Motivation and Pokemon GO

How many times has Childhood Obesity News discussed motivation? Yesterday we looked at the pros and the cons of a new motivator that has appeared on the cultural scene and that seems to exert nearly universal appeal. Pokemon GO only came to public awareness less than a month ago, and already it has been incorporated into an app that keeps track of kids’ physical activity with the aim of clocking an hour of exercise per day.

This is where things start to get fuzzy. The hour-per-day recommendation made for kids by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention references the kind of exercise that keeps a person nearly out of breath. They’re talking about aerobic activity, like running and jumping rope, and muscle-strengthening activity, like pushups.

This is probably not the level of activity that Pokemon Go inspires. Still, it is undeniable that some exercise is better than none.

According to the people interviewed by journalist Chris Weller, the game “creates an incredibly strong desire for you to seek rewards.” Prof. Ian Kellar said it employs techniques that are…

[…] successful in convincing people to change their habits… [T]he game is leveraging 3 out of the 4 most well-evidenced behavior change techniques in this context.

The mechanism here is artificially implanted motivation, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In the broadest sense, that is what the entire education system aspires to. In theory, anyway, we aim to expose kids to many different areas of human knowledge and endeavor, in hopes that they will be drawn toward actions that will both satisfy them and benefit society. Ideally, that is how it’s supposed to work, and Pokemon GO seems to be working that way.

On the other hand, motivation can spring from the dark side. What if a person is motivated to do something destructive to self or others, like start a habit that could become more like an addiction, which video games have been known to do?

As Weller mentions, the game is said to have an attraction “so powerful that people forget they’re making themselves tired.” Could Pokemon GO, Ingress, and other games that encourage wandering around at night, become just another problem for society to solve?

The M word

Wisconsin reporter Andrew Dawson obtained quotations from people in two different demographics:

I want to be the very best like no one ever was. You got to catch them all. — C.J. Mulnix, age 21

I did it to vex my children, who sometimes think that they are only ones on the cutting edge. — Maria Bisceglia, age not given

Chris Weller interviewed Jane McGonigal, director of R&D in the games sector at the Institute for the Future, whose bio lists a remarkable number of accomplishments for such a young person. She mentions the dopamine rush that can be obtained from achieving each incremental win that the game offers. That is what makes a person goal-oriented, which is pretty much the same as motivated.

Motivation is similar in many ways to addiction, and there is no point in kidding ourselves about it. A great deal of progress can be made by helping people segue from harmful addictions to beneficent ones. McGonigal says:

Pokemon GO may gamify exercise, but it never makes exercise the priority. The game is always the hero. Less successful games fail to motivate people because users know they’re supposed to be getting “tricked” into enjoying exercise. Pokemon GO comes at it from the opposite angle. People don’t have to want to exercise; they just have to want to play this game.

The TechInsider page also offers a 3:16 video demonstration that doesn’t really go far toward explaining how this works in the real world. But more than likely, everybody already knows.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “How much physical activity do children need?,”, undated
Source: “‘Pokemon GO’ may have gotten kids more active in a week than the White House has in years,”, 07/13/16
Source: “Imaginary Pokemon causing some real world issues,”, 07/13/16
Photo credit: David Woo via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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