Can Augmented Reality Alter Reality? Quantifying the Pokémon GO Effect

By Leslie Oley, Product Lead

Unless you’ve taken a summer sabbatical from the news or made a point of avoiding your local parks, waterfronts or city hot spots, you’ve no doubt heard of Pokémon GO. Released July 6th, this location-based augmented reality mobile game broke 5 Guinness World Records in its first week, including most Apple App Store downloads in a week.

As the 21 million phone-clutching daily active users hit the streets in search of Pokémon, health experts, social scientists, and developers alike have speculated as to whether the game might actually be increasing activity levels and improving players’ wellness. We heard all of the hype in the news too. After downloading the app and building up our own army of adorable Pokémon, we got a little hooked — and curious to see if hours spent pounding the pavement in search of Pokémon GO spoils might translate into real-world, measurable health improvements.

Here at Achievemint, we’re passionate about helping people lead healthier lives. We reward people for doing activities with the health apps and fitness trackers that they already use, and for participating in meaningful research about health. We immediately loved Pokémon GO for the way it motivated people to get outdoors and engage with their cities and neighborhoods. Our burning question was — could the Achievemint platform definitively prove that Pokémon GO is changing behaviors, increasing activity, and improving health?

Our burning question was — could the Achievemint platform definitively prove that Pokémon GO is changing behaviors, increasing activity, and improving health?

Measuring the Pokémon GO Effect

We teamed up with Dr. John Torous from the Division of Clinical Informatics at Harvard Medical School, and with the help of 1718 Achievemint members, we launched a project to help uncover if Pokémon GO might improve overall health. We integrated survey information with step data from many of the participants, so that we could compare activity in the 30 days before and after they said they started playing. 340 of the people who were playing Pokémon GO also completed an in-depth 25 question online survey about their use of the game and their health (participants could optionally report things like their weight, mood, etc). We also had a group of people who said that they aren’t playing, and we looked at their steps before and after the launch date of the game.

The (Step) Data Are In!

We were excited to uncover some interesting insights about the health and activity effects of Pokémon GO:

  • Pokémon GO players are walking around more. On average, Pokémon GO players increased their step counts by about 1,000 steps/day.
  • The effect may wear off. Significantly increased step counts only lasted for about 2 weeks after the date when people reported that they started playing the game. This was only during 30 days that we looked at so far, so we’ll continue to investigate further.
  • Overweight players see the most benefit. People who reported a BMI over 30 increased their step count by 2x over those who reported a BMI less than 30.
  • Before Pokémon GO, players were less active than average. Those playing the game were less active to start with compared to non-players (650 fewer steps per day for Pokémon players compared to non-players prior to the launch of Pokémon GO).

So, Does Pokémon GO Improve Overall Health?

The potential negative health effects of Pokémon GO have been pretty clearly, and comically, demonstrated — walking into telephone poles, stepping into traffic, and the like. Just search #PokemonGOFAIL. That said, it’s exciting to see any new technology engage 21 million people a day, and it’s especially exciting when that engagement translates into real activity gains — as our data shows. Pokémon GO players are more active, at least for a period of time, and that increased activity can make people healthier.

Pokémon GO players are, at least for a period of time, more active and that increased activity can make people healthier.

We’re digging deeper here in the coming months to understand the long-term effect of Pokémon GO and the link to other potential health benefits. For now, however, we’ve learned that playing Pokémon GO can impact one’s mental health — 23% of respondents said that playing the game improved their mood. While our initial suspicion was that these happier participants were those who were also the most active, an analysis of the data revealed that these players walked no more or less than players who reported no mood benefit. The upshot? Extra activity is an important aspect of overall mental well being, but far from the sole determinant.

Dr. Torous nicely summed up his thoughts about augmented reality and how it may fit in the future of healthcare:

“Pokémon GO has shown us the potential of augmented reality to impact behaviors at a scale that just a few years ago would have been impossible. This early data from Achievemint offers the best glimpse to date into these healthcare tools of the future. Learning how we can transform the excitement and energy around technologies like Pokémon GO into validated and sustained physical and mental health benefits is both the challenge and opportunity ahead.”

Interested in helping out with projects like this in the future?

Sign up for Achievemint here.