Game tops government at getting kids active

If you are unaware of the phenomenon that is Pokémon Go, it is certain you are not in possession of your own little monsters under age 18. Because I have three of those creatures in the Hicks household, I can relate a story of this viral smartphone app and the havoc it has wrought.

A free app for smartphones has exploded in use. For those of you born in a less technically prodigious age, an “app” is computer software, