Pokémon Go and the Gamification of Active Travel

This blog post is authored by Safe Routes Partnership research advisor, Stephanie Tepperberg.

pokemonWhen Pokémon Go launched in July 2016, it was hard to ignore the buzz. Within just a few months, downloads reportedly exceeded 100 million and it seemed that everywhere you looked, people were playing the game.[i] Pokémon Go is a gaming application for smartphones that uses GPS technology and augmented reality to create an interactive map of players’ surrounding environment. Users “catch” Pokémon by physically moving and locating new creatures with their smartphone. Unlike most video and mobile games that tend to enable sedentary behavior, Pokémon Go requires players to be physically active via walking or biking in order to play.i

While Pokémon Go has received some criticism from transportation safety advocates noting that it leads to distracted pedestrian and driver behavior, preliminary reports have also praised the game for its potential to increase widespread physical activity.i, [ii] Although the game is still new, Dr. Jon Williamson notes that anecdotal evidence suggests that players of the game are logging greater numbers of kilometers while in play, an outcome that could have a positive impact on the number of children and adults achieving the U.S. recommended levels of physical activity.i

The potential physical activity benefits of Pokémon Go and other interactive mobile games lead to a question that many Safe Routes to School practitioners may be wondering – is there evidence that mobile games may lead to increased physical activity and promote youth active travel to and from school?

Coombes and Jones aimed to tackle this question through a study that evaluated how a mobile game application, Beat the Street, impacted active travel to school. Beat the Street, similar to Pokémon Go, requires players to walk or bike in order to access sensors, known as “Beat Boxes,” located throughout a neighborhood. Players are rewarded with points every time they touch a sensor and cumulative points can be traded in for prizes. Eighty children, ages 8 to 10, were recruited from two schools in Norwich, UK to participate in the non-randomized control study. The intervention group of students was provided the Beat the Street game to play on their mobile phones over the course of 9 weeks of travel to and from school. Counts per minute (CPM), moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), and mode of travel to school were assessed for both groups using an accelerometer and a survey.[iii]

While study results from Coombes and Jones found that the Beat the Street intervention had no significant impact on children’s overall physical activity (CPM) during commuting hours, promising evidence was found for higher intensity physical activity, maintenance of active travel, and active travel mode shifts. Students who actively participated in the Beat the Street game for at least the mean number of days, achieved an extra 3.46 minutes of daily MVPA during the intervention compared with children who did not engage with the game. Post-intervention, those students who had engaged with Beat the Street were found to have higher levels of MVPA at the follow-up evaluation compared with those students who did not participate. A few children using Beat the Street even switched travel modes to school from non-active to active transport even after the study had ended. It is important to note that while this study provides promising results for mobile game applications’ potential to promote active travel to and from school, the small sample size and non-randomized methodology applied in the study suggests that further research is required to validate effects.iii

Other cases have found additional promising evidence that mobile games may lead to increased active travel and physical activity in both children and adults. In Oslo, Norway, a new mobile application, Traffic Agent, uses a gamification approach to encourage school children to report pedestrian and bicycle safety hazards on their way to school. Traffic Agent reports directly to Norway’s Agency for the Urban Environment and helps encourage student active travel by improving targeted bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.[iv] Another study conducted by Walsh and Golbeck found that adults using Fitbits took more steps when playing a social game, StepCity, than the control group.[v]

The results of Coombes and Jones, reports from Oslo, and Walsh and Golbeck offer promising insights into how mobile phones and the gamification of active transportation to school may be effective in promoting physical activity in youth. Further research is needed to assess the efficacy of interactive mobile games such as Pokémon Go, but early studies suggest that mobile games, especially those with reward systems, can encourage active travel and physical activity. Encouragement has long been one of Safe Routes to School’s (SRTS) Six E’s, and SRTS programs often use non-mobile, reward-based programs, games, and contests to encourage student participation in walking and biking to school. With advances in technology, mobile gaming applications present a promising new way for SRTS programs to encourage physical activity and promote safe and supportive active transportation to school.

[i] Williamson, J., 2016. Will the ‘Pokémon’ be Heroes in the Battle Against Physical Inactivity? Sports and Exercise Medicine Open Journal 2.1: 13-14.

[ii] Ayers, J., Leas, E., Dredze, M., Allem, J., Grabowski, J., Hill, L., 2016. Pokémon GO – A New Distraction for Drivers and Pedestrians. Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2….

[iii] Coombes, E., Jones, A., 2016. Gamification of active travel to school: A pilot evaluation of the Beat the Street physical activity intervention. Health & Place 39: 62-69.

[iv] Thomas, K., 2016. In Pursuit of a Safe Walk to School, Oslo Gamifies Street Design. Next City. https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/oslo-app-schoolchildren-safe-walk-scho….

[v] Walsh, G., Golbeck, J., 2014. StepCity: A preliminary investigation of a personal informatics-based social game on behavior change. In: Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ACM Conference.