Annoyed business owners and frightened neighbors weren’t the only ones who noticed that the “Pokemon Go” craze sent a lot of people walking.
Scientists took note too, and in a new study they confirmed that many of the mobile game’s players walked farther than before, to places they hadn’t previously visited, in search of elusive imaginary creatures visible in its augmented reality display. But, the findings published in BMJ indicate, that effect did not last long: Within six weeks they were back to their normal activity habits.
The finding suggests that “augmented reality” games like “Pokemon Go” could be useful in increasing physical activity, but that app developers might have to get creative to battle app fatigue.
For the study, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health surveyed nearly 1,200 18-to-35-year-old iPhone 6 users. (That phone automatically counts and records users’ steps taken.) Roughly half of those surveyed, 622 people, were “Pokemon Go” players.
Comparing the steps players versus non-players took, there was virtually no difference between the groups before installation of the game. But in the first week after game installation, “Pokemon Go” players spent an average of 11 minutes longer walking per day, and averaged 955 more steps per day than non-players.
But over subsequent weeks, that activity fell off. By the sixth week, the daily number of steps decreased to pre-Pokemon levels.
“We think that’s caused by a combination of factors,” said study coauthor Katherine Howe, who studies epidemiology and obesity prevention at the Chan School of Public Health. “The number of active users declined, or the number of steps people are taking has declined.”
A “Pokemon Go” player herself, Howe said that the study’s findings could help in the development of apps that will encourage more physical activity.
“Using gamification and friendly competition with their peers has had the unintended consequence of getting people active,” she said. “But we need to be more creative about making games that promote physical health in the long run.”
Maged N. Kamel Boulos, a professor of digital health at Scotland’s University of the Highlands and Islands, said that it’s great that what he calls “geosocial games” are getting people moving. But he’s wary of being too impressed by the numbers.
“Many players were cheating instead of doing real physical activity,” he said, pointing out that users could put phones on moving ceiling fans or record turntables to simulate movement.
That said, he added, “We are looking forward to the next geosocial game to follow after ‘Pokemon Go.’”
“Games are like fashion,” Boulos said. “People like changing games, car models, and clothes. People get bored or lose interest.”