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Test augmentation: 10 reasons why ‘Pokémon Go’ is so appealing

“Pokémon Go is a free-to-play location-based augmented reality mobile game developed…Making use of GPS and the camera of compatible devices, the game allows players to capture, battle, and train virtual creatures, called Pokémon [pocket monsters] who appear on device screens as though in the real world. The game is free-to-play, although it supports in-app purchases of additional gameplay items” (Wikipedia, 2016)

Unless you’re news-shy, off-grid, and/or a hermit, you can’t fail to have noticed all the media hype surrounding Pokémon Go. My youngest son and seemingly all of is friends have been out and about enjoying playing the latest gaming phenomenon. A lot of the press stories that I have read concentrate on the allegedly ‘addictive’ properties of the game (see ‘Further reading’ below). But what makes Pokémon Go such an appealing game? Here are my top ten reasons:

(1) It’s a popular franchise with a novel twist

Pokémon is a huge franchise with lots of associated spin-offs (animates films, carton television show, card games, figures to collect, etc.). And unlike some franchises, it’s a game that appears to be popular across age and gender but various aspects of the game (such as the use of augmented reality) give the game a novel twist on most other games (by utilizing real-world locations in which players explore their neighbourhood locality or wherever they happen to be).

(2) It’s fun, free to play, easy to play, and easy to access

Unlike many popular games, you don’t need a dedicated console to play the game. There is little in the way of barriers to entry. Anyone who has a smartphone can download Pokémon Go and it can be played anywhere at any time because it is played on a mobile device in which players try to catch Pokémon at specific locations (‘PokéStops’). This means that the number of potential users is huge, even in comparison to console games. In addition, there are no complicated buttons to press or controls to use. Most importantly it’s fun and free to play (but players can buy in-game items, an area that I’ve done a bit of research on which I outlined in a previous blog).

(3) It’s nostalgic and a ‘blast from the past’

Pokémon Go features many of the early ‘classic’ Pokémon characters (the ones that you could name in a pub quiz) hailing back to the 1990s. As well as attracting new and younger players, adults who loved Pokémon as a child or teenager can now re-live some of their childhood and adolescence. In short, some players can experience something new yet familiar. A research review carried out by Dr. Constantine Sedikides and Dr. Tim Wildschut demonstrated that “nostalgia has remarkable implications for one’s future. It strengthens approach orientation, raises optimism, evokes inspiration, boosts creativity, and kindles prosociality. Far from reflecting escapism from the present, nostalgia potentiates an attainable future”. A number of online articles coomenting on the popularity of Pokémon have included quotes about the game’s nostalgic element from Dr. Jamie Madigan (author of the 2015 book Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on People Who Play Them). He asserted that if nostalgia is in play, and it evokes this positive emotion…our brain can substitute the question, ‘Does this make me happy’ for ‘Is this a good game?’”

(4) It’s a social game (if you want it to be)

Back in the early and mid-2000s I published a number of studies showing that the most important reason for playing online multiplayer games was for social reasons and to connect and interact with other players. The great think about Pokémon Go is that meeting other players face-to-face is almost inevitable as the game is played outside and on the move, and it’s easy to spot other like-minded players. People can make new friendships or consolidate existing ones. Players talk to each other and can share their experiences. Some may even have shared memories that plugs into feelings of nostalgia. However, Pokémon Go players (if they so wish) can play on their own too. The game is flexible enough to adapt to the player.

(5) It features augmented reality

One of the defining features of Pokémon Go is that augmented reality is a fundamental (and arguably the main) part of the game. Augmented reality (AR) is defined as “a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS [global positioning system] data”. Pokémon Go has successfully managed to embed AR into the game which some players claim makes characters feel “more alive”. An article on the phenomenon in Time magazine said that Pokémon Go provides “the illusion that wild Pokémon are out there in the real world, waiting to be caught”. There are also some claims (such as a paper by Dr. Keith Bujak and his colleagues in a paper published in a 2013 issue of the journal Computers and Education) that augmented reality can be potentially addictive. The authors claim that children are most at risk from AR addiction and assert that:

“Augmented reality does not separate the user from his reality but instead uses it and realistically transforms it…This effect can cause a high degree of surprise and curiosity in users”.

(6) It’s motivating

Any one who plays videogames or researches in the area knows that successful games have to be motivating to play. Rewards within Pokémon Go help players to foster achievement, and achieving goals within the game drives motivation. As an article on the Keep It Suitable website noted: “The self-confidence that arises from the achievement of a goal – catching a Pikachu – motivates people to play more and more…and ‘Pokémon Go’ players are indeed very motivated…The ease with which the reward comes every time your phone buzzes, alerting you that a Pokémon is nearby, is very basic psychological conditioning”.

(7) It involves collecting

In a number of my previous blogs I have written about the psychology of collecting and this also appears to be one of the attractions concerning all things Pokémon (in fact the Pokémon mantra has always been “Gotta catch ‘em all”). In my articles I have always referenced the work of Professor Russell Belk who has written a lot of books and papers on the topic. He was interviewed by Forbes magazine on the topic of Pokémon Go. The Forbes article noted:

“In a 1991 article published in the ‘Journal of Social Behavior and Personality’, Belk described two main types of collecting: aesthetic and taxonomic. Aesthetic collecting occurs when objects aren’t in limited supply and so adding things to your collection depends on personal preferences. This includes artwork, but not pocket monsters. ‘I expect no matter how beautiful or ugly the Pokémon is, there’s relatively little aesthetic judgment,” says Belk…’You want them all — or as many as possible’. Collecting Pokémon is a lot like building a coin or stamp collection. It involves taxonomy – the process of naming and classifying things into groups. Taxonomic collecting can end temporarily but continue later: the original Game Boy games (Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue) featured 151 monster ‘species,’ but sequels have pushed that number over 700. If ‘Pokémon Go’ remains popular and profitable in the long term, the app’s developer will no doubt add new species. Belk adds that the desire to collect isn’t driven by a need to complete a collection. ‘You’re not striving for that closure as much as striving for bigger and better collections…That implies some social comparisons – that your collection is in some sense better than theirs.”

In the same article, reference was also made to a just published literature review (‘Extended self and the digital world’) by Professor Belk in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. In the paper Belk claims collecting has now gone beyond physical items and can now include the collecting of digital artefacts. As Belk notes:

“Collecting digital objects can have advantages over physical possessions. While coins and stamps are kept in cabinets at home, you can store an entire collection of ‘Pokémon’ on your phone to show friends…One reason why ‘Pokémon Go’ is so popular is that it puts digital monsters in the real world. Like finding a rare book in an antique shop, this turns the discovery of Pokémon — the challenge or thrill of the chase — into a story. With augmented reality, they’ve made the ‘thrill of the hunt’ in a version where you can tweet about it, you can post about it on your website, you can carry around images of the Pokémon that you’ve collected…That’s a conversation piece, and something you can carry with you or brag about online.”

(8) It gets people active without them really knowing it

A number of articles on Pokémon Go have noted that playing the game has meant players having to go outdoors and walk miles to catch the Pokémon. In short, if you want to do well in the game, you have to get out the house and do some exercise. As one article summed up on this aspect: ‘The running meme is that Pokémon Go managed to do in 24 hours what Michelle Obama could not manage over the course of 8 years: get people outside and active…It turns out gamification of healthy activities can be done and that’s potentially a huge win for the gaming subset of our society that doesn’t exactly have the healthiest track record”. Personally, I’m not convinced that Pokémon Go is as good as more traditional ‘exergaming’ (such as playing Wii Sports) but I can’t deny that it gets people out of a sedentary routine.

(9) It’s a never-ending game

Pokémon Go is a non-linear game in which every user’s playing experience is different given that it uses the person’s individual geo-location. Like many massively multiplayer online games, there is no end to the game and some players continue playing because of FOMO (fear of missing out). Ultimately there is theoretically no limit to how many Pokémon a player can catch or how the game might evolve over time.

