According to an associate professor in the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University, Pokemon GO may well be altering our perceptions about what’s real and what’s virtual. According to Prof. Elan Barenholtz, Ph.D, the wildly popular virtual reality game from Niantic Labs is playing havoc with our brain’s reward systems, which is why people are going to extreme lengths trying to catch the virtual creatures. Reports have cited instances of players who are giving up their jobs and even committing felonies in their quest to complete the entire Pokedex. With augmented reality often blurring the lines between the real and the virtual, Prof. Barenholtz illustrates the influence the game is having on over-enthusiastic players by comparing its effects on our brains to that of drugs, junk food and other stimulants that artificially stimulate the brain’s reward centers.
According to him, “We’re messing around with giving ourselves stimulants and feedback that we’ve never encountered before. And just like drugs, you never know where this is going to go”. Earlier studies have already shown that playing video games actually release striatal Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that triggers the reward system in our brains and gives us that feel-good sensation. It is the same chemical that gets released in our brains when we’re injected with amphetamines, which is why drug addicts keep reaching for a fix every time the drug’s effect wears off, is spite of knowing fully well that they may be doing irreparable harm to themselves in the long run.
While earlier studies have already proven that video games can be just as addictive as drugs, what Prof. Barenholtz now contends, is that the new wave of AR and VR games have just added a new level of potential danger by transforming real world locations into ‘virtual landscapes teeming with fictional creatures’, which is what increases the danger of addiction to such games manifold. He compares augmented reality games like Pokemon GO to movies, saying that the reason people are so heavily invested emotionally in such games is exactly the same as why people buy into the fictional storytelling of movies even though we know that nothing we’re seeing on-screen happened for real. In order to substantiate his observations further, Prof. Barenholtz invokes the theory of embodied cognition, which states that we use our entire bodies – and not just our brain – to process the world around us. Which is what makes augmented reality games, much like movies, seem “much closer to reality” than they actually are.