The Dark Psychology Behind Pokémon Go


Let me start this article by saying that I do consider the technology related to games and apps like Pokémon Go – i.e. augmented reality – to be a really wonderful tool of modern civilization, that technological and scientific advancement should be the focus of mankind and the use of products derived from these technologies should be available for responsible mass use. Also, I do recognize the advantages of including technology as means to motivate or guide the achievement of personal or professional goals and their power to enhance social interaction, by adding new dimensions to human-to-human, human-to-animal or human-environment connection.

That being said, I would like to focus this article on five not-(necessarily)-so-easy-to-spot hidden dangers of the Pokémon Go game, and similar games and apps. I used Pokémon Go as main reference because although augmented reality technology has been used in several other software products, this particular game triggered a huge level of attention and engagement from millions of users worldwide.

Augmented reality (AR): Technology that permits a live, direct or indirect view of a physical, real-life environment whose elements have been enhanced, augmented through computer-generated inputs that include images – static or video, sounds or GPS data.

Pokémon Go: Game that uses augmented reality technology – GPS and Camera – to merge the fictional world of pokémons with the real world in which users try to locate and catch these creatures.

Main praises regarding the game focused so far on the amount of fun the augmented reality offers to users, the excitement of seeing pokémons in one’s own known environment, the role it may play in increasing, stimulating or guiding a person’s physical exercise routine or the social interaction opportunities it may create for its users. Companies also benefit from the Pokémon Go frenzy due to their proximity to key-locations related to the game.

When it comes to negative feedback about Pokémon Go, users mainly reported technical issues, but one serious problem that arose from merging real life with virtual elements was the very real safety hazard posed by either the questionable design of the app (some pokémons are placed in risk-infused locations – like traffic circles) or the irresponsible use of smartphones while playing the game (situation that caused traffic accidents, people falling from cliffs etc).

Now, while the first problem – ill placed pokémons – has everything to do with the developers, all the other problems apparently triggered by this game – or any other similar issue linked to any game and app – have everything to do with the irresponsible way in which some people choose to use devices, technologies, apps, games and are, most of the times, relevant to the type of engagement one has in his/her daily life.

Starting from this hypothesis, that most of the way our lives unfold is directly dependent on the choices we make and the way we engage in our own personal growth process and that of the world around us, together with the fact that many of our awareness and decision slips are at risk of being exploited in a variety of ways and by a variety of beneficiaries, especially in a world that is continually changing, the following rather hidden dangers of an apparently benign activity emerge.

The Inner Child gets more Chances to Sabotage the Adult

Playing makes one feel good, independent of one’s age. Throughout our lives, it is truly important to make sure that our inner child gets to come out and enjoy leisure activities that allow the adult to relax and recharge their energy supplies. Like with many other similar situations, too much of a good thing can actually do a lot of damage in one’s life.

A well-balanced adult life usually means being able to deal with a variety of personal and professional tasks and goals, while at the same time paying attention to one’s own authentic needs – fun, easy, leisure time included.

Spending time on computers or mobile devices with the purpose of entertainment has become a constant in many people’s lives and when we are the ones in charge with the amount of time we put into these type of activities, everything is great. Things don’t look so great when technology seems to be the one guiding and shaping our everyday activities. But that we already knew from internet browsing and excessive use of social networking platforms. How do things change when a successful real-time augmented reality game enters our lives through our mobile devices, that we carry around all day, every day?

Well, we already know how a simple Facebook notification can distract us from our everyday activities. But now imagine that not responding to this specific notification at the moment it is triggered may actually become equal to passing up a significant opportunity. This is what may happen when your phone notifies you of nearby pokémons or other game-related locations, while you are walking or driving around your city, trying to deal with your daily tasks. If your notifications are on – meaning the adult in you is not in charge of your game time – each time they pop up and let you know that something game-related is happening in your vicinity, not dealing with that situation right then and there could be perceived as missing an opportunity, one that may not present itself again. So each time your pokémon alert goes off, you have to make the decision of either continuing with your initial schedule or detour it a bit and attend the game goals too. Not to mention that some people may choose to include pokémon hunts into their daily schedule to begin with, basically building one’s day or week based on a game.

Now, this means that the inner child is in charge most of the time, or summoned many, many times a day – the alerts act as psychological anchors – disrupting the adult’s life. The child is gratification-oriented and finding and capturing a pokémon may deliver the right amount of satisfaction to keep him happy. That is, again, great when we skillfully deal with the needs of our inner child, but we sometimes nourish or develop a greedy inner child. When the adult does not help mediate the reasonable amount of inner child needs that should be satisfied and those that are unreasonable demands concealed as real, significant needs, the child, with its rather emotional reasoning turned on – ‘if it feels good, then it must be good for me’ – drags the adult into a never-ending pleasure-seeking adventure. And that may sometimes mean a pokémon-seeking adventure.

And augmented reality technology makes it easier for the child to trick the adult into embarking on this journey, because of the fantasy-reality mélange. The reality part in it – and the apparent benefits of using the app – makes the adult falsely consider the implications and utility of the game and when trying to solve the cognitive dissonance – conflicting beliefs, desires or cognitions that reside in the same mind – they are more likely to justify their decision through these elements that make the game seem so much more than that.

But the truth is, similar benefits can be gained through other types of activities, that stem from a more mature, reason-based root of human functioning.

Want to get more exercise? You don’t need a game to guide you. Want to train your attention skills? You don’t need a game to guide you. Want to have more social interactions? You don’t need a game to guide you. The game or apps can be a way to get all these things done, but the end result is not game or app-dependent. So, it’s a matter of choice.

The inner child may be prone to making unreasonable requests or erroneously assess situations, benefits or strategies, but that is why the adult must mediate and decide which of the child’s demands are actual needs and what announces the inappropriate presence of an inner spoiled brat.

Hacking and Hijacking the Herd Behavior

Herd Behavior or Herd Instinct is a social psychology concept that refers to the fact that the decision-making process of some individuals can be seen as based on previous information or decisions made by other members of the social group. Basically, people will consider the opinions and behaviors of others when making a decision.

Pokémon Go’s popularity – and that of many other products or services or ideas  -has skyrocketed based on this herd mentality. Some people play it and they think it’s fun, so others join in. And now there’s a buzz around the game and more and more people want to see what this is all about and even join in the fun. It’s a snowball effect from here.

This may be great when significant information is being shared through our communities or when a healthy behavior – for both the individual and the society – gets promoted and included in the lives of more and more people.

But basing your decisions on someone else’s assessment and choice, without filtering it through your own reasoning and needs system, can become dangerous. Especially when the whole thing may be guided by an ill-intended party.

When it comes to Pokémon Go, millions of people already play it. And it’s mostly all fun and games. And their trust regarding the game becomes automated with each positive experience they have. They trust the location of a pokémon or game-related places are directly generated by the game with the sole purpose of entertaining its users –  and maybe gaining some revenue for some businesses.

But imagine this dark scenario. What if the pokémon placing system gets hacked and maps will feature game-related content to be available to users in certain key-spots. We live in a period in which terrorist attacks take many shapes and use various media to accomplish their plans. Imagine tens, hundreds of people being summoned to a specific location by a pokémon image that appears on their virtual map, but guides them to a very real, physical space. I imagine many things can go wrong from there.

I am not a coder, my knowledge regarding programming is a basic one, so I cannot properly assess how or if such a scenario can be carried out in the way I pictured it above. But starting from the idea that any technology presents security gaps, and given the fact that this particular technology is at its very beginning, I think it is reasonable to assume that this is not such a far-fetched scenario.

