Catching my ‘black dog’ with Pokémon Go!

The therapeutic application of online games in the treatment of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression is nothing new. Anecdotally, I remember my own mum used to play games like Bubble Bobble and Zuma to unwind after a long day — and she was bloody good at it, too! However, recently the pop-cultural phenomena that is Pokémon Go has taken the gaming apps world by storm, making it (in my own opinion) the most successful app of all time. What’s different with this game is the augmented reality element which allows users to catch wild pokémon in their real-world surroundings. For many users, the greatest drawback to the game is that you actually have to venture around to locate these cute monsters. However, this aspect of the game seems to be the source of its magical power in the therapy of those suffering from anxiety and depression.

When the Pokémon Go game was released some time in early July, I heard that it was designed to increase physical activity in teenagers by getting them off their computers and iPads and outside into the real world. At first, I thought this was an overly ambitious goal and probably one included as mere sugar coating to appease anti-game parents and tiger mums. Of course, the game has seen its fair share of attempts by players to use third-party cheat and hack apps to spoof their GPS tracker so that they can navigate the poké-realm without having to set foot anywhere. The software developers of Pokémon Go, Niantic, have knuckled down hard on any cheaters, imposing punishments on users who are caught using these sorts of hacking apps. It is now widely accepted by users that they will inevitably have to get off their arses in order to hunt wild pokémon. In fact, I’ve actually witnessed a groups of teenagers abandon a real-life bowling game to run off and search for pokémon in the bowling alley’s car park instead. At the end of the day, the game is getting players to move.

Since being diagnosed with a Major Depressive Disorder (off the back of my Glandular Fever), I’ve struggled to regain any sort of routine in my everyday life. The days have become shorter in ‘awake time’ owing to hypersomnia, but paradoxically much longer because of depressive and melancholic mood. Basic tasks morphed into impossible mountains and everything became unenjoyable and meaningless. ‘Low mood and nil motivation’ were the descriptors of my MDD, and I had to accept that things weren’t okay. I wouldn’t say I am new to depression. I’ve experienced times of overwhelming anxiety and immense sadness in the past, however these have been mostly seasonal in the colder months. But this time, things were getting way too out of hand. I would say I’ve generally practised self-awareness and mindfulness quite well and taken up hobbies to increase those qualities. For example, my use of social media is largely justified by my need to express myself and gain self-confidence — as well as socialise and gain inspiration. Applications such as Instagram have helped in the sense that I would go out and find aesthetically pleasing cafés and landmarks, take photos of them, and post them to my feed.

It took around two months following the release of Pokémon Go for me to actually download it and give it a ‘go’ (forgive the pun). The two-week mid-semester break was the perfect window of time to start playing the game. Personally, I found the lack of comprehensive instructions and guidance mentally stimulating because I could ‘catch’ onto new techniques and tricks as I gained more experience in the game. At first, I was hesitant to venture outside as I was used to just staying home alone. I’ll be honest, I did my fair share of online research for cheats and hacks that would allow me to stay in the comfort of my loft. But when I was ‘punished’ by the all-seeing Niantic overlord and prevented from catching any pokémon or collecting any items at pokéstops for a few hours, I knew that it was time to slip-slop-slap and get out of the house. And I am glad that I did!

On my first day as an official pokémon trainer, I was surprised at how proximally I was located to several pokéstops. I could visit several pokéstops just by walking around my apartment block — and I could do this over and over again as the pokéstops refreshed. The pokéstops were generous and I was able to catch around 30 different types of new pokémon on my very first day, including some of the rarer types like the native Australian, Kangaskhan. During my new adventure, I also bumped into a few of my uni friends who I hadn’t seen for a while due to my recent hermit-like persuasion. We chatted over a coffee and discussed uni work and holiday plans. I didn’t have to struggle to come up with anything to talk about to fill awkward silences, I could just tell them about my new hobby, and they were all intrigued and supportive. I was feeling active, motivated, sociable, healthy and…wait for it… a little bit better!

I’ve now been playing the game for six days, and I have caught 79 different types of pokémon. My favourite is, of course, Pikachu (despite its XS size) who hatched out of a 2.0km egg on Day 3 of my quest. I’ll admit, I have a long way to go to catch up to those who have been playing since the game’s release two months ago. I only wish I had started playing earlier so that I would be able to compete with other players and perhaps even defend my own Pokégym. To think, just less than a week ago, I was finding it hard to get out of bed at all. I wasn’t eating properly and I was feeling miserable, hopeless, helpless, and alone. The game has given me a reason to get out of bed, have a shower, eat something, go outside, and get closer to the law school library, etc. I haven’t considered whether I will see the game through until I “catch ’em all,” because I need to work on my essays and study for exams during the mid-semester break. But playing Pokémon Go has given me sufficient motivation to not give up on my study, and the energy to get things done.

I won’t pretend that Pokémon Go can provide all the answers to my problems, and I can’t say with any confidence that it will be the thing that cures my depression. However, the game has really helped in lifting my mood and increasing my physical activity. These days, I look forward to taking walks and going outside in the hopes that a rare pokémon will appear or an egg will hatch. When I’m out of pokéballs, it doesn’t matter what time it is, I put on a jacket and jog to the nearest pokéstop. Right now, I am surrounded with spearows, zubats, weedles, goldeens and pidgeys, but I know that if I just keep walking, something epic will soon appear. The game has helped me to reconnect with others as I explore the beautiful city of Canberra. All I can say is, I am well on my way to catching my ‘black dog’ thanks to Pokémon Go!