(10) The rewards are unpredictable

Over the years I have written countless papers talking about the role of random ratio reinforcement schedules (operant condition processes) that underlie repetitive behaviour (that in extreme cases can result in gambling and gaming addictions). In simple terms, playing a videogame or a slot machine results in intermittent and unpredictable rewards. Knowing when a reward is coming gets boring in the long run but games where the player doesn’t know when the next reward is coming (like when in the Pokémon Go game, the player will next see a Pokémon to catch). Anticipated rewards (similarly to actual rewards) also facilitate dopamine (one of the most important ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters in the human body) release in the body. In fact, a paper by Dr. Patrick Anselm and Dr. Mike Robinson published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience argued that dopamine release “seems to reflect the unpredictability of reward delivery rather than reward per se” and suggests that the motivation to gamble or play videogames “is strongly (though not entirely) determined by the inability to predict reward occurrence”. In short, playing Pokémon Go can keep you playing longer than you might have originally intended.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Anselme, P. & Robinson, M.J.F. (2013) What motivates gambling behavior? Insight into dopamine’s role. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 182. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh. 2013.00182

Belk, R. W. (1991). The ineluctable mysteries of possessions. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 17-55.

Belk, R. (2016). Extended self and the digital world. Current Opinion in Psychology, 10, 50-54.

Bujak, K.R., Radu, I., Catrambone, R., Macintyre, B., Zheng, R., & Golubski, G. (2013). A psychological perspective on augmented reality in the mathematics classroom. Computers & Education, 68, 536-544.

Chamary, J.V. (2016). Science explains why you’re addicted to Pokémon GO. Forbes, July, 12. Located at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jvchamary/2016/07/12/science-collecting-pokemon/#276f49ac6d2e

Cleghorn, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Why do gamers buy ‘virtual assets’? An insight in to the psychology behind purchase behaviour. Digital Education Review, 27, 98-117.

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2003). Breaking the stereotype: The case of online gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 81-91.

Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2004). Demographic factors and playing variables in online computer gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 479-487.

Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2004). Online computer gaming: A comparison of adolescent and adult gamers. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 87-96.

Duhi, A. (2016). Caught ’em all?: Why Pokémon Go is so addicting. FSU News, July 19. Located at: http://www.fsunews.com/story/news/2016/07/19/caught-em-all-why-pokemon-go-so-addicting/87309612/

Eadiccio, L. (2016). Psychology experts explain why ‘Pokemon Go’ is so addictive. Time, July 12. Located at: http://time.com/4402123/pokemon-go-nostalgia/

Goodwin, R. (2016). Why the hell is everyone so addicted to Pokemon Go? Know Your Mobile, July 14. Located at: http://www.knowyourmobile.com/games/pokemon-go/23690/why-hell-everyone-so-addicted-pokemon-go

Keep It Suitable (2016). 10 Reasons from real users: Why is Pokemon Go so addictive? July 16. Located at: http://www.keepitusable.com/blog/?p=3579

Kubas-Meyer, A. (2016). Pokémon GO Is the most addictive gaming app ever. Daily Beast, July 11. Located at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/11/pokemon-go-is-the-most-addictive-gaming-app-ever.html

Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2016). Past forward: Nostalgia as a motivational force. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 20(5), 319-321.

Smith, C. (2016). Science explains why you’re so addicted to Pokemon Go. BGR.com, July 13. Located at: http://bgr.com/2016/07/13/pokemon-go-game-addiction/

Wikipedia (2016). Pokémon Go. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pokémon_Go

Williams, C. (2016). Why everyone is addicted to Pokemon Go. Looper, July 14. Located at: http://www.looper.com/18330/everyone-addicted-pokemon-go/

Meet markets: The psychology of school reunions

I was recently interviewed for a feature in The Observer newspaper about the psychology of school reunions. The journalist that interviewed me wanted to know the different types of people that go to them and why people would go to them in the first place. I have to admit that I’ve never come across any academic research on the topic and I’ve never ever gone to one myself so I had to rely on pure speculation.

