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The song and binding mode: Musical hallucinations in video game playing

According to a 2015 review in the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Jan Coebergh and colleagues, musical hallucinations (MHs) “are auditory hallucinations characterized by songs, tunes, melodies, harmonics, rhythms, and/or timbres…and that the mechanisms responsible for the mediation of MH are probably diverse”. While Danilo Vitorovic and Jose Biller reported in a 2013 issue of Frontiers in Neurology that the prevalence rate of MHs among the general population is at present unknown and/or rare, ‘involuntary musical imagery’ (INMI) is thought to be more commonplace. For instance, in a 2012 Finnish study in the journal Psychology of Music, Lassi Liikkanen reported that 89% of the total sample (n=12,519) reported experiencing INMI at least once a week. Music hallucination prevalence rates among various groups have been reported including obsessive-compulsive disorder patients (41%; Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2004), elderly people with auditory problems (2.5%; International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2002), and general hospital setting patients (0.16%; Psychosomatics, 1998).

Although Coebergh and colleagues described MHs, they were not explicitly defined. In a review in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Medical Case Reports, Woo and colleagues defined MHs as complex auditory perceptions in the absence of an external acoustic stimulus and are often consistent with previous listening experience” whereas the 2013 review by Vitorovic and Biller (see above) noted that MHs represent a specific form of auditory hallucinations whereby patients experience formed songs, instrumental music, or tunes, without an external musical stimulus”. In a 2015 paper in the journal Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, Tim Williams provided a classification of INMI and noted they cover a number of different types of involuntary musical experience (including MHs). Despite the lack of detailed definition, it is known that MHs occur within the context of an individual’s culture and are often viewed by those experiencing them as intrusive and sometimes unpleasant.

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In 2015, Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gortari and I wrote a commentary paper on musical hallucinations in videogame playing in response to the review by Coebergh and colleagues. As far as we were aware, we noted that no review paper examining musical hallucinations had ever included papers referring to musical hallucinations arising from playing video games. The earliest report in the psychological literature is by Sean Spence (published in 1993 in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine) who reported the case of a 20-year-old female patient with a family history of psychosis. She presented with persecutory delusions, suicidal ideation, violent behaviour and third-person auditory hallucinations comprising 48 hours of constant MHs from the Mario Brothers videogame that developed into delusional thoughts. No drugs were found in her urinary system and her EEG was normal when MHs occurred. The MHs from the videogame decreased within 48 hours of treatment (using antidepressants and neuroleptics).

More recently, a series of papers by Dr. Ortiz de Gortari and I examined Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP). GTP research has demonstrated how the videogame can keep on playing even after the game has been turned off. GTP are non-volitional phenomena (e.g., altered perceptions, automatic mental processes, and involuntary behaviors). In an analysis of over 1600 gamers’ self-reports, our research has shown that videogame playing can lead to (i) perceptual distortions of physical objects, environments, and/or sounds, (ii) misperceptions of objects and sounds that are similar to those in the videogame, (iii) interpretation of events in real life contexts that utilize the logic of the videogame, (iv) ghost perceptions and sensations of images, sounds, and tactile experiences, and (v) involuntary actions and behaviors based on experiences from the videogame.

One study that we published in a 2014 issue of the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning specifically examined auditory GTP experiences. Gamers’ experiences identified as GTP in one or more modalities (e.g., visual, auditory) were collected from 60 online videogame forums over seven months. Of these, there were 192 auditory experiences from 155 gamers collected. The largest numbers of experiences (90%) were identified as involuntary auditory imagery. This manifested as hearing music (n = 73), sound (n = 83), or voices from within the game (n = 12). Some experiences were triggered by external cues associated with the game, while others were not. Experiences with music included hearing high pitch music in addition to calm and classical music.

Music from the videogames was usually experienced persistently, while sound effects or voices appeared to have occurred more episodically. Hearing the music persistently provoked sleep deprivation, annoyance, and uncertainty. When the music was re-experienced very vividly, the gamers attributed them to external sources associated with the videogame. More specifically, when auditory cues were associated with adverse videogame content, they resulted in irrational thoughts, reactions and changes in behaviour. In many cases, the gamers said that they had been playing intensively (i.e., either playing long sessions or playing frequently). Previous studies have linked hearing music in absence of auditory stimuli with the recent or repeated exposure to music (see ‘Further reading’ below including: Gardner, 1985; Gerra et al., 1998; Hyman et al., 2012).

In our study, one gamer said that he heard the sound of music coming out from the speakers so he stood up to check them while another heard music from Pokémon when vacuuming. It also appears that musical hallucinations can cross sensory modalities. For instance, some gamers have reported hearing music while seeing images from the video game. An online survey about GTP with a convenience sample of 2,362 gamers found that hearing music from videogames when not playing were the more prevalent (74%) than hearing sounds (65.0%) or voices (46%) when not playing (Ortiz de Gortari & Griffiths, 2015b).

