By Mike McMahan, LPC
The mobile game Pokémon GO has joined the fabled ranks of Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle Me Elmo and other legendary fads in the pantheon of “must have” items. It has dominated everyone’s social media news feeds for better or worse—prompting screen shots of people enjoying the game as well as others posting memes and satire mocking them for liking the game. Unlike, say, Tickle Me Elmo, this game has broken outside of the children’s market and is being embraced by adults as well. Nintendo’s stock value has soared and pokémon are literally everywhere. I’m as fascinated as a person can be and want to learn everything about this phenomenon—as long as it doesn’t involve playing the actual game. The last thing I need is another time waster, so I’ll rely on everyone else to have these experiences for me and live vicariously through them. I wholeheartedly endorse something that gets people moving and has them interacting with unfamiliar people. Though there are certainly risks in getting out in the world (we’ve all seen the stories of robberies, people getting lost in caves and so forth). There are some fun aspects to the pokémon phenomenon, some psychological aspects and some lessons about how people perceive and approach the process of psychotherapy.
One of the weirdest and most fun pieces that I’ve encountered is this one, which puts a conspiracy spin on the game and it’s allegedly sinister origins. I’m a bit skeptical about this, and it reminds me of details of assessments that I might review for inpatient commitments. That said, there are some who say if you’re not paranoid these days, you’re not paying attention (please note: I’m not one of them).
Moving out of the area of abnormal psychology, this article from the BBC takes a look at the psychology-based thought processes that may underlie the game’s success. The article points out that it relies on technology that people have already mastered: as I’ve noted before, playing to pre-existing, recognized strengths can help a person be successful in life as well. The article also points to nostalgia, something I’m sure '90s kids will understand—though I’m too old and missed this the first time around. The most interesting aspect of this article, to me, is the author’s assertion that social media is basically a video game, something I’ve noticed as well. In addition to having a score-driven system (How many friends do you have? How many likes did that post get?), the graphics of sites like Facebook bolster this argument. As we approach the era of augmented reality, it may be that Pokémon GO will give us a preview of how things will look as tech marches on, influencing our lives in unexpected ways.
The last piece I want to highlight is from Psychology Today, which highlights some benefits and some drawbacks to the game. I’ve covered this topic before as well. The Psychology Today article suggests benefits such as alleviating social anxiety, helping players set clearly defined goals and being simply enjoyable. I think the idea that it’s fun is a huge benefit—many of us are so busy that we don’t have time for simply mindless fun.
Something that I’ve always noticed about people who “collect” things may be summed about by the game’s catchphrase: “Gotta catch ‘em all!” This “I have to do everything” attitude is a key challenge that many of us face, and is one of the top things I hear from new clients and parents who bring their children in for psychotherapy for the first time. The client (or their parent) will list a litany of problems that they hope to solve by coming to therapy: “I’m depressed”; “I feel anxious when I’m around people”; “I can never get a date”; “I’m not getting along with my spouse/family”; “I’m self-conscious about my appearance”; “I can never do anything right”; “I can never make a romantic relationship work”; and so forth. All of these are valid concerns, of course. But, as a therapist, do I need to address them all at the same time, right away?
The answer is an emphatic “no.” When people come to psychotherapy, they are likely facing more than one challenge. Perhaps they are facing many of the above as well as a number not listed. But it’s virtually impossible to address all these problems at once—it’s simply too confusing. On top of that, if the therapist and client try to make multiple changes to address multiple problems, it creates the possibility that the client won’t know what’s working or what’s not working. This isn’t good because I, as a therapist, need to know what new strategies are working so I can reinforce the successes as well as help the client bring more focus on that strategy in an effort to bring them continued success. In addition, sometimes solving one problem will solve another one as well, almost inadvertently. Consider the examples I listed above. It’s not hard to imagine that a person who overcomes issues with self-esteem might suddenly find themselves doing better with finding potential romantic partner. After all, confidence can potentially be a very attractive quality.
So keep catching all the pokémon if that’s your thing. But if you’re solving problems, slow it down and observe what’s working. Because therapy may be about “gotta catch most of ‘em.”
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture