Pokémon Go: Augmented Reality Check for Health and Wellness
By Thomas J. Van Gilder, MD, JD, MPH, chief medical officer and vice president of informatics and analytics
First, a couple Pokémon Go players fell off a California cliff. Then, the mobile app’s download stats plunged five weeks later.
From the game’s U.S. release on July 6 through mid-August, downloads channeled between about 400,000 and 480,000 per day, then bottomed shortly thereafter at slightly more than 200,000. Active usage also tanked, from over 80 percent during the first week of U.S. availability to below 40 percent by the end of July to its most recent level of around 30 percent.
However, there’s a twist with Pokémon Go: The augmented reality game reached phenomenon status so quickly that its initial “mega-hit” user numbers were simply unsustainable. Even so, Pokémon’s retention rate showed staying power with over 30 million daily users still engaged more than a month after its debut. It remained the top-grossing app in both the iOS Store and Google Play as of the end of August.
Sure, smartphone diversions have almost universal appeal. But what about practical healthcare applications? Pokémon Go’s already being put to use:
- Similarly, at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan, the app helps get kids out of bed to exercise and be social, digital media manager J.J. Bouchard told USA Today.
More generalized studies are looking at whether Pokémon Go can actually change behavior. Research conducted by activity-reward platform AchieveMint found that, on average, Pokémon Go players upped their step counts by roughly 1,000 steps per day…but the effect wore off about two weeks after subjects started playing the game.
John Torous, MD, a clinical informatics fellow at Harvard Medical School, observes that validating sustained physical and mental health benefits of the technology will be both a challenge and an opportunity.
Writing separately, Tom Baranowski, PhD, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, notes that Pokémon Go defies conventional wisdom by influencing substantial numbers of people to be physically active for long periods of time. He describes a “social good” — widespread increase in activity — resulting from game developers’ further innovations.
Getting in the Game
A group from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health points out that any progress would be welcome in motivating sedentary Americans. “Maybe the secret sauce is not trying to be a healthy app, but instead [focusing] on a game that gets people off the couch, into the real world, with inadvertent health effects,” they suggest.
One thing seems certain, though: The chances of getting buy-in from consumers decreases with age. Even Pokémon Go, already the most popular mobile game in U.S. history, has attracted only 25 percent of users ages 30 to 50, and a scant 6 percent of players over 50.
What can “intentional” health apps learn from the “unintentional” health success of Pokémon Go?