Around the time of the interview I also got an email via LinkedIn from someone I was at junior school with and then spent the next week catching up on what she had been up to in the 35 years since I last saw her. The reason I mention this is that the psychology of why someone would correspond with someone else from their junior or secondary school after years of no communication whatsoever is probably similar (or the same) as the reasons for attending school reunions. So here are the reasons I came up with as to why someone might want to attend a school reunion (or catch up with an old class colleague on social media)

To catch up with old friends: Perhaps the most obvious reason for attending school reunions is simply to catch up, talk and socialise with old friends. This may also involve seeing what your old classmates have been up to and/or the see how their lives progressed (or in a minority of cases ended). I think we can all think of cases where we say to ourselves “I wonder what ever happened to [XXX]?” School reunions are perfect for finding some of the answers as none of us knew when we were in junior school what we would end up being later in our lives. Fundamentally, reunions are about reconnecting with others and connection is what many people want and need. As one of the few online articles on the psychology of reunions noted:

“A connection to school was a safe haven for many. Some could submerge themselves in academic life; others could forget about their cares in the reverie of an infatuation. Adolescent friendship may have been the guardian of your self-esteem, or the absence of connection, even if you were in a crowd, may have resulted in loneliness”.

To re-live good times and memories: It’s often said that school days were the best days of our lives and that school was a safe haven (even if it didn’t feel that way at the time). Some people will want to talk with old friends about the japes and pranks they used to get up to and have a laugh. Basically, people may attend school reunions for primarily nostalgic reasons.

To see how people have physically changed: Some people attending school reunions might want to see how people have changed and/or aged. Have your friends gone grey? Do they even still have hair? Have they turned from an ‘ugly duckling’ into a beautiful swan?

To change perceptions of how people remembered you: Another possible reason for attending a school reunion might be to change people’s perceptions of how your classmates remembered you. Maybe you were the class joker, the class bad boy, the class nerd, or the class wallflower. The school reunion might provide the perfect situation to correct people’s views and prejudices. 

To settle scores: For a small minority of individuals, the class reunion may be a way of getting revenge or settling scores. Similarly, it might be about getting closure on events that happened decades ago.

To compare and/or show off: Some people might want to attend school reunions simply as an opportunity to show off (or attempt to show off) how well they’ve done for themselves since leaving school and to engage in a little bit of ‘one-upmanship’ (defined by various dictionaries as “the technique or practice of gaining an advantage or feeling of superiority over another person” or a situation in which someone does or says something in order to prove that they are better than someone else). There may also be an element of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ (i.e., “referring to the comparison to one’s neighbor as a benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods”) combined with social comparison theory (SCT). “[SCT], initially proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954 centers on the belief that there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluations. The theory explains how individuals evaluate their own opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others in order to reduce uncertainty in these domains, and learn how to define the self” (Wikipedia entry on SCT).

In one of the few online articles I located on the psychology of school reunions noted:

“The problem with school reunions is that there is inevitable anxiety about how your life will compare to others. For some people this this may be about physical appearance; for others educational achievement or maybe financial status. It seems to be one of those things humans can’t resist doing. We need to compare ourselves to others to try to judge how we’re doing. This kind of behaviour is seen across many species as it’s crucial in judging whether you can beat a rival without putting yourself at risk…Simply put we look at those less successful than us and focus on how we are different from them. We then look at those more successful and focus on how we are similar to them”

The article also went on to say that:

“It’s common for high school reunions to trigger anxiety about appearance and status. Most of us want to forget our teenage self-conscious emotions that resulted from hormonal changes and social pressures. But years later, at a class reunion, those old insecurities get triggered. They rear their ugly head in the imagined judgment of peers: What will they think? Will I be successful enough? Will I look good to them? Resurfacing of emotional memories, it’s important to recognize that reunions are not at all about comparisons and judgments”.

I have to concur with much of this speculation as I’ve often had similar thoughts when meeting up with people I’ve not seen for years. Given that school reunion events are commonplace in many parts of the world, the biggest mystery is why there is little in the psychological literature on such social practices.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7(2), 117-140.

Russ (2013). The psychology of school reunions. Virtually Free, June 25. Located at: http://virtually-free.com/blog/2013/6/25/the-psychology-of-school-reunions