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Home > News > Blogs > Voices from the Spectrum > Pokémon Go: What’s the big deal?

Pokémon Go: What’s the big deal?

Scottish Autism

A Personal Perspective by Sonya Hallett

“Are we going then?” My partner was again reminding me about the planned socialising I'd agreed to in principle but was now anxiously avoiding. “Um... ok.  Any minute now”. I procrastinate some more, scroll over to Pokémon Go, and notice that I'm only 1.3km away from hatching another egg...  “hey, let's go now!” I put on my coat and shoes and head to the pub.

While I wouldn't say that Pokémon Go is a good game, it has definitely been a helpful distraction from anxiety-inducing situations in recent months. There's something compelling about being able to semi-immerse yourself in an alternate reality full of creatures (some endearingly strange) that you can collect, all the while having it mapped onto the real world in a way that is sometimes even quite useful for navigation. It also seems to have acted as a fairly calming distraction in overwhelming environments, where the predictability of finding yet another Drowzee (psychic tapir-like creature) amongst the hubbub of Edinburgh during festival time is kind of reassuring – along with the hope of finding something rarer to help complete my collection.

I was ten when the first Pokémon games appeared, and I was hooked.  I recently discovered that the creator of Pokémon is, like me, an autistic insect enthusiast. Perhaps that's partly why I was so into them – I could find Pokémon the way I look for insects in real life, and I get to keep them! (Real ants are not good pets). I poured over the stats, made complex charts and countless team combinations, and even unprecedentedly talked to a kid I didn't know on the bus about his Pokémon magazine. While Pokémon Go doesn't come near in complexity or strategy, I like that it requires outdoors play and promotes at least some socialising. Not necessarily chatting, but even just silent acknowledgement can be nice sometimes; smiling at the local cafe owner obviously also playing, seeing someone else battle the same gym as you from across the street... It feels pretty cool.

I'm worried it's losing my interest though. Niantic, the company behind it, have talked about updates in the future, but currently so much is down to a mixture of luck and grinding that even taking the time to put together an ideal 'dream team' feels rather pointless and makes little impact on gameplay. Also the fact that the game must be open at all times rather than run in the background to work, means it competes with other apps on my phone for my attention. I still want to try and complete my Pokedex though, if I can…


A Professional Perspective by Peter Vermeulen

Autism received great attention from the press mid-July, in part due to the silly season, and even the television news picked up the story: a few so called ‘specialists’ are calling the popular Pokémon Go app a blessing for those with autism.

For those of you who don’t know, Pokémon Go is a game that you play on your smart phone. Available since early July, it is hugely popular, and not just with children and adolescents. The aim of the game is to look for the Pokémon characters that used to be on the Pokémon cards, with your smartphone. They can be anywhere, tracked via the camera and GPS function on your phone, ‘caught’ and then ‘trained’. These virtual characters can be found all over the world and everywhere people are to be seen scanning the environment with their phone, searching for a Pokémon.

Why is Pokémon Go so interesting for people with autism? According to the initial media stories there are several reasons. For one, you have to go outside and into the real world to play, unlike most computer games. Research has shown that children with autism go outside less and exercise less than other children and so anything that encourages them to exercise is positive. 

Another benefit is that it encourages social interaction. The press was full of stories of children, adolescents and adults who were generally uncomfortable in social situations, reluctant to initiate contact with other people, who were now, thanks to Pokémon Go, approaching strangers to ask questions and chat about the game. Due to the surge in popularity of the game, because of much media and social media attention, there are suddenly many people who share an interest with people with autism because of their love of Pokémon Go. It is easier to find a soul mate with an interest in Pokémon Go than one with more autistic, specific interests such as, for example, Belgian political parties during the interbellum or mammals that only occur in Borneo.

But should everyone immediately download Pokémon Go? Is it really heaven sent for people with autism?

Pokémon Go also has a few risks. Firstly it is a ‘game’ and it is known that the risks of gaming addiction are higher for people with autism than those without. So the same rules apply for Pokémon Go as for any game and those are: be clear about when, how long and where it can be played. Additional rules might be necessary, such as how far from home someone is allowed to venture or a restriction to only play in public spaces. Further, multi-tasking and changing focus is not a strong suit for people with autism and when you are playing Pokémon Go, you still need to keep an eye on traffic and on those around you.

That other players may be willing to overlook the quirky behaviour and communication skills of those with autism, as long as it helped them find Pokémon may be true for one-off encounters, but the question is whether this willingness remains after? Although the game certainly aids communication skills and social interaction for those with autism, the question remains as to whether children, adolescents and adults with autism can adapt their conversations to the subject. A Social Story on Pokémon Go would be very welcome for many!

Not all people with autism are into gaming. It’s possible to achieve the same benefits with a dog: dog owners also need to leave the house every day and find it easier to chat to others when out and about. Youngsters with autism who love animals could dog walk for neighbours and maybe even earn a bit of extra pocket money. Then there is Geocaching, whereby you go on a treasure hunt with the use of your GPS or smartphone, which has some of the characteristics of Pokémon Go. You could set up Geocaches (the treasure) linked to the interests of a person with autism. Finally, why not arrange a good old-fashioned treasure hunt / paper chase with the clues based around the interests of the child or youngster with autism?

In summary: the power of Pokémon Go to get autistic people out of the house and make contact with others is a huge benefit, but there are other activities that come to mind that achieve the same goals and just as with other activities, we need to think about how we can make Pokémon Go autism friendly and safe.

What do you think about Pokémon Go? Let us know in the comments below!