Contributing Voices

Rx: Pokémon Go?

Paul Terry
President and CEO, HERO

Engagement has been the persistent watch word for workplace-based wellness programs for the past five years.

Still, I’m always befuddled when I’m asked, “How do you change behavior?” It’s like cornering a physician and asking “How do you heal the sick?” Or imploring a politician, “How do we end racism?” My short answer is that there are no magic bullets followed, as time allows, with descriptions of the evidence supporting the use of comprehensive program designs, the transtheoretical model, behavioral economics, and social-ecological frameworks.

But now I’m reconsidering my answer, even though I’m only up to Level Five in Pokémon Go.

In a blog post on gaming for Managed Care a few years ago, I told the story of my futile attempts to interest others in the power of games and my fascination with game theory. Sitting across from two super smart professionals, I enthused about the provocative premise held by Jane McGonigal that gaming can be a force for good. Her 2011 book, “Reality is Broken,” is a prescient explanation of why Pokémon Go has gone viral. If you don’t have time for Jane’s book,  check out her 20-minute Ted Talk.

In my prior post I summarized the dim view that my bright friends had of gaming. As professionals and parents of young children, they already believed their kids were too sedentary and spending too much time in indoors.  They were skeptical of the idea that any more screen time could be beneficial.

Tellingly, in retrospect, we turned the conversation to “nature deficit disorder” and the need to get kids outside. And on that point, it is the augmented reality of Pokémon Go that has me and countless others celebrating the educational and health benefits of this next generation of gaming.

A few days ago, I went to the “Poke-stop” in my small town of Waconia, Minnesota, (population 11,490) to learn why I was losing my Pokémon “gym battles” and, more importantly, to survey the growing numbers of twentysomethings exploring my community’s parks and landmarks. I met a group of 15 Waconians for the first time, and they were excited about describing how Pokémon Go had increased their activity levels, their awareness of our community’s history, and their engagement with others. They were eager to have someone with grey hair join their respective teams and seemed quite impressed, albeit a bit too amused, that I had already captured several “Squirtles.” They were walking 30 to 60 more minutes a day, and a few estimated they walked more than ten miles the prior week because they were playing Pokémon Go.



Gamers at a “Poke-stop” in Waconia, Minnesota, about 35 miles southwest of Minneapolis


My organization, HERO, has been studying the impact of wearables on engagement and behavior change over the past three years. Led by HERO volunteer Jack Bastable and my colleague, Dr. Jessica Grossmeier, we found that about 40% of those experiencing the “quantified self” via trackers have high initial but low sustained engagement.

So I asked my new Waconia friends whether they thought they’d still be walking so much six months from now.

“Nintendo is a genius company!” one said. “When they are making this much money on a game, they’ll keep us hooked.”

One of our HERO member organizations, Jiff, has long employed game theory in their population health strategies. Jiff’s CEO, Derek Newell, suggests Pokémon Go is a harbinger of things to come. Tapping into gaming constructs like points and leader boards provides the “social proof” that our efforts at engagement and building “a community feel” can work, he says.

Time will tell whether Nintendo has produced a magic bullet with salient effects on health-related engagement. Though some education policy wonks are wringing their hands at yet another example of youth disconnecting from what matters in the world, I wonder if they got the memo about our nation’s obesity epidemic. The Chronicle of Higher Education extols the prospective educational value of Pokémon Go, but like most such articles I’ve scanned, they’re surprisingly silent on the fitness potential of such games.

And that’s not to mention the potential they have for creating social connections and community connectivity. Who knows, maybe like my new friends, I’ll ditch the grey and dye my hair red! In the meantime, I am working my way to Level Six!

Paul E. Terry is President and CEO of HERO, a health and well-being research organization.