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Why is Pokemon Go making people crazy? Psychologists explain game's allure

Is Pokemon Go making people lose their minds? Why would players fall off cliffs, walk into traffic or trespass? Psychologists explain.
/ Source: TODAY

Why is Pokemon Go making people lose their minds? Watch players swarming parks and neighborhoods to hunt for little creatures that pop up on their phones and “crazy” might just apply.

This week, a New Jersey woman got stuck in a cemetery tree while hunting the pocket monsters, until she was rescued by the town's first responders.

"For all those out there playing Pokemon Go, take heed of all of the warnings and be careful not to put yourself into bad situations," the East Greenwich Township Fire and Rescue wrote on Facebook. "Think about what you are doing and where you are going before you actually do it."

East Greenwich Township Fire and Rescue

The young adult woman — whose name was not released, according to NBC News — is just the latest Pokemon-related mishap. Distracted by the augmented reality game, people are falling off cliffs, walking into traffic, trespassing, crashing cars into trees, leaving home in the middle of the night and otherwise putting themselves in danger.

Pokemon Go Players in New York
People play Pokemon Go on their smartphones in Union Square, New York.JUSTIN LANE / EPA

“I’ve almost been hit by a bus, a truck and a Prius for trying to catch a Spearow,” a teenager told The New York Times.

Related: Armed robbers used 'Pokemon Go' app to lure victims

Then, there’s the alarming lack of respect some players are showing. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the 9/11 Memorial in New York, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland are all pleading with people not to play at those somber sites.

Why would players forget a basic sense of decorum and safety? Psychologists have several explanations:

1. Entering the “Pokemon Go Zone”

Even if you haven’t played the game, you know what it’s like to enter into a compelling state — sometimes called getting into “the zone” or achieving a state of “flow” — while gambling or using Facebook, for example.

You become so absorbed in an activity that lose your sense of time and space, said Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT and author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power Of Talk In A Digital Age.”

“Our brain plays tricks on us. We feel in a profound state of balance, even as we fall disturbingly out of balance,” Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist, told TODAY.

“When we play, we enter into the ‘Pokémon zone,’ (it) has this other side. We forget where we are, the rules of decorum. We forget to be empathetic. We forget our neighborhoods, our neighbors. We forget our histories and exist only in the present of the game.”

Related: Pokemon Go: What the heck is it? And what parents should know

2. Obsessed by the hunt

The game taps into people’s competitive nature, said Leah Lagos, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York.

Since players are trying to find and catch something, their sympathetic nervous system activates, their adrenaline starts pumping and their heart rate rises.

“For a short period, this can be fun,” Lagos noted. “But in the long term, it can make you feel fatigued, more worn out, more distractible, and less able to flexibly change your attentional focus.”

That means your ability to switch between the real environment and the augmented reality diminishes. It could also worsen symptoms for people who already have difficulty separating reality and fantasy, Lagos added.

3. Enjoying the ‘biological rush’

Video games can activate the part of the brain that correlates with addiction.

“There’s this pleasure center that gets poked, the dopamine rushes and we feel good,” said Kimberly Young, a licensed psychologist and founder of The Center for Internet Addiction and Recovery.

“The Pokemon game can create that same biological rush, as any video game.”

The biggest shift now is that the game is portable and seems to hook everyone, she noted. Where Young used to see mostly young men sit for hours at their computer — to the point they developed blood clots in their legs — Pokemon Go requires you to go outside and it seems to captivate both men and women of all ages.

4. Being part of the crowd

With lots of people out of the streets trying to catch Pokemon, the game gives people an outlet for a sense of belonging, Lagos said. It’s like joining a team, which can be a powerful feeling: To be included, to have a mission and a purpose.

5. Finding what’s missing in your life

“What people love is the sense of being swept up in something deeply compelling. We clearly don’t have enough of this in our lives,” Turkle said.

Sometimes, people with low self-esteem like being very good at games — it feeds what’s missing in their ego, Young added.

Then, there’s the feeling of satisfaction. There’s a greater chance of success in the Pokemon world because you get rewards throughout the day that you may not receive so easily in everyday life, Lagos said.

Pokemon Go
A "Pidgey" Pokemon is seen on the screen of the Pokemon Go mobile app.CHRIS HELGREN / Reuters

How to stay healthy while playing

The psychologists had these tips:

• Practice good safety tips: Be aware of your surroundings and don't play while you're walking.

• Don't play throughout the day: Set aside some time specifically for the game to make sure it doesn't overtake your daily normal activities and responsibilities.

• Engage in real life as much as possible: Remember that conversation, families and neighborhoods are what's really nurturing in your life, Turkle noted. "It is there that we stand a greater chance of finding other people, of finding ourselves," she said.

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