Walk More, Sit Less: Games Like Pokémon Go Have Power to Change Behavior

Last week, Niantic celebrated the first anniversary of Pokémon Go, which was a worldwide sensation when it launched in the summer of 2016.

Like any mobile game, many players abandoned the fun after the initial hype quieted down, leaving a strong but slower-growing user base behind to experience new content updates.

Pokémon Go set a standard for showcasing augmented reality on a mobile device though the most remarkable thing the game accomplished was gamifying exercise. Kent State University researchers found that playing a physically interactive mobile game like Go, however, can genuinely promote exercise in a more powerful and lasting way.

With the help of 350 participating students, the university’s College of Education, Health and Human Services assessed the ability of Pokémon Go to change behavior by encouraging movement. The results were impressive: in the first week of playing, walking was doubled on average and sedentary behavior was reduced by 25%; a month later, despite a 58% decrease in game time, walking was still up by 68% and sitting was down 18%.

“While the largest increases in walking and decreases in sitting occurred during the first week after downloading, when the game was new to the user, those positive effects largely persisted weeks later,” Jacob Barkley, Ph.D., who led the study, said. “It is possible that games like Pokémon GO may help people initiate a positive health behavior change, such as more daily walking and less sitting.”

Nintendo—which, as the creator of the Pokémon franchise, has a stake in Go but did not develop the app—long ago tried to gamify exercise with Wii Sports. But, being console games, physical activity was confined to the space of a few feet. Players might have burned a few more calories than sitting at a computer desk firing rounds at foes, which certainly didn’t hurt, but the Wii did not encourage a healthier lifestyle overall.

The study, published in the Games for Health Journal, concluded that mobile games can indeed foster sustainable and potentially permanent lifestyle changes.