”

Pokémon GO has been heavily criticized by many people for encouraging distracted walking. It has led to bizarre experiences such as walking to find a Pokemon and people finding dead bodies instead, or people walking into things and harming themselves. The game operates off of global satellite positioning, so it definitely encourages people to get out and move. Iran actually outlawed Pokémon GO but has been the only country to do so as of this time.

Gaming can be a fun and harmless activity, Madigan says, but understanding one’s motivations to play it may avoid problems. He has written a book about the psychology of gaming and its increase in our culture and how that may affect both gamers and society. Pokémon GO has been lauded for increasing physical activity and getting people out of the house and assisting introverts with meeting like-minded people. Pokémon “hot spots” tend to gather multiple people who have all been led there by Pokémon. Psychologists say this could help with problems like depression and anxiety in people who have those disorders.

[Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images]