Based on what is known empirically, our paper concluded that (i) MHs from videogame playing – although not well documented – appear to be relatively commonplace among gamers and prevalence appears to be higher than found in other populations, (ii) individual interpretation of MHs from videogames are influenced by the meanings and uses of auditory cues in the videogames, (iii) MHs can manifest beyond one sensory modality and has been reported across-sensory channels (e.g., hearing music while seeing ghost images from the game), (iv) there is little evidence that MHs among videogame players are linked to other underlying pathology (e.g., epilepsy, psychiatric disorder, etc.), (v) those researching in the field of MHs and INMI appear to have overlooked the literature on these phenomena related to videogame playing, and (vi) better definitions are needed for MHs and a distinction between MHs and INMI is required.

(Please note: This blog is based on material used in the following paper: Griffiths, M.D. & Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. (2015). Musical hallucinations: Review of treatment effects. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1885. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01885).

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

Further reading

Coebergh, J. A. F., Lauw, R. F., Bots, R., Sommer, I. E. C., & Blom, J. D. (2015) Musical hallucinations: review of treatment effects. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 814.

Cole M.G., Dowson, L., Dendukuri, N., & Belzile, E. (2002). The prevalence and phenomenology of auditory hallucinations among elderly subjects attending an audiology clinic. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (2002) 17, 444–52.

Fukunishi, I., Horikawa, N., & Onai, H. Prevalence rate of musical hallucinations in a general hospital setting. Psychosomatics (1998) 39, 175.

Hermesh H. (2004). Musical hallucinations: prevalence in psychotic and nonpsychotic outpatients. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 65, 191–7. doi:10.4088/JCP.v65n0208

Gardner, M. P. (1985). Mood states and consumer behavior: A critical review. Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 281-300.

Gerra, G., Zaimovic, A., Franchini, D., Palladino, M., Giucastro, G., Reali, N., . . . Brambilla, F. (1998). Neuroendocrine responses of healthy volunteers to `techno-music’: relationships with personality traits and emotional state. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 28(1), 99-111.

Griffiths, M.D. & Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. (2015). Musical hallucinations: Review of treatment effects. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1885. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01885

Hyman, I. E., Burland, N. K., Duskin, H. M., Cook, M. C., Roy, C. M., McGrath, J. C., & Roundhill, R. F. (2012). Going gaga: Investigating, creating, and manipulating the song stuck in my head. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 204-215.

Liikkanen, L. A. (2012). Musical activities predispose to involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(2), 236-256.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B, Aronsson, K. & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(3), 15-33.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B. & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 4(1), 59-75.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B. & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30, 95-105.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 432-452.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Pontes, H. M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the non-volitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, in press.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D (2015b). Prevalence and characteristics of Game Transfer Phenomena: A descriptive survey study. Manuscript under review.

Spence, S. A. (1993). Nintendo hallucinations: A new phenomenological entity. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 10, 98–99.

Vitorovic, D. & Biller, D. (2013). Musical hallucinations and forgotten tunes – case report and brief literature review. Frontiers in Neurology, 4, 109. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2013.00109

Williams, T. I. (2015). The classification of involuntary musical imagery: The case for earworms. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 25(1), 5-13.

Woo, P. Y. M. Leung, L. N. Y., Cheng, S. T. M. & Chan, K-Y. (2014). Monoaural musical hallucinations caused by a thalamocortical auditory radiation infarct: a case report. Journal of Medical Case Reports, 8, 400.

Gaming desires: A brief look at ‘venatophilia’

In a previous blog on sexual paraphilias that have yet to be studied empirically, I briefly mentioned ‘venatophilia’.  In an online article about cartoon quicksand fetishes (which I discuss below), there was mention of a fetish group called ‘Giant Video Game Girls’ and they appear to have coined the term ‘venatophilia’ from the Latin venatus, meaning ‘game’ and describes sexual attraction to or fascination with video game characters. Venatophilia also gets a mention on the Wiktionary protologism page (a page that lists prototype neologisms) where it listed alongside venatology (“the study of games, the act of playing them, and the players and cultures surrounding them”), venatomania (an obsession with games), and venatophobia (a fear of games). Personally I find this somewhat strange as most paraphilias derive from Greek (rather than Latin) names. If this paraphilia exists I would argue that it is a sub-type of toonophilia (sexual attraction to cartoon characters) that I examined in a previous blog.

