How PokémonGo helps to exercise more without even trying

Setting small goals is the way to accomplish big things. PokémonGo has motivated the young to reach their step count recommendations through gamification.

It has been almost a year since parks filled with people intently swiping and tapping their mobile devices. The scene was straight from a movie. You could hear passers-by talking about it, parks filled with players day and night even when it rained, newspapers published learn-the-basics articles, portable phone charger sales went through the roof.

Controlling your avatar character in PokémonGo is quite simple. Instead of moving your character by pushing down a button you move yourself from one place to another and your character walks with you across the map of your surroundings.

You get items from visiting PokéStops and PokéCoins by taking your Pokémon to the Gym. Or you can just walk to accumulate kilometres to hatch eggs or get candies for your Pokémon buddy. Visiting PokéStops or Gyms also accumulate Experience Points (XP) to level up your character. In higher levels you get better items.

PokémonGo doesn’t target a certain gender or age group or even people who have played the previous Pokémon games. PokémonGo has been even a bigger hit than the previous wave of Pokémon obsession in the late 90s.

PokémonGo’s predecessor Ingress is a similar location based game with Portals instead of PokéStops. Ingress reaches slightly higher ratings on Play Store and App Store but doesn’t get even close to the same amount of users.

Through gamification PokémonGo has accomplised something public health professionals and compulsory PE had failed at: people are excersising for fun.

Gamification as a way to motivate

Gamification sets our goals for us even if we wouldn’t pursue them on our own. Examples listed here include common features of videogames such as XP or items but gamification can seep into applications and services in subtler ways. For example new users of many social media sites get a to-do list of setting a profile picture or following enough people. That is basically a tutorial quest even while not presented as such. Even if the user doesn’t feel like doing those tasks it’s nice to get a conspicuous notification about the tasks off.

Gamification offers motivation to change the gamers’ mind and behaviour. In PokémonGo motivation is enjoyment like catching a rare Pokémon or rewards like getting the XP from the catch. Changing actual everyday behaviour could include taking a daily walk to swipe a PokéStop.

We all know you should cut your large projects into doable tasks and that’s what games do since they rely on their audience to stay interested and keep playing. Players are given quests and their productivity is measured. For example they are given a list of tasks that lead to a bigger outcome and their progress through the steps on the way are accounted for. There are already many self-improvement applications and websites that utilise gamification. Even analogue methods such as habit trackers on calendars or bullet journals are a form of gamification.

Zombies run is an app that motivates players to exercise by a captivating storyline. This app promotes more diverse ways of exercise through alternating walking and running. The story is delivered as an audio drama that reacts to the way the player moves around, running away from zombie herds or collecting items to help the survivors. Gamers’ actions are critical to fictional characters’ survival and so the gamers are emotionally involved, they are given a larger purpose than improving their fitness.

The most popular self-improvement app is Habitica, formerly known as HabitRPG. Habitica aims to improve your life through three categories: habits, dailies and the to-do-list. The app does suggest tasks but the player can decide what to include. Habits could include going for a walk every day, doing your homework or cleaning. Completing your dailies gets you a longer streak like the way a daily catch gets you more XP if you do it many days in a row on PokémonGo. In Habitica the gamer’s character gets items, money and better statistics whenever the gamer completes a habit or a task. If the gamer ignores Habitica for long enough the character’s health bar is drained and all the hard-earned money and items are lost.

Duolingo is a way to gamify language learning. Like PokémonGo and Habitica it also features streaks and a currency. Duolingo visualises language learning in a pre-made skill tree. Skill tree is a family tree of learned abilities. Practicing phrases gives XP and money to buy extra phrases to practice.

Simple goals with fun rewards

PokémonGo sets clear short and long term goals and rewards. A short term goal would be to walk to the nearest PokéStop to get some XP and items. A long term goal would be walking to the Gym every day to get XP and save up enough PokéCoins to buy new items. This way the game encourages regularity. Playing every day yields better rewards than playing every once in a while.

Some of us already use a pace counter application that shows statistics and graphs of our activities but getting a new 3D pet is so much more rewarding. After a while my friends and I set long term goals for ourselves. I calculated how long it would take me to have enough candies to evolve Ponyta if I walked half an hour every day. Or how many days would I have to visit a Gym to get enough coins for a new egg incubator. Players can choose what to focus on to gain the rewards they want.

Walking is an easy way to exercise

PokémonGo uses walking to move your character based on the location of your device. Bicycling, running or driving in a car won’t do since moving too fast gives an error message.

World Health Organization suggests that children and teenagers get an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise per day. While not sufficient exercise in itself, walking sets low expectations thus appealing to a larger audience. Walking doesn’t require special gear or setting aside time for a shower afterwards. Taking a walk at a leisurely pace is easier for those with overweight or mild disabilities.

A study proved that search queries on how to play PokémonGo correlated with increased step count. According to the study PokémonGo was more effective than fitness applications in increasing players’ daily step count even though typical PokémonGo players were initially less physically active than a typical step count app user. People who searched PokémonGo how-tos walked on average one kilometre more daily whereas using actual fitness apps resulted in fewer steps than before using the apps. This study has quantified and verified the anecdotal social media perception of PokémonGo as a tool to enhance public health.

And it wasn’t just getting sedentary people to exercise. For some players with mental health problems getting out of the house is an accomplishment in itself. Moreover, light exercise combined with spending time outdoors has a positive impact on mental health.

Paving the road for future of gaming

PokémonGo was never advertised as a fitness app. The simple goal is to chatch ‘em all. Exercise is just the way to accomplish that. In itself PokémonGo is ineffective to be used as a fitness app or to track the amount of exercise. And yet it has gotten previously inactive users to get up and exercise leading to improved health and lifetime expectancy.

Playing PokémonGo is supposed to be fun, first and foremost, a philosophy that Nintendo, the creator of the original Pokémon games follows. The same wisdom could well be used in PE classes.

Last summer was filled with Pokémon hunting. By the time holidays were over most casual PoGoers had gradually quit even though the game keeps coming up with new events and items. The second generation of Pokémon was released on February.

How can we use gamification to motivate us to improve ourselves? Will we see other augmented reality games aiming to improve the user’s health? What other opportunities does current and future technology hold? We can already our sword or tennis bat by holding a Wii controller, will we next move our entire arm to throw a PokéBall or ward off zombies?

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