Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Pokemon Go!

Pokemon Go has taken the world by storm and brought a little magic into our lives. “Oh, really?” “How silly!” Searching for a Jigglypuff, Pollywhirl, Charmander or taking a detour to work to pass by a PokeStop is viewed by some as downright ridiculous. But Pokemon Go is now available in more than 30 countries, and with millions of users, it competes with Twitter for online activity these days.

Silly? Ridiculous? Perhaps the Pokemon Go craze has a thing or five to teach us about the importance of play for mental health and wellbeing.

1. It is our biology; play is important. By definition, play is an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose. But there is not doubt that play has a multitude of benefits for non-human primates show that social play is good for the brain, increasing the size of the striatum, a brain region tied to the experience and anticipation of pleasure, reward, cognition, learning and social modulation.

2. Play helps us learn and grow. Pokemon Go is an ingenious marriage of unbridled imagination and sophisticated technology that brings essential principles of play into a 21st century application.  Play is crucial to healthy social, emotional, cognitive and psychological well-being.  Through play, we learn to cooperate, overcome challenges, develop mastery, and engage in the world creatively.

3. Play relieves stress. We don’t need studies to tell us (though they do) that stressors in the workplace contribute to anxiety and depressive illnesses. Acute and chronic stress cause an imbalance of neural circuitry that affects cognition, decision making, anxiety, and mood.  Play serves as a powerful antidote to these potential negative states and exposures.

4. We don’t play enough. Perhaps part of the reason people have so eagerly jumped onto the Pokemon train (NYC transit tweeted “Hey #PokemonGo players, we know you gotta catch ’em all, but stay behind that yellow line when in the subway) is that we don’t play enough. Play is like sleep; we know that without it we are in big trouble even though we don’t know all the reasons why. Could part of the reason why anxiety and depression are so prevalent be that we don’t have enough play in our lives?

5. Play builds social competence and connection and breaks silence and shame. The delight and joy of play can help us develop social skills and engage in conversations that can otherwise provoke fear and shame. In Protect your Girls, we celebrated the playful strategy to promote positive change for breast cancer, and in Lessons from Prince and Other Royals, we applauded Princess Kate’s Heads Together Campaign, which is using play to raise awareness mental health in youth.  

So I must confess… my daughter downloaded Pokemon Go for me last week, and I have yet to actually get started. But this weekend I am planning to brave the heat and find a few of those magical creatures in the park with our dog. Time to play!

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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