by Yi Zhang, Jesus Limon, Esteban Plata, Lizeth Sebastian, and Carolina Ramirez
Pokémon Go has become a cultural phenomenon. Since the app came out in July 2016, people have been wandering around in their neighborhoods in search of these magical creatures known as Pokémon. Although the game appears to be just another trendy smartphone app, it has some positive implications for social work.
The factor that makes Pokémon Go uniquely fun is augmented reality. Cameras and GPS on smartphones allow players to experience the game in real time. To catch a Pokémon, the player has to leave the house and chase after Pokémon labeled on the game map. After Pokémon are caught, players can then upgrade and evolve them. There is an interactive piece to it, as well. Players often meet each other while hunting for Pokémon, and they even gather at “battle gyms” to play against each other.
So what do all these things have to do with social work? The answer is that mental health is an important area of service in our profession. Although no formal studies exist to testify to the mental health benefits of playing Pokémon Go, a number of news articles have presented anecdotal evidence of such benefits (Conditt, 2016; Grohol, 2016; Mulpeter, 2016). Many people struggling with depression and social anxiety have claimed that Pokémon Go has improved their mood and social skills. This is unsurprising to us - it's common knowledge in our field that exercising and socialization are conducive to improving one's mental health.
Many of our clients with mental health challenges lack the motivation to go out and socialize. Not only can Pokémon Go empower our clients to leave their houses, but it will help them get a good walk as exercise and meet other players in the community. Pokémon Go could also be implemented in group settings. A children's hospital in Michigan has set up Pokémon Go hotspots for patients to play the game together. It distracts patients from focusing on their pain and facilitates healing through social interactions (Bowerman, 2016). The game could inspire social workers to develop creative interventions.
In addition to using Pokémon Go as service to our clients, we can use it for self-care. Social work is tough, and we all need to take a good break. I (Yi) have been playing the game for a week. The game is truly entertaining, and it actually introduced me to my new neighbor, who was trying to find out what I was doing, while I was chasing after Pokémon.
So, should we recommend Pokémon Go to our clients? There are some benefits, but a few words of caution are needed. First, children love Pokémon Go, but for them to walk around the streets in some neighborhoods may be unsafe. It's ideal for children to play this game under adult supervision. Further, there are reports of people getting hit by cars while searching for Pokémon. Although such instances are rare, players need to be alert all the time. Finally, the game is not an evidence-based intervention. Clients need to be informed that it's not a replacement for counseling or medication.
Technology is one of the greatest strengths of human civilization, and it could be a great tool for advancing social justice if used appropriately. The rise of Pokémon Go is a great opportunity for us to incorporate technology into social work. With proper guidance, these cute little Pokémon could greatly improve the quality of our services and the lives of our clients.
Bowerman, M. (2016). Children's hospital using 'Pokémon Go' to get patients out of bed. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/nation-now/2016/07/15/motts-childrens-hospital-michigan-pokemon-go-get-children-interacting-rooms-technology/87086698/
Conditt, J. (2016, July 13). Pokémon Go's mental health benefits are real. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from https://www.engadget.com/2016/07/13/pokemon-go-mental-health-science/
Grohol, J. (2016). Pokémon Go reportedly helping people’s mental health, depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 25, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2016/07/11/pokemon-go-reportedly-helping-peoples-mental-health-depression/
Mulpeter, K. (2016). Can Pokémon Go really improve your mental health? Fox News. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from http://www.foxnews.com/health/2016/07/19/can-pokemon-go-really-improve-your-mental-health.html
Yi Zhang, Jesus Limon, Esteban Plata, Lizeth Sebastian, and Carolina Ramirez are social work graduate students at California State University, Long Beach.