Could the latest chart-topping mobile game actually be the greatest health app we’ve seen yet? Looks like it could be - and it’s got a few lessons to teach corporate wellbeing companies, as well as employers looking to design wellbeing initiatives that employees of all kinds will genuinely enjoy.
“Global phenomenon” is the best way to describe the massively popular new game, Pokémon Go. The basic concept of the free mobile app is simple – players use their phones to capture randomly generated digital creatures which sometimes appear nearby. But so many social components have sprung from it: you can hunt with friends, family or strangers. You can talk about your experiences with anyone and battle other players for bragging rights and turf. You can join teams and support teammates.
In just over a month, Pokémon Go became the world’s most downloaded app, online activity and top mobile game, with more than 21 million users now playing in 30 countries.
An undercover fitness app
The biggest secret of Pokémon Go is that it also features some wonderful fitness components. Players are encouraged to walk to local landmarks. Mobile devices keep track of total distance traveled when Pokémon Go is enabled - but they are encouraged to walk, not drive, since the app only counts steps taken at a speed of less than 10 miles/hr toward in-game achievements like hatching eggs. A major part of the game involves training and performing well at virtual gyms, another subtle pro-fitness message.
Essentially, Pokémon Go is a health app without anyone saying so.
Anecdotal data is beginning to emerge supporting this, including a British trainer who praises it for getting people moving, especially office workers who usually would sit at their desks all day being dangerously unhealthy. Mental health experts say that the game’s benefits extend past the physical, and provide positive stimulus, action and feedback.
Digital health vendors wanting to grow customers and encourage clients to participate in employee health programs should look closely at why Pokémon Go has been so successful at creating a culture of wellbeing and why other past initiatives haven’t.
This success boils down to three key features:
It creates a story that’s fun and exciting - but super simple
Some players have been enjoying Pokémon video games, movies, card games and cultural references over the last 20 years and appreciate the nostalgia while taking part in the franchise’s next evolution. Newcomers enjoy learning about all the creatures and world of the game. There’s no detailed narrative or confusing backstory, but there is a definite “in-game world” to learn about, and that’s part of the appeal.
The instructions are incredibly simple, and anyone can start playing with a simple overview and a quick download. The ‘augmented reality’ component brings the creatures into your world by appearing in your phone camera, so in addition to the fun of hunting and catching creatures, people can also see them interacting in their home or workplace.
There’s deeper stuff taking place as well – all of our adventures in the Pokémon Go world easily become stories of great captures or even the ones that got away. Modern neuroscience research tells us that hearing and sharing stories like these can both be great for our brains rather than simply absorbing facts. The social nature of the game can also add to the overall experience of an outing, from interacting with people in real-life situations to even creating a love connection with a compatible player.
It doesn’t ‘taste like medicine’ and the player is in the driver’s seat.
There aren’t any overt health references, rules or recommendations from health providers or employers on how much or how little Pokémon should be required to help or harm your life. The game can also provide a boost in variety and scenery for people who get bored on treadmills or following doctor’s orders to “walk X miles each day.” Employers may also take note of the positive tone throughout the game, as opposed to the often condescending tone of many typical “wellness” programs or healthcare education materials.
Participants are invited to complete all sorts of fun possible tasks at their own speed or timeline, or not at all. A Fitbit or wearable fitness device can also keep track of physical activity or distance covered, but with Pokémon Go, people can choose to have fun and play rather than choosing to exercise and sacrifice their time. Health researchers are only beginning to use the same augmented reality concepts in telehealth care delivery systems, where a provider can interact with a patient via a mobile device.
It’s completely voluntary.
Don’t feel like playing today? That’s cool. Want to spend two hours in the park luring rare creatures? Go for it. You walked 5 miles without realizing it? Well done.
The gamification strategies employed in Pokémon Go make it easy for players to decide for themselves how far to travel, what direction to go and how long to keep playing. The basic game play is so simple, it’s very easy for people to keep coming back for more, especially since the actual in-game tasks are each so small.
New players can set goals to reach certain levels or win certain fights, and there are other goals that advanced players can shoot for as well. The game’s overall mission to collect all 250 virtual critters also keeps many playing, even as far as to travel to different communities and settings for more rare ones. Those who have collected the whole set are even held up as heroes, but accessible heroes who have done what any of us may be able to potentially accomplish.
Games with a strong addiction component – a compulsion to keep visiting or performing certain tasks -- work best when the user is self-driven. However, he or she may begin to lose any sort of motivation if something ever becomes required or commanded. Many employee wellness programs may have never caught on in large part because they tried other weaker motivators to encourage people to join in, like bonuses for only reaching one goal or levying penalties for failing, but not consistently encouraging regular fun participation and self-motivation. Pokémon Go may well be the world’s first successful employee health promotion program where health isn’t actually mentioned at all.
Conclusion: The Pokémon Paradigm for Population Health
When looking at these three key features of the game, it’s easy to see how appealing Pokémon Go can be – there’s one main task required (monster capturing) but many reasons to keep playing (such as multiple small milestones, a story to engage in, social interactions, personal choices and real-world discoveries to make).
While considering all of the above, corporate wellbeing vendors, executives and managers may conclude that employee wellbeing apps and programs that do the opposite (those that are boring, routine, dull, condescending and mandatory) will be much less appealing to employees in the long term. Overall, employee benefits and employee wellbeing programs where employees opt in and set their own pace and goals will likely have more appeal – and an even bigger impact on long-term population health.