Tracy Packiam Alloway

Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD, is an award-winning psychologist, professor, author, and TEDx speaker. She has published 13 books and over 100 scientific articles on the brain and memory. She has also provided consultancy to the World Bank on reading in developing countries and is a sought-after speaker internationally. Her research has also been featured on BBC, Good Morning America, the Today Show, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, and Newsweek, and many others. She was also featured as an expert in the documentary The Observed Life.

Contact information:
t.alloway at

Rachel Carpenter

Rachel Carpenter is a PhD candidate in the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN. She completed her Masters degree in Psychological Science at the University of North Florida with a focus on working memory and augmented reality. She approaches the study of digital games and other media using a clinical approach, hoping to use advanced technology to reduce symptomology is a variety of clinical pathologies. Her published work has focused on working memory and testing modalities, augmented reality and mood, and the ecological considerations of intimate partner violence. Her current research explores working memory, suicide, and severe mental health considerations.

Contact information:
carpenterrk at

“Gotta Catch ‘Em All” - Can Playing Pokémon Go Influence Mood and Empathy?

by Tracy Packiam Alloway, Rachel Carpenter


The most popular augmented reality (AR) game is Pokémon Go, where the player visits physical locations in order to capture characters. In the present study, we investigated whether (AR) games induced empathy, mood, and affect. Participants were recruited from a northern Florida University, and empathy was measured by a scale that captured both cognitive and emotional empathy. Mood was directly assessed using a standardized scale that measures both positive and negative affect. Participants took part in both a Pokémon Go and a Control conditions (walked outside without playing an AR game). Primary findings include a decrease in negative affect after participants played Pokémon Go, but not in the Control condition. The second finding was that playing Pokémon Go did not lead to an increase in empathy; however, some aspects of emotional empathy were different in the Control condition. This finding has important implications for individuals who struggle with anxiety and depression.

Keywords: augmented reality; empathy; positive and negative affect; nature



Virtual reality has recently been labeled an “empathy machine” by filmmakers. The ability to not only immerse oneself in another environment, but also adopt someone else’s perspective has been considered a highly effective “awareness experience”, where the viewer can get a first-hand view of war, sickness, or other forms of suffering (Robertson, 2017). The idea that gaming can induce empathy is not new. For example, recent research suggests that video game use that promotes positive behavior from different socioeconomic groups may be associated with increased empathy and prosocial behavior by improving affective relationships in diverse groups (Harrington & O’Connell, 2016).

Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and actions of others and respond appropriately in order to assist someone in need. Empathy is also seen as a measure of an individual’s other-oriented thinking and responsiveness over self-oriented responses (Batson, Fultz & Schoenrade 1987; Lawrence et al., 2004). It is widely agreed that empathy is a multifaceted construct with two dimensions: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. One distinction between the two dimensions is that emotional empathy relates to the emotional arousal one experiences when they see or identify with someone else’s misfortunes, while cognitive empathy pertains to the mental understanding of someone else’s misfortune without having experienced it before (Bernhardt & Singer, 2012; Decety & Jackson, 2004; Deustch & Madle, 1975; Hoffman, 2001; Preston & de Waal, 2002).

Cognitive empathy is often measured with subscales consisting of Perspective Taking and Fantasy Scale (Davis, 1983). Perspective Taking is the process of understanding the views and emotions of others and appropriately reacting. It is highly correlated with Theory of Mind-the ability to think about the thoughts, intentions and beliefs of others but does not involve thinking about the feelings of others (Shamsay-Tsoory, et al. 2009). An individual experiencing cognitive empathy will use facial, voice, and situational cues to adjust their own emotional state accordingly, without necessarily “feeling” the emotion (Reniers, Corcoran, Drake, Shryane, & Völlm, 2011).

In contrast, measures of emotional empathy include items relating to social self-confidence, even-temperedness, and sensitivity (Johnson, Cheek, & Smither, 1983; see also Grief & Hogan, 1973). Emotional empathy plays an important role in social communication and reflects how we share basic emotions, like happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. The ability to recognize and empathize with others is necessary for fostering and maintaining relationships, including romantic relationships (Kimmes, Edwards, Wetchler, & Bercik, 2014). The value of emotional empathy in social relationships can perhaps best be evidenced in circumstances when there is an empathic imbalance (Smith, 2009). For example, a lack of emotional empathy is associated with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and these individuals tend to demonstrate a low sensitivity to others’ distress (Blair, Jones, Clark, & Smith, 1997).

Recent research suggests that augmented reality (AR) environments may induce emotional empathy (Myers, 2017). For example, AR creates a playing field within existing environments by superimposing a pre-created image on top of the player’s actual environment. Examples can be as simple as a virtual chess game superimposed on a tabletop, to more complex situations where game characters can move within the actual environment (e.g., run along the tabletop and jump off a virtual cliff). Kang (2017) immersed viewers in an augmented scenario where they had to use gestures (e.g., stroking the head) to soothe a lost and crying child. They were also asked to pick up a toy that had fallen on the ground and hand it to the child. Participants were then asked how well they were able to “emotionally immerse [themselves] in the context when [they] stroked the crying child on the head and picked up the toy?” Responses to this question indicated that the users who experienced the augmented environment felt more empathetic, compared to those who were asked to respond to auditory cues of a crying child.

In a similar vein, it has long been thought that violent video games reduce empathy, while current evidence suggests the opposite (Ferguson & Donnellan, 2017; Ferguson & Wang, 2019). Current research suggests that it would take 27 hours per day of M-rated game play to produce clinically noticeable increases in aggression which do not support the notion that violent video games predict reduced prosocial behavior (Ferguson & Wang, 2019). While the current study does not utilize violent game play, this is important to consider when evaluating changes in empathy.

In the present study, we wanted to investigate whether AR games can induce empathy. The most popular AR game is Pokémon Go, where the player visits physical locations in order to capture characters. Since its release in 2016, it has attracted more than 65 million users (Serino, Cordrey, McLaughlin, & Milanaik, 2016). The popularity of Pokémon Go can be understood in the context of the uses and gratification theory (UGT; Ruggiero, 2000), which is one of the most highly cited theories to understand consumption of media. According to the UGT, people select certain media to satisfy needs, such as cognitive needs, social integrative needs, affective needs, tension-reducing needs (diversion or escape from boredom), and personal integrative needs (social status or credibility). More recently, this audience-centered theory has been applied to online gaming (Wu, Wang, & Tsai, 2010) and mobile gaming (Rauschnabel, Rossmann, & Dieck, 2017). Pokémon Go players may experience an upsurge of empathy because they seek stimulation that satisfies specific needs, including social needs. Pokémon Go allows players to meet up with other players at Pokémon Go gyms- real-world locations where players can train the creatures they've captured or battle rival teams for dominance in that location. Pokémon Go pub crawls are another opportunity for social interaction, where greater player numbers in one location also means more characters for players to capture. Instead of competing to catch the character, all players in that location can capture the same one. This shared experience can lead to one aspect of emotional empathy known as emotional contagion, where seeing another player’s excitement at capturing a character can trigger the same positive emotion in the individual (Alloway et al., 2016; Caruso & Mayer, 1998). In the present study, empathy was measured using a scale that captured both cognitive and emotional empathy.

Another aspect of interest in the present study is whether AR games can affect mood. Gaming more generally has been reported to be a highly effective method of generating and improving mood, with some studies reported a causal link between playing certain games and increased positive emotion (see Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2013 for a review). However, to date, no research has investigated whether AR games might also have a similar effect on mood. According to the UGT, individuals list emotional benefits (e.g., mood management; enhancing emotional state) as a top reason for being an “active consumer” of media. Rauschnabel, Rossmann, and Dieck (2017) applied the UGT to Pokémon Go players. Their findings from a survey of over 600 players indicated that playing Pokémon Go was predominately driven by emotional gratification, measured by questions relating to nostalgia and positive emotions about childhood memories. In the present study, emotion and mood was directly assessed using a standardized scale that measures both positive and negative affect. A control condition where participants walked outside without playing an AR game was included based on previous research that being in nature can improve mood (see Barton & Pretty, 2010, for a meta-analysis).


We report how we determined our sample size, all data exclusions, all manipulations, and all measures in the study (Simmons, Nelson, & Simonsohn, 2012).


Fifty-nine students from a public Florida university participated in this study in exchange for extra credit (78% females) All participants were between the ages of 18 and 35 years (Mage = 23.33 years, SD: 3.7); of those who responded, the majority were in their junior year (46%), though there were freshman, 46% juniors, and 20% seniors as well. Of those who responded, there were primarily Caucasian (42%), but there were also African Americans (5%), Latin/Hispanics (8.5%), and Asians (5%). All participants gave informed consent as overseen by the university’s institutional review board.

Participants were also asked about the amount of time spent outside per day, and the majority responded that they spent 60 to 90 minutes outdoors (40%), with 19% indicating spending less than 30 minutes outdoors, 33% spending 30 to 60 minutes outdoors, and 8% spending more than 120 minutes outdoors. Participants were in both urban and rural environments when outdoors (61.5%), with 23% in primarily urban settings, and 15.5% in primarily rural areas. When asked about their familiarity with Pokémon Go, 34.6% had played it since its release, while 54% had it installed for less than one month. The majority of participants reported playing it in both urban and rural environments (59.6%), with approximately 82% of the participants spending under 60 minutes a day playing.


