With the recent large-scale release of Pokémon Go — an augmented reality game that allows players to use their smartphones to capture virtual creatures lurking in various locations across the city — we are prompted to confront questions of how we, as individuals and as a society, interact with technology and, subsequently, with the settings and people around us as technology continues to advance.
What makes Pokémon Go different from conventional gaming technology is that it is one of the only games fueled by technology that does not keep gamers indoors and bound to their couches as they submerge into fantasy settings. Rather, this game makes the real world its setting, luring players to venture out from the cozy corners of their familiar cocoons in order to explore nearby neighbourhoods and landmarks.
For some, this can mean an opportunity to explore your city — players stand to discover public parks, art installations, museums, and monuments that hold historic, aesthetic, and educational value. Moreover, walking around to catch Pokémon encourages exercise and the much-needed daily dose of fresh air and vitamin D.
For this reason, doctors have recently expressed that Pokémon Go can help to counteract mental health issues among young adults, from depression to social anxiety, or even withdrawal. The game’s potential to bring those living with mental health concerns into contact with people who share the similar interest of playing the game allows for comfortable interactions and a sense of familiarity, according to Dr. Larry Nelson, a Family Life Professor at Brigham Young University.
While this is clearly a positive effect, there are also risks associated with the game. Addiction to the game seems to be a possibility, especially considering that addictive behaviours tend to run parallel with habits that offer a therapeutic or euphoric effect. A recent poll prepared for Global News approximated that three in 10 Canadian users believe that Pokémon Go is “taking over their lives.”
This is indicative of a broader phenomenon. The proliferation of technology in recent years seems to have brought about an increased dependency on it — especially with respect to gaming and smartphone technology. Portable technology is taken to bed, the couch, the cinema, dinner, and social gatherings. People increasingly allocate more time to electronic and gaming gadgets, rather than to books, educational programs, and the people around them.
A 2015 study conducted by British psychologists found that, on average, participants checked their phones 85 times and used the devices for a total of five hours each day.
What’s more, according to related research, young adults use their smartphones about twice as much as they think they do. Dr. Sally Andrews, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, explains that, “a lot of smartphone use seems to be habitual, automatic behaviors that we have no awareness of.”
To many, mindless use of technology takes priority over other, often more important, activities. In the long run, this behaviour impedes concentration.
This is related to a concept known as ‘multi-tasking madness,’ when individuals who regularly use technology are unable to relax or concentrate on a single task at hand. According to sleep and energy expert Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan, a lack of offline time results in psychological hyper-arousal, compromising patience, and the inability to focus on individual tasks.
When people are constantly searching for ways to entertain or distract themselves, there is a decrease in appreciation for the still, peaceful, mundane; this is a loss because predictable routines, though dull, are an important part everyday life.
As people plunge into a virtual game setting, they tend to isolate themselves from their reality and present surroundings. Consider, for instance, the irony involved in opening up a ‘social’ game while at a gathering, but not interacting with the people around you.
Growing up in Singapore, where even trains have a Wi-Fi connection, I was constantly confronted by the invasive nature of technology. Though commuters once held newspapers, books, or train poles, nowadays they all look down at smartphones. This even happens on the TTC, despite its lack of access to Wi-Fi, as passengers uniformly fish for their phones for the few minutes of above-ground data connectivity between Davisville and Rosedale stations.
This immersion in the virtual world does not only limit social interaction, it can also be hazardous. Pokémon Go provides a ready example. Toronto police told CBC News that some players — oblivious to everything but trying to “catch ‘em all” — rush across intersections, causing concern about the possibility of collisions.
It is not the case that we should stop using technology. It is important, however, to set limits on our time spent in the ‘virtual world’ so as not to miss out on the offerings of the real one.
Perlyn Cooper is a second-year student at Victoria College studying English and Philosophy.