It seems like the entire world is obsessed with Pokémon Go. It’s everywhere. Twitter is full of people celebrating their latest catches. It’s already found its way into memes. Libraries and museums that have found themselves to be Pokémon Gyms have put up signs to welcome their unexpected visitors, although the ones in my local area haven’t reached that stage yet. (Good luck to the church that’s been made into a gym. Have fun with that one…)
Until two days ago, it was yet another overwhelming, all-consuming thing that I didn’t care about, like sport, or the Kardashians.
But among all the Pokémon nerdery I saw something which caught my attention. A lot of the people I followed said that it had helped their mental health by encouraging them to leave the house and get some gentle exercise, offering a reward (Pokémon) instead of just the nebulous sense that it’s better to go out occasionally.
It was Thursday and I hadn’t left the house since Monday. Dubiously, I downloaded the app, figuring that if I didn’t like it, I could just uninstall it again. I don’t have any other games on my phone — my procrastination usually happens via Tumblr and so on — and I’ve never been particularly interested in Pokémon. As a kid I collected the cards because I liked them but didn’t actually DO anything with them. It was my older siblings who played properly: maybe I was just a bit too young to get it.
Anyway, I figured it was worth a try.
And it worked. The first time I played, I walked 3.7km (I’m not sure what that is in real measurements) around my local area. I caught a whole bunch of Pokémon, including a Pikachu, which I didn’t realise at the time was particularly remarkable but apparently they’re hard to find. Every time I successfully caught one that required going out of my way, the sense of achievement far outweighed the annoyance of crossing a major junction or veering across the park away from the path.
At one point I’m pretty sure I even punched the air with delight. It was real gratification, a genuine positive reinforcement for going outside and doing some exercise. Instead of a vague sense of achievement that I’d left the house, I had a concrete reward which I could measure and feel proud of. And sure, I still had no idea how most of the features of the game work (gyms, teams, anything), but that didn’t really matter.
So the next day I went out again. This time, for longer — around 5km, because I was trying to persuade an egg to hatch. I caught a Jynx, which I didn’t realise was good, but apparently is. I talked to a friend from primary school that I’ve seen only very intermittently over the last nine years, because she’s playing and is better than me. I ran a whole bunch of errands (food shopping, library trip, picking up a prescription) while playing, which meant I was both adulting and being rewarded for it.
Okay, so it was singlehandedly DESTROYING my phone’s battery life, but on the plus side, I probably did more exercise in those two days than I’ve done in the past two or three weeks put together. And since I’m trying to get fit for a holiday to Ireland in less than a month, this motivational factor can’t come too soon.
I woke up this morning aching and tired from walking around, but already trying to plan out my day and figure out what errands I could run and whether they’d take me past any Pokéstops. This may not sound all that significant until you remember that quite often, I find it difficult to find reasons to get up, and I’m too tired to go out on errands even when they’re urgnet. I don’t have any motivation to leave the house, so I don’t, and then the longer I go without going out, the bigger a deal it seems. But I woke up today already planning to get out and about. I’ve been making social arrangements with friends! This game has got inside my head.
I still don’t understand gyms. I haven’t figured out how to use my camera with the app, which seems like a basic enough aspect. I’m not even entirely sure how to join a team, and like my younger self who just collected cards because she liked them, I’m entirely ignorant about which Pokémon are any “good” or what that really means. How I’ve reached level six while being this incompetent, I have no idea.
No doubt the interest will fade once I get bored of charging my phone after every trip and I run out of data, but maybe by then I’ll have got strong enough that leaving the house won’t seem such an insurmountable obstacle after all. Hopefully, this game will both allow me to associate outdoors with positive feelings, and allow me to build up stamina so that exercise causes less pain and is more appealing as a result, while giving me the chance to connect with a few friends, old and new.
I wasn’t interested in Pokémon Go, but I’m seriously glad I tried it. I can’t say yet how long term the impact will be, but if it continues to benefit my mental and physical health, then it might actually be the catalyst for improvement that I’ve been looking for since I left uni in February.
So I guess if there’s anyone out there who suffers from the same winning combination of anxiety, depression, chronic pain and fatigue and laziness as I do… well, maybe this will help. It seems to have helped me.
And sure, my parents think I’m weird and laugh at me, but I met some cats, so who’s laughing now?