Forget Big Brother, Meet Huge Brother

We live exciting, but also curious, privacy-restrictive times. In the last decades, we became somewhat used to and even comfortable with the idea of having many of our everyday activities monitored by third parties. Many of the reasons behind this continuous monitorization are valid safety measures, but when you include leisure time or private communication monitoring into the mix, things start to take a more complex turn and people started wondering what marks the line between justified actions and abuse regarding human rights.

The excessive monitorization of our everyday activities, especially in contexts that do not seem to directly call for such measures and in ways that constrain one’s basic freedoms, is also known under the name of “Big Brother”. The world has become a place where we’re being watched and not much information about our private lives seems to remain private and unknown to governments or companies.

But if we thought Big Brother is bad enough, he seems to remain rather an observer and user of data, and unless our awareness regarding human rights infringement is activated, his actions do not have a visible, direct and immediate impact on our lives.

With apps like Pokémon Go, where the augmented reality technology and gameplay require the geolocation feature to be active at all times and the highest quality of gameplay is camera activation dependent, things become more complex in terms of real-time and up close monitorization. But these are not even the scariest things. Turns out that Big Brother, the monitor, may have a bigger brother, that I will call Huge Brother, the director. Huge Brother not only sees what you’re doing, he tells you what to do. And in time, you find his directions easy and normal to follow. Now he tells you to go by a fountain to find a pokémon, but who knows what he’ll tell you to do next. Maybe Huge Brother’s name is actually Simon.

Distraction from Real Real-Life Issues

That the way we use technology may end up consuming resources – especially time – we could be using to deal with our daily life tasks and goals, it’s known to the average computer and smartphone user. But when the amount of time and money one puts into virtual activities and achievements is substantial, it definitely impacts one’s lifestyle and most of all, the capacity to connect to the real world. The fantasy characters, the virtual achievement that does satisfy certain psychological needs – at least up to some degree – the blurred lines between real and fantastic, these elements combined play a significant role in detaching the individual from what happens in the world around him and from what is really significant to him.

A recent campaign launched by the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office portrays such a discrepancy between the meaning and value some people assign to the pokémons’ world, and how they choose to place their resources there, rather than being involved with topics that are truly significant and bear life-changing potential for thousands of people – in this case, the Syrian children, victims of a war-torn country. The campaign involved the creation and release of pictures of children holding pokémon images, together with messages like “Find me and Save me”.

We do have the freedom of choice and I don’t necessarily believe that pokémon vs. Syrian children is a fair selection of options, but what I do agree with is that by immersing ourselves too much in a virtual reality, there is no possibility for us to remain significantly connected to many of the real aspects of our lives. It’s a matter of resource planning. And the virtual lives started tempering, not only with our time, but also with our finances and other types of resources. When you pay a real price for a virtual short-term-satisfaction-generating image, I can see how many problems may emerge from this and how they can have a deep, undesirable impact on people’s lives.

It looks like a Duck… but is it? Should it?

Games and apps like Pokémon Go will gradually change the way players think about certain places and buildings, maybe even people. The player’s mental map of the city and places that become part of the pokémon world he’s exploring will start to gather additional elements, over time. Depending on the type of experience a person had in that particular open space or building, an emotional response will attach itself to that person’s mental representation of that place. And that, again, being externally guided, can lead to all types of outcomes. You may love one place and start to hate another, not necessarily knowing that that opinion was generated by something so futile as a video game. And since this is a social experience too, these automatic, emotion-based labels, may also influence the way we perceive and interact with people.

The implications of new technologies, especially when rapidly offered for mass use, are numerous and many cannot even be spotted in a theoretical setting, so we will learn to deal with things as they happen. My article’s main purpose is that of presenting a call to awareness and responsible use of these technologies (and not only) and engagement in our own lives and in the development of the world around us.

Let me know what your experience with Pokémon Go has been so far and what is your opinion regarding the implications – hidden or overt – augmented reality apps and games may pose to the future world.

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