How Pokemon Go Could Change the Game for Behavioral Medicine

By Emily Mandel, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

If you are like me – and others who enjoy fun – you have undoubtedly been swept up in the craze that is Pokemon Go. What makes the game so unique is that it requires players to walk around and explore outside of their homes, and it employs various behavioral tactics to achieve this goal. The point of the game is simple – catch as many pokemon as possible, obtain items at “pokestops” in order catch more pokemon and maintain the ones you have already caught, and battle your pokemon at designated areas called gyms. Researchers and practitioners in the field of Behavioral Medicine could use this type of gaming to improve health outcomes for individuals who need additional motivation to exercise.

Very often there is too long a delay between engagement in physical activity and the desired results, such as weight loss and muscle growth. As a result, many individuals lose the motivation to engage in physical activity. Pokemon Go offers more frequent reinforcement for walking outside, such as being able to catch a pokemon after only walking a few blocks. Pokemon go also utilizes a variety of behavioral contingencies to keep the player engaged in the game for long stretches of time.

The game uses several schedules of reinforcement. The one that I noticed immediately involved pokestops, or fixed areas players need to walk to in order to obtain various items needed for catching new pokemon and strengthening existing pokemon. Pokestops produce reinforcement on a continuous schedule, meaning that players contact reinforcement every time they arrive at one.

Catching pokemon in itself presents another contingency. Simply getting up and walking around increases one’s chances of encountering pokemon. This aspect of the game operates on a variable ratio schedule. Walking around very often results in a person encountering a pokemon, but this is not always the case. So people sometimes walk around for long periods of time in hopes that one will emerge, while sometimes a pokemon pops up right away.

Another contingency within the game involves differential reinforcement of walking longer distances. When playing Pokemon Go, you can collect eggs by visiting the pokestops I mentioned above. In order to hatch the eggs, you are required to walk a pre-determined distance ranging from two to ten kilometers. The eggs that require the largest number of kilometers produce the rarest pokemon. Players contact more potent reinforcers (rarer pokemon) for walking further distances.

The behavioral contingencies employed by the game to encourage players to get up and move could make Pokemon Go a game-changer for the field of Behavior Analysis, and more specifically the field of Behavioral Medicine. Behavioral Medicine, as defined by the Society for Behavioral Medicine, is, “the interdisciplinary field concerned with the development and integration of behavioral, psychosocial, and biomedical science knowledge and techniques relevant to the understanding of health and illness, and the application of this knowledge and these techniques to prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.” Much of the current literature that addresses Behavioral Medicine as it pertains to exercise focuses on increasing physical activity through social mediation. That is, both social and tangible reinforcement are delivered by other people. For example, a study conducted by Choe, Hah, Kim, Yi, and Choi (2007) investigated the effects of social support from exercise partners in increasing physical activity, as well as the various environments that increased the likelihood that an individual would engage in physical activity. Another study, conducted by Geiger, Todd, Clark, Miller, and Kori (1992), investigated whether contingent reinforcement as well as specific feedback would increase the walking rate and subsequently decrease pain in patients experiencing chronic pain. What Pokemon Go has to offer to the field is an automated delivery of reinforcement, rather than relying on people to deliver reinforcement. If this type of technology is adopted by the field of Behavior Analysis, it can open the door for more precise delivery of reinforcement, as well as more accurate recording of results.

Researchers and clinicians who study Behavioral Medicine could use games like Pokemon Go to improve health outcomes for individuals struggling with the motivation to exercise. Future endeavors within the field should focus on finding new and innovative ways to make exercise fun and reinforcing for the participant, ones that the participant can use on his or her own without relying on reinforcement from other people. Pokemon Go could be the catalyst for an entire style of gaming focused around exercise, and new games should be created in the future to appeal to an even wider audience of individuals who require additional reinforcement in order to increase their physical activity.

Behavioral Medicine. Retrieved from

Choe, M.A., Hah, Y.S., Kim, K.S., Yi, M., & Choi, J.A. (February 28, 2008). A study on exercise behavior, exercise environment and social support of middle-aged women. Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing, 38 (1), 101-110. Retrieved from

Geiger, G., Todd, D.D., Clark, H.B., Miller, R.P., & Kori, S.H. (May 1992). The effects of feedback and contingent reinforcement on the exercise behavior of chronic pain patients. Pain, 49 (2), 179-185. Retrieved from

Emily Mandel, M.S., BCBA, LABA, is a behavior clinician in the Greater Denver Area who works with children with a range of developmental and social-emotional disabilities. She has over 4 years of experience delivering therapeutic services both in-home and in school settings. Though she is predominantly focused on the utilization of Applied Behavior Analysis in treating individuals with disabilities, Emily enjoys examining topics such as religion, medicine, politics, and social constructs, through a behavioral lens. You can contact her at [email protected].

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