Pokémon Go: Emergency Medicine Friend or Foe?

October 26, 2016 1:31 PM | Deleted user

President's Message, October 2016
Bobby Redwood, M.D., M.P.H.

From October 26 to November 1, Pokémon Go is having a special Halloween event where players are heavily incentivized to get outside and catch Pokémon. Translation: there will be a lot of absent-minded kids (AND adults—40% of players are over age 25) wandering around the side of the road and maybe even your hospital for the next few days.

We're having a little fun at WACEP this Halloween, so here's our take on Niantic's smash-hit smart phone game Pokémon Go and how it affects emergency medicine in Wisconsin.

  • Pokémon Go was released on July 6, 2016, and on the eve of its five-month birthday, the app has already achieved legend status with 600 million downloads, 25 million active daily users, and more than $500 million in net revenue thus far.
  • The app is essentially an augmented reality game that is played on a smart phone and encourages users to go out and hunt mythical "pocket monsters" (Pokémon) in the real world.
  • Augmented reality means that players see the Pokémon on their smart phone screen as though the monsters were floating in the real world (see photo of a "Ghastly" Pokémon floating around my emergency department). 
  • Players are rewarded for physical activity and also for visiting Poké-Gyms where they can have their Pokémon battle in order to advance in the game. Poke-Gyms tend to be located in parks, shopping centers and other community gathering places...including hospitals. There is a Poké-Gym outside of my ED and I frequently spot Pokémon players clustered around the site.

So why does this matter? From an injury prevention stand-point, Pokémon Go is certainly problematic. The game seems to throw players into a trance-like state where their level of situational awareness is similar to that of intoxicated person. This would be fine if the players were sitting at home, but they are typically wandering the streets, biking, or (gulp) driving while trying to catch a rare Charmander or Dratini.

News reports have highlighted multiple cases where pedestrians have walked into traffic and—in one case—off of a cliff. Even scarier, there was a report in New York of a mugger using Pokémon lures (an item in the game that is publicly view-able to all players and lures Pokémon to a certain spot) to bring victims into his vicinity. Luckily, that appears to have been an isolated incident.

Having acknowledged the downside of the game, here's the case for why emergency physicians should be happy that Pokémon Go is out there.

  • First of all, this game really does encourage physical activity and Americans across the country are getting off the couch and reducing their risk for chronic health conditions through good clean fun. In fact, Business Insider magazine reported in September that Pokémon Go players have walked a cumulative total of 4.6 Billion kilometers since the game's release. What is the Pokémon Go number needed to treat to prevent one myocardial infarction? 
  • Second, the game encourages real-life socialization (as opposed to online chatting) in that Pokémon Go players often meet in person to play and even host events to bond over the game. Within households, countless family-focused organizations and parenting blogs have celebrated how the game gives parents and their children an opportunity to spend quality time together. This is good for our communities in terms of building social support networks, strengthening family ties, and getting isolated individuals to engage in a productive way with their peers. Pokémon Go schizophrenia support groups? 
  • Third, the Pokémon platform has been repeatedly praised on college and high school campuses as a weekend social activity that doesn't center around alcohol consumption. One-less drunk teenager trying to keep the party going in your ED at three in the morning?

So what do you think? Emergency providers are generally a fun-loving, active bunch...is Pokémon Go the monkey bars of 2016, or is it a welcome alternative to drinking on the couch? Share your comments and have fun this Halloween--with or without Pokémon Go.

Bobby Redwood, M.D., M.P.H.
President: Wisconsin Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians