Gotta Catch Them All

Why is it that a smart phone game had the power to transform the behavior of so many people, seemingly overnight? The Washington Post reports that Pokemon Go led to a “population-level” surge in fitness tracker step counts“! All of a sudden, people are leaving their houses, paying attention to the places around them, and making new friends. How was a simple game able to make such a difference?

I am no Pokemon expert, so I asked my son (an avid Pokemon Go player): “It’s Pokemon, mom.” Was his answer. I thought, there’s gotta be more to it. I started reading about it, and here is what I have learned about the game:


  • After creating your avatar, you’ll see a cartoon-like version of the google maps, showing the area where you are;
  • Landmarks are replaced with Pokemon style buildings;
  • Pokemon creatures appear on your screen;
  • The type of Pokemon vary depending on your location – for example, you might find Squirtle, close a lake;
  • You can find rare Pokemon at places that you might not go to so frequently, such as the library or a museum;
  • You can acquire items at PokeStops (organized meet-ups between players), which can help you entice some Pokemon to you.

But why does it work? Let’s look at it from a behavior science perspective:

  1. Novelty
    • Novelty is a great way to get behavior started. Joining the game will give you access to a virtual reality, where you can see wherever you are, as if it was Pokemon world.
  2. It increases access to reinforcement
    • Rare Pokemon can be found at libraries or museums, so they serve as additional reinforcement to visiting those places, changing the motivating operation to “visiting library”.
    • As you play the game, the app can alert you to deals, discounts, and special events nearby.
    • Pokemon Go offers many opportunities to earn social reinforcement (attention). Since many people are playing, there are several posts on facebook, You Tube and other social media related to Pokemon Go, and they all are opportunities for social reinforcement.
  3. An old reinforcer, may still serve as a reinforcer
    • If you spent hours in your childhood watching Pokemon, and playing Pokemon cards, it is likely that they will still serve as reinforcers now.

tumblr_o9f0fp7C461slhhf0o1_1280How long will it last? That will depend on how often the developers bring novelty to the game, and the motivating operation for the potential reinforcers, e.g. people stop talking about it in social media, they find an easier way to receive alerts about special deals, or potentially, the deals are not as enticing. I remember my son playing Pokemon cards for years during elementary school, so this may last for a while.

How about you? Do you play Pokemon Go? Why do you like it? Comment below to let us know.


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