Cartoon quicksand fetishes are an integration of quicksand fetishes (itself a form of ‘stuck fetishism‘ that I examined in a previous blog) and (as mentioned above) cartoon fetishism (‘toonophilia‘). The Motherboard article by Jagger Gravning featured an interview with ‘quicksand artist’ A-020 who draws fictional damsels, women that are stuck in quicksand typically wearing a “tight miniskirt, pantyhose, heels, and boots”. (If you are interested, there is lots of art featuring women stuck in quicksand on the Deviant Art webpage). A-020 said:

 “I’m open with [my quicksand cartoon fetish] online because I’m comfortable under a screenname…Though when it comes to knowing me in person, it’s pretty much a secret! I haven’t been in a situation where I had to reveal this fetish…I was pretty young, maybe 7 or 8, when I started seeing quicksand scenes in a movie or a TV show. Some of those films I recall seeing were Beastmaster, Neverending Story, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Ursus in the Valley of the Lions…Once in a while, I’d fantasize about it”.

Gravning makes the point that there are other fetishes that cartoonists incorporate into their videogame graphics. Some of these are strange behaviors that I outlined in a previous blog – ‘unbirthing’ (i.e., returning to the womb) such as that featuring ‘Princess Peach’ and Pokemon characters (such as those here and here) and vore (vorarephilia). In fact, Zeus Tipado wrote an online article for The Stoned Gamer about the “vore fetish of game characters swallowing each other whole”. There are also online articles that examine the best sexual moments in videogame history. In an online article entitled ‘Gamers as fetishists‘  by Gus Mastrapa on the Joystick Division website notes:

“Nowadays we equate fetishism with perversity, but the roots of the word are about perceiving power in objects or things. A religious idol is a fetish object. In the days when more and more parts of our lives are digital it is easy to fetishize the physical. Gamers, I think, have a bit of a head start. Because the videogames we play have long been about making our imaginations physical – by embodying and creating the ideals and fantasies we carry around with us. I mean just look at the characters in a Final Fantasy game and tell me that gamers aren’t serious fetishists…There’s a huge swath of the gaming community who love JRPGs [Japanese role playing games] like Final Fantasy and Persona – where characters are defined more by what they wear than their facial features. Costumes are a huge concern for these fans…It is easy to pick on anime nerds and their weird fixation with trench coats, boots and nerdy glasses. But this exercise would be pointless without self-examination…Gamer fetishism goes beyond the aesthetic…Games encourage obsession. They draw it out of us or provide a vessel for us to pour it into. And so it makes sense that they’d also be filled with objects of our obsession. Weapons, riches, vehicles, clothing, other people – they’re all things we want because we fill them with our dreams and desires”

Earlier this year, the makers of World of Warcraft launched a new videogame, Overwatch which according to an article in Maxim magazine by Zeynep Yenisey is “an over-sexualized first-person shooter featuring tons of big-breasted anime chicks”. Yenisey reported that after the game was released, there had been an 817% increase on Pornhub for Overwatch-related searches particularly for the buxom character Tracer.

So what is the psychology behind fetishes and sexual attraction to videogame characters? Gravning interviewed the evolutionary psychologist Dr. Catherine Salmon

“If somebody has attached to a character because they play a game a lot and fantasize about that character, it wouldn’t be surprising that they take that character and stick it somewhere else. It’s not surprising that some of the female characters in video games who are heroines and are portrayed as very sexual characters in terms of the way that they’re drawn might end up as the stars of gamers’ sexual fantasies. The social aspect of using familiar characters is another reason for using them in quicksand imagery and other fetishes. If you use a known character for a fetish, it gives your work some degree of a built-in audience, a device often used for fanfiction…There is a community of men who are creating and sharing these stories or these images. If they share an interest in the original material as well, then using that original material creates an additional commonality of interest. It’s one thing to have your sexual fantasies and it’s another thing to share your sexual fantasies. If you’re creating art or fiction and you’re putting it on the web, you’re not just doing it for yourself, it’s not just your fantasy that you’re jerking off to, you’re giving that to other people as well. To do that, you find a built-in community if you’re using a shared character”.

Gravning notes some of the “shared characters” find themselves in “exactly the same situations that these artists fetishize” and asked Dr. Salmon whether witnessing individuals repeatedly stuck in quicksand when a child could possibly lead to such unusual fetishes:

“It could be something like that. Whether it’s quicksand or tar pits, there’s things like that in children’s cartoons. It could be something as simple as that. Part of it is the damsel in distress kind of image. Watching ‘Wonder Woman’ caught in that kind of circumstance when people are younger – [it’s] an image that’s eroticized, a very sexually drawn, very feminine image. And they might enjoy watching that sort of thing or the struggle, as she’s trying to get out of whatever that circumstance is. There are a lot of unusual circumstances in cartoons and fantasy and you may get aroused while you’re watching it and then carry some of that too”.

Gravning also interviewed the sex therapist Dr. Elizabeth Lars (who shares my own view on this by alluding to classical conditioning). Dr. Lars calls such associations “accidents of learning” in which the associations “don’t have to be exactly like the fantasy that comes, it just has to resemble it”. Furthermore, she went on to speculate:

[Quicksand fetishists] probably fantasized and got into the feeling that goes with that, not just watching. It could [also] be identifying with it. The kid imagining himself stuck in quicksand in the victim’s place, for example, could be part of its erotic appeal. You could either be observing it or experiencing it. You could be doing both at the same time in a fantasy. Some evidence certainly suggests that sexual patterns are already there, for sure in males, by the age of eight. They may or may not have begun masturbating to fantasies until adolescence, but something is going on internally at a very young age. This highly influential period of age eight through adolescence is also probably for many a prime time for the ingestion of the bizarre imagery and situations contained in video games and cartoons, which often also incorporate sexualized heroines. It looks like what we call fetishes are remarkably easy to install in the early learning experiences. Same thing about fears too.”

Back in the late 1990s, I had a regular column with the now defunct magazine Arcade. My very first column (which you can download here) was on the psychology of Tomb Raider and the sexualization of lead character Lara Croft and the influence it might have on young boys and emerging adolescents. This is echoed by the neuroscientist Dr. Ogi Ogas who when interviewed by Gravning said that pubertal males probably spending a lot of time with sexualized videogame characters like Lara Croft.

“They are seeing these characters during their formative time. They are kind of perfect and ideal – and you don’t have to actually interact with them. Psychologically, it’s truly like a stripped-down, pure erotic stimuli. So it’s much easier to imprint on that, to fetishize that. Part of the fascination is simply being culturally exposed to characters like Lara Croft…[In relation to quicksand fetishes], the notion of being smothered or trapped is universal in the sense that it exists to greater and lesser degrees all over. It’s not just one or two people that have it. It is found in a lot of places. Clearly our normal brain design is not that far removed from [wanting to be] enveloped. It’s probably something to do with our tactile system, our touch system of the brain, that’s quite naturally wired to our sexual arousal system. The tactile system is also interconnected with sensations like being smothered and being interred, being doused with water. Probably, somehow – and I’m speculating here – that’s what got crossed up for whatever reasons. How someone’s brain entangles sexual arousal with the notion of being trapped or smothered might simply be a perturbation of the neural system. A quirk in the brain, essentially. It could be some randomness in the seemingly infinite complexity of your DNA. So, from a perspective rooted in computational neuroscience, niche sexual desires needn’t be wholly, or at all, explained as the result of social construction or evolutionary adaptation. As we’re learning more about the genetics of brain construction, “we’re coming to understand the genetic expression that leads to different neural wiring is highly variable and dependent on so many things [that] could happen in the womb, things that happen in early life, different environmental things. There’s just myriad, myriad factors that can cause unusual neural wiring to arise.”

Dr. Ogas also claimed are fundamental to the human condition and that one in particular (domination/submission) seems to underlie many fetishes:

“The most important, underappreciated sexual interest in our species is an interest in domination and submission. This interest in manifestations of domination and submission applies to people worldwide. To men, women, whether they be gay, lesbian, straight, or anything else. Everybody. Whether your mindset is to be dominant or submissive sexually is fundamental to your sexual identity even though this interest is thought of culturally as an atypical fetish. The concept that one person has power, one person doesn’t, runs through all forms of erotica across the world”.

Based on what I’ve seen and read online, venatophilia appears to exist although it could be argued that videogame fetishes are just sub-classes of other types of fetishes and paraphilias such as vorarephilia, unbirthing, and stuck fetishism.

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

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Gravning, J. (2016). The fetish for video game characters trapped in quicksand. Motherboard, March 19. Located at: http://motherboard.vice.com/read/quicksand

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Shrink rap: The Croft Report. Arcade, 1 (November), p. 49.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Mastrapa, G. (2011). Gamers are fetishists. Joystick Division, March 9. Located at: http://www.joystickdivision.com/2011/09/gamers_are_fetishists.php

McCombs, E. (2008). Toonophilia: Is it porn? Huffington Post, October 1st. Located at: http://www.asylum.com/2008/10/01/toonophilia-is-it-porn/

Monroe, W. (2012). Fetish of the week: Schediaphilia (toonophilia). ZZ Insider, March 12. Located at: http://www.zzinsider.com/blogs/view/fetish_of_the_week_schediaphilia_toonophilia

Tipado, Z. (2015). Exploring the vore fetish of game characters eating each other whole. The Stoned Gamer, October 25. Located at: http://thestonedgamer.com/features/item/351-exploring-the-vore-fetish-of-game-characters-swallowing-each-other-whole

Yenisey, Z. (2016). How the bizarre ‘overwatch’ fetish is getting gamers hot and bothered. Maxim, May 11. Located at: http://www.maxim.com/entertainment/overwatch-pornhub-2016-5

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/