Study finds that location-based mobile games like Pokémon GO may help with depression

Since its release in 2016, the location-based mobile game Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm. It has continued to entertain players for years with its impressive gameplay mechanics and the unique gaming experience it offers.

Turns out, Pokémon Go is more than just an enjoyable game—it’s also a tool that could alleviate non-clinical forms of mild depression, according to a new study from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Pokemon GO in Los Angeles
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Researchers discovered that Pokémon Go and other location-based games—which revolve and progress around a user’s physical location and are often monitored using GPS technology—positively impacted depression trends.

The paper, published in the Journal of Management Information Systems, explains that the release of Pokémon Go came with a significant short-term reduction in depression-related internet searches.

“With the uncertainty, we are facing every day, mental health plays a vital role in our personal and professional life,” said LSE Department of Management researcher Aaron Cheng in a press release.

Pokemon GO players gathering
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“Location-based mobile games such as Pokemon Go can help alleviate depression, as they facilitate face-to-face socialization, outdoor physical activity, and exposure to nature, all of which are essential to mental health,” he added.

This study followed previous research suggesting that location-based mobile gaming benefits players’ well-being, with authors intending to subject such anecdotal statements to rigorous scientific investigation.

Thus, the team explained that they explored the idea of mobile games helping with depression by asking, “Do location-based mobile games affect local depression trends?”

Woman running on a mountain with Pokemon GO characters
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They did this by looking at the staggered release of Pokémon Go in 2016 over 50 weeks in 166 regions in 12 English-speaking countries.

Researchers examined the depression levels in areas where the game had been released and compared them to those wherein it was yet to go live. This process allowed the team to chart the effect of playing the game.

To measure depression levels, they used Google Trends search data from the Google Misery Index to measure the volume of searches for terms such as “anxiety,” “fatigue,” “stress,” and “depression”—a method typically used for calculating levels of mild depression in scientific research.

Pokemon GO event
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Authors suggest these findings indicate that location-based mobile games such as Pokémon Go may reduce local rates of depression. This may be because playing location-based games encourages in-person socialization, going outdoors, exercise, and exposure to nature.

Researchers point out that all these factors have been associated with positive mental health effects. The fact that location-based mobile games possess these features separates them from what the authors call “traditional gaming.”

However, they emphasize that these findings only relate to non-clinical forms of mild depression and can’t be applied to those experiencing chronic or severe depressive disorders.

Two women playing Pokemon Go
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“For game developers, our work shows the benefit of game features which encourage physical activity, offline social interaction, and exposure to nature,” wrote the LSE researchers.

The team also highlights that because location-based games are easy to use, relatively affordable, and highly accessible, they can be interesting subsidy targets for policymakers.

“With the benefits from these activities, such features may help people pursue a healthy lifestyle in a proactive way to cope with depression,” the authors concluded.

Click here to read the full text of the study.

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