Empathy. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) was used to measure empathy. Cognitive empathy is measured by: the Fantasy scale -- the tendency to identify with fictional characters -- and Perspective Taking -- the ability to place oneself in another’s situation. Emotional empathy is measured by: Empathic Concern -- the sympathetic feelings for other’s misfortunes and Personal Distress -- the anguish felt during other’s hardships and troubles. Each of the four subscales is comprised of seven items, which are rated on a five-point scale (A = does not describe me well to E = describes me very well). The maximum score for each subscale is 35, with higher numbers indicating higher levels of empathy. Reliability has been found to be high with Cronbach’s alphas of 0.89, 0.90, 0.92, 0.94 respectively for each subscale (Konrath, 2013).

Affect. Participants completed the 20-item positive and negative affect schedule (PANAS) to examine positive and negative mood. The PANAS consists of 20 words that describe different feelings and emotions. Ten of which load on the Positive Affect factor (e.g., “excited” or “enthusiastic”), while the other 10 load on the Negative Affect factor (e.g., “guilty or “irritable”; Serafini et al., 2017). Participants indicated how they felt currently in relation to these words, or to the extent that they have felt this way over the past week (1 = very slightly or not at all, 5 = extremely). Scores are then totaled for each factor (i.e., Positive and Negative). Reliability and validity have been reported to be moderately good. For the positive affect scale, Cronbach’s alpha coefficients ranged from 0.86 to 0.90, and the negative affect scale ranged from 0.84 to 0.87. The test-retest correlations are 0.47-0.68 for positive affect and 0.39-0.71-0.71 for negative affect (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988).


Participants took part in both Pokémon Go and Control conditions, approximately one week apart. In Phase 1, participants completed the affect and mood questionnaires. Phase 2 was the gaming conditions (Pokémon Go/Control). In the Pokémon Go condition, participants played the game outside for one hour. In the Control condition, participants walked outside for one hour without looking at their phones. Participants were provided with a map of the university grounds and informed to remain around trees, surrounding foliage, and lakes. In Phase 3, participants completed the same affect and mood questionnaires again. On Day 2, the procedure was the same, with nature conditions counterbalanced. Participants were debriefed at the end of Phase 3.


Table 1

Descriptive statistics as a function of interaction with the natural environment.

Pokémon Go Walk
Measure Before After Before After
interaction interaction interaction interaction
Affect: Positive 27.75 (10.38) 28.28 (10.62) 28.64 (9.38) 27.78 (10.65)
Affect: Negative 19.47 (7.77) 17.00 (7.48) 18.50 (9.04) 17.58 (8.35)
Empathy: Fantasy Scale 2.25 (.66) 2.30 (.65) 2.24 (.66) 2.30 (.66)
Empathy: Empathic Concern 2.55 (.42) 2.49 (.48) 2.38 (3.58) 2.36 (4.32)
Empathy: Perspective Taking 2.36 (.50) 2.41 (.50) 2.32 (.52) 2.31 (.57)
Empathy: Personal Distress 1.60 (.58) 1.51 (.47) 1.55 (.51) 1.45 (.48)



Descriptive statistics for affect and empathy are provided in Table 1. A 2 (Gaming: Pokémon Go vs Control) x 2 (Time: Pre vs Post) repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted on the positive affect scores. There was not a significant difference in positive affect scores as a function of gaming, F < 1; nor of time, F < 1; and the interaction was not significant, F < 1.

A 2 (Gaming: Pokémon Go vs Control) x 2 (Time: Pre vs Post) repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted on the negative affect scores. There was not a significant difference in the negative scores as a function of gaming, F < 1; but there was for time, F(1, 35) = 11.48, p = .002, partial eta squared = .25; but the interaction was not significant, F(1, 35) = 1.12, p = .297. Post-hoc comparisons indicated that negative affect decreased post-Pokémon Go (p = .001) but not in the Control condition (p = .127).


A series of 2 (Gaming: Pokémon Go vs Control) x 2 (Time: Pre vs Post) repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) were conducted individually on each of the IRI subscales. For Empathic Concern, there was not a significant difference in scores as a function of gaming, F(1, 37) = 2.01, p = .165; nor for time, F(1, 37) = 3.07, p = .088, and the interaction was not significant, F < 1. For Perspective Taking, there was not a significant difference in scores as a function of gaming, F < 1; nor of time, F < 1; and the interaction was not significant, F < 1. For the Fantasy Scale, there was not a significant difference in scores as a function of gaming, F < 1; nor of time, F < 1; and the interaction was not significant, F < 1. For Personal Distress, there was not a significant difference in scores as a function of gaming, F < 1; but there was for time, F(1, 37) = 5.28, p = .027, partial eta squared = .125; the interaction was not significant, F < 1. Post-hoc comparisons indicated that Personal Distress scores decreased in the Control condition (p = .036) but not post-Pokémon Go (p = .181).

To check whether our results were due to a lack of statistical power (due to such a low sample size), we conducted post hoc power analyses using GPower (Faul & Erdfelder, 1992; for a full description, see Erdfelder, Faul, & Buchner, 1996) with power (1 - β) set at 0.95 and α = 05, two-tailed. This showed us that sample sizes need to be N = 36, for group differences to reach statistical significance at the .05 level. Thus, it is unlikely that our findings were attributed to a limited sample size.


There were two key findings from the present study. First, there was a decrease in negative affect after participants played Pokémon Go, but not in the Control condition. The finding that playing Pokémon Go decreased negative mood can be interpreted in light of the ‘tension-release needs’ in the UGT, where playing the game allows the player to escape or avoid negative feelings or moods (see also Alloway, Gerzina, & Moulder, 2016). While being in nature can improve mood (Barton & Pretty, 2010), the findings from the present study indicated that being in nature alone was not sufficient to have an effect on mood.

It was originally hypothesized that playing Pokémon Go may lead to increased empathy, stemming from enhanced social interaction and more frequent connectedness with strangers (Jungselius, et al., 2015), however this was not evidenced from the present study. While research has found that gaming is not effective in influencing empathy in either direction (Chung, deBuys, & Nam, 2007), there are two possible reasons for why this pattern was observed. Playing Pokémon Go did not lead to an increase in empathy, but some aspects of emotional empathy (Personal Distress which measures "self-oriented" feelings of personal anxiety and unease in tense interpersonal settings) were different in the Control condition. The main goal of Pokémon Go can be interpreted in light of the ‘cognitive needs’ category of the UGT, where the player fulfills an information gathering purpose by catching as many characters as possible. Thus, while playing Pokémon Go can lead to creating or maintaining relationships (‘social integrative needs’ of the UGT), these social connections did not appear to facilitate empathy because they do not require the player to respond to others in an emotional manner. It is possible that if the game were redesigned to highlight a cooperative feature where players collect characters to benefit a group, empathy can be induced. Morschheuser, Maedche and Walter (2017) found that cooperative games can encourage positive social attitudes toward cooperation and cultivate the we-intention of working as a group to overcome challenges. Furthermore, if the game created opportunities to respond in an empathic manner (e.g., comforting a crying child as in Kang, 2017), players may display more prosocial behaviors. Indeed, Happ, Melzer, and Steffgen (2015) reported that an empathy induction (either reading some text or watching a video clip) increased prosocial behavior after playing a prosocial game.

Another possibility for the lack of empathic responses after playing Pokémon Go could be due to the unrealistic nature of the game characters. Realism in gaming environments moderates the effects that the game has on the player, in both aggression and prosocial behavior (Krcmar, Farrar, & McGloin, 2011). A defining feature of the reboot version is that the characters are magical and fantastical, which is a move away from the original look where characters were based on animals (Webster, 2016). Thus, this lack of realism may have contributed to the players’ inability to adopt fellow players’ perspectives or demonstrate empathy. It is worth noting that while playing Pokémon Go did not increase empathy levels, other research has reported that playing Pokémon Go represents a sense of belonging to a community, social interaction within that community (Zach & Tussyadiah, 2017), and can also increase in sociability (Ruiz-Ariza, Casuso, Suarez-Manzano, & Martínez-López, 2017). Thus, it may increase some aspects of social relationships that align with the social integrative needs of the UGT.

Main limitations include how we did not use a non-AR game as a control group. Using a similar non-AR game may have been a better control to adequately compare the effects in changes in empathy. Future research will compare users playing Pokémon Go with AR enabled to users playing Pokémon Go with the AR function disabled. Additionally, it may be useful to compare Pokémon Go to similar AR games such as Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, Ghostbusters World, or Sharks in the Park with the AR function disabled to again provide an adequate control. Additionally, it is important to note the relative low sample size and the inherent limits of generalizability as a result. Future research will include larger samples to increase power, and hopefully replicate current findings.

In summary, the present study represents the first to explore the potential benefits of playing Pokémon Go on mood and empathy. The findings suggest that Pokémon Go is distinct from virtual reality environments in that the immersive and augmented context does not facilitate empathy but can improve mood. This finding has important implications for individuals who struggle with anxiety and depression. Practitioners who work with these populations may be interested to know the potential benefits of AR games for use in behavioral activation treatments (BA), reductions in subjective units of distress (SUDS), and prolonged exposure (PE) treatments (Meyerbroker & Emmelkamp, 2010).


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