COVID-19 as 'game changer' for the physical activity and mental well-being of augmented reality game players during the pandemic: mixed methods survey study

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Abstract

Background: Location-based augmented reality (AR) games, such as Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, have been shown to have a beneficial impact on the physical activity, social connectedness, and mental health of their players. In March 2020, global social distancing measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the AR games developer Niantic Inc to implement several changes to ensure continued player engagement with Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. We sought to examine how the physical and mental well-being of players of these games were affected during the unprecedented COVID-19 restriction period as well as how their video game engagement was affected.

Objective: The aims of this study were to examine the impact of COVID-19-related social restrictions on the physical and mental well-being of AR game players; to examine the impact of COVID-19-related social restrictions on the use of video games and motivations for their use; and to explore the potential role of AR games (and video games in general) in supporting well-being during COVID-19-related social restrictions.

Methods: A mixed methods web-based self-reported survey was conducted in May 2020, during which COVID-19-related social restrictions were enforced in many countries. Participants were recruited on the web via four subreddits dedicated to Pokémon GO or Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Data collected included quantitative data on demographics, time spent playing video games, physical activity, and mental health; qualitative data included motivations to play and the impact of video games on mental health during COVID-19 lockdown.

Results: We report results for 2004 participants (1153/1960 male, 58.8%, average age 30.5 years). Self-reported physical activity during COVID-19-related social restrictions significantly decreased from 7.50 hours per week on average (SD 11.12) to 6.50 hours (SD 7.81) (P<.001). More than half of the participants reported poor mental health (925/1766, 52.4%; raw World Health Organization-5 Well-Being Index score <13). Female gender, younger age, and reduced exercise were significant predictors of poor mental health. Participants reported a significant increase in video game play time from 16.38 hours per week on average (SD 19.12) to 20.82 hours (SD 17.49) (P<.001). Approximately three quarters of the participants (n=1102/1427, 77.2%) reported that playing video games had been beneficial to their mental health. The changes made to Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite were very well received by players, and the players continued to use these games while exercising and to maintain social connection. In addition to seeking an escape during the pandemic and as a form of entertainment, participants reported that they used video games for emotional coping and to lower stress, relax, and alleviate mental health conditions.

Conclusions: AR games have the potential to promote physical and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Used by populations under isolation and distress, these games can improve physical and mental health by providing virtual socialization, sustained exercise, temporal routine, and mental structure. Further research is needed to explore the potential of AR games as digital behavioral interventions to maintain human well-being in the wider population.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere25117
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Volume22
Issue number12
Early online date5 Dec 2020
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 22 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.

Keywords

  • COVID-19
  • Pokémon GO
  • Harry Potter: Wizards Unite
  • augmented reality games
  • physical activity
  • mental health
  • well-being

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