Pokémon Go is hijacking your brain’s reward systems. You know, those little neuron groups that make you experience pleasure and positive reinforcement? They’re the reason drugs are so addictive and junk food makes us feel so good. They’re also the reason some Pokémon Go players have quit their jobs, broken into homes, and fallen off cliffs while trying to catch the elusive animated creatures on the augmented reality game.
At least that’s according to Elan Barenholtz, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University, who says that augmented and virtual reality games have created a “dangerous path” by offering a far more rewarding alternative to reality. “It’s doing something really that drugs do in that it’s artificially stimulating your reward centers,” says Barenholtz. “We’re messing around with giving ourselves stimulants and feedback that we’ve never encountered before. And just like drugs, you never know where this is going to go.”
The idea that video games can trigger our reward systems, of course, is nothing new. In one study published in the scientific journal Nature in 1998, researchers found that playing video games can release levels of striatal dopamine (aka that feel-good chemical that triggers your reward system) similar to those found in drug users immediately following the injection of amphetamines. A separate study, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry in 2011, showed that the brains of 14-year-old video gamers looked similar to those of adult drug addicts.
But much of the research on how the brain reacts to video games has focused on the kind you play on your couch in front of the television in your living room. Or, as Barenholtz puts it, the old-school Nintendo and X-box games in which “you’re perfectly aware as you’re engaging in that behavior with the flat screen that this isn’t real, and the awards are false or kind of fake.” But with games like Pokémon Go, in which millions of players go in search of physical locations that have been transformed into virtual landscapes teeming with fictional creatures, it’s not hard to imagine that the potential for stimulation — and addiction — is vastly intensified.
“When you’re going out and running around in an environment and you’re getting the video game feedback at the same time, you’re now recruiting a much richer representation, your brain is now sort of falling for it in a much deeper way, even though you know cognitively it’s fake,” Barenholtz explains. “Just like illusions, you know they’re wrong, but there’s a good chunk of your brain that buys them. I think you’re going to buy them more deeply now, so that should make the reward that much more compelling and that much more addictive.”
It’s only speculative at this point, but in an attempt to understand the wildly popular appeal of Pokémon Go, Barenholtz points to the theory of embodied cognition, or the idea that we process and understand things not just with our brains, but with our bodies and through our physical environments. “It’s like when you watch a movie, you really know it’s fake and if somebody’s telling a story you know it’s made up, but here you’re engaging your whole body and you’re moving around, and it’s no longer something you have to imagine or make up,” says Barenholtz. “It’s almost real life. It’s much closer to reality.”
But to really break down the science behind one of the most-downloaded mobile apps in history, you should also know something about place cells — or the neurons in your hippocampus that are basically responsible for navigation and spatial memory. And in order to do that, let’s imagine all Pokémon Go players are lab rats in a maze looking for food. “Place cells are typically described in rodents,” Barenholtz says. “So if there’s one little place cell that responds whenever the rat is in a particular part of a maze, and there’s another cell that responds in another part of the maze, what they’re really doing is forming a mental map of the environment.”
Which is all to say that the very new combination of mobile video games and real, physical environments is incredibly potent when it comes to triggering our reward centers. And while it likely won’t signal the fall of society any time soon — the technology has plenty of practical benefits, including education — Barenholtz says he worries about the impact Pokémon Go and other games can have on the brain by messing with its neurological reward systems.
“I think you could very easily imagine a good chunk of the population just getting lost in there because it’s going to be better, its going to be more rewarding” compared to real life, he says of a not-too-distant future where augmented reality is ubiquitous. Pokémon Go, after all — it’s basically the Pong of augmented reality games — is only the beginning.
Which is all to say that the very new combination of mobile video games and real, physical environments is incredibly potent when it comes to triggering our reward centers, and Pokémon Go is just the beginning — think of it as the Pong of augmented reality games. And while it likely won’t trigger the fall of society any time soon — the technology has plenty of practical benefits, including education — Barenholtz says he worries about the impact Pokémon Go and other games can have on the brain by messing with its neurological reward systems.
“I think you could very easily imagine a good chunk of the population just getting lost in there because it’s going to be better, its going to be more rewarding” compared to real life, he says of a not-too-distant future where augmented reality is ubiquitous. “So why would you stop?”