Pokémon Go is a Physical Therapist’s Dream


Author: Bryan Lang, PT, DPT, MHA, OCS, CSCS, Cert.DN: Doctor of Physical Therapy, Business Owner, Associate Professor, and Blog Contributor. Explores common client questions, helps find solutions for every day functional health concerns, and interprets difficult theories in healthcare rehabilitation. Committed to life-long learning and education. Learn more about Bryan on Google+.


It’s finally here! On July 6th, 2016 Pokémon Go was released to a much-anticipated audience in the United States. It has caught so much momentum that it is on pace to have more active users on it in the next few days than Twitter. Oddly enough, there is another group of people who are extremely excited about this game, but they may have no idea how to actually play it. Enter physical therapists, who have been increasingly asked to try to find ways to address the obesity epidemic in America as part of a new movement to perform “Population Healthcare” rather than just treating one individual at a time.  Pokémon Go is the first full-scale system that could have a huge impact on America’s physical and mental health.

 Pokémon Go to surpass active Twitter users

Pokémon Go to surpass active Twitter users

Where we started

It’s no secret that physical activity has been getting crushed by the captivating qualities of video gaming. Why go out and play when there is an entire interactive center at your fingertips? Combine that with many American neighborhoods not equipped with safe play areas (no sidewalks, playgrounds/fields, etc.) and it’s more convenient to turn on the gaming console for 2 hours instead.

The first breakthrough with combining gaming with physical activity on a large scale was the Nintendo Wii. For the first time, a gaming system combined physical activity into the gaming experience and the feedback was very positive. The Nintendo Wii itself lagged behind consoles like the Xbox and the PlayStation and in graphics and processing power, but it won over a large audience with its interactive game play. However, since the Nintendo Wii was launched there has not been any advances in interactive gameplay and many gamers have moved past the Nintendo Wii in favor of gaming consoles with more features and updated graphics (I wouldn’t have any way to watch Netflix if it wasn’t for my PS3). Enter Pokémon Go; a complete game changer in promoting physical fitness with gamers.

What is Pokémon Go?

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game. Pokémon involves catching creatures with special talents using “pokeballs” and training them to levels that allow them to evolve into stronger Pokémon. The slogan of Pokémon is “Gotta catch ‘em all!” in the context of trying to catch all of the possible Pokémon in the game (there’s currently 250 unique Pokémon in the game). Pokémon became popular on the Game Boy gaming device in 1996 where you played a character and traveled across vast lands to catch all of the Pokémon. The developers of Pokémon Go decided to release a spin on the game on the 20th anniversary of its conception. Pokémon Go pairs with a phone’s GPS system and you must physically go find Pokémon! This means you’re going to see a lot more people outside walking around local neighborhoods with their phone in their hands trying to find Pokémon to catch. The developers have even placed specific Pokémon in certain locations of the world where you can only catch the Pokémon if you are in that specific location.

This is the first game of its kind that awards gamers for the more physical activity they do. If a gamer walks to more locations, they will catch more Pokémon. However, that’s not even the best aspect of Pokémon Go. Like I mentioned before, you catch Pokémon with pokeballs but you don’t have an infinite amount. There are two ways to get pokeballs and other similar items that assist with game play. You can either purchase the items (kind of a cop-out way to play the game) or you can go to  “Pokéstops”. These are locations such as status, public buildings, and other types of locations. Once players go there, they will get rewarded by getting free Pokémon items that are essential for playing the game. I’ll give you an example. I went to Spokane, Washington last weekend to participate in the Dirty Dash race. As I was there, I downloaded Pokémon Go on my phone and started walking around. About a mile away, I could see a Pokéstop on my gaming device. It was the Spokane Hoops Fest – an annual event that is put on in the community that promotes people of all ages coming together and playing basketball. If I would have walked over there, I would have been awarded with Pokémon items. The more populated the city, the more Pokéstops there are. Pokémon Go is still being beta tested, so as it continues to be developed, smaller cities will most likely acquire more Pokéstops as well. To sum it up, not only does Pokémon Go reward those who are more active, but also promotes interaction in community events. It is reaching out to a population who many times feels alienated or uncomfortable in those kind of situations and the results could be incredible.

 Image of walking around a city in Pokémon Go

Image of walking around a city in Pokémon Go

 Example of a Pokéstop in Portland, Oregon

Example of a Pokéstop in Portland, Oregon

 There brief definition of each Pokéstop when you walk near it

There brief definition of each Pokéstop when you walk near it

What people are predicting

The most obvious thing people are predicting and one of the main reasons why Pokémon Go was developed is that it is going to get people more active. More specifically, teens and young adults. Targeting teens at a young age to be active has shown carryover in the health decisions that those same teens make when then become adults. Another subtler effect that healthcare providers are predicting could also occur is helping combat the symptoms those with depression experience. Many times, individuals suffering from depression choose not to participate in activities outside or in the community because of lack of motivation or lethargy. We know that being outside and interacting with other humans has very positive effects in combating the symptoms of depression. Therefore, Pokémon Go could become the bridge to connecting teens and adult who have depression with activities that will help them break through their symptoms.

What are some problems?

There are a couple issues that have already come up with Pokémon Go. A young woman recently found a dead body when looking for Pokémon and people have posted pictures of bruises and scrapes from falling or hitting objects because they were not paying attention to their surroundings. The major issue that I can foresee happening is people getting into car accidents playing the game because, as of now, you can catch Pokémon on freeways and highways (hopefully this changes as the game is refined). Also, even though the gamers may be going to these community events by going to Pokéstops, they may not really be interacting with the event. Pair that with constantly looking down at their phones, and the chances increase that bad things could happen (like not looking both ways crossing the street). However, as I mentioned before, the game is still in its beta version, so corrections to the game are constantly happening and developers will be taking these aspects into account as they write new code. I anticipate this will bring new interest to items like Google Glass (remember that?) where someone can put on glasses and interact with a game while also interacting with their community simultaneously. This would be especially useful for Pokémon Go when there aren't Pokémon present so interaction with the game is minimal. With something like Google Glass, you can talk with your friends and/or participate in a community activity, and also play your game when maybe a subtle vibration alerts you that there is a Pokémon close and you should now focus your attention to catching it.

What about Virtual Reality consoles?

Before Pokémon Go came out, there has been a ton of talk about virtual reality (you may have seen videos of people playing games with a device on their head). These virtual reality systems also require physical interaction during the game in order to complete it. Pokémon Go is different from virtual reality consoles and is instead called “augmented reality.” Instead of putting on a headset and changing all reality, Pokémon Go works and interacts in reality (hence augmented reality). I am excited for virtual reality gameplay, but it is more limited than an augmented reality game like Pokémon Go. You can’t leave your house when you’re gaming on virtual reality (as of now). You must be connected to the game console. However, hospitals are using virtual reality to train new doctors and to improve the patient experience. Hopefully, in the future, virtual reality will allow us to move throughout the real world (in a safe manner) to promote even more physical activity during gameplay much like augmented reality is doing with Pokémon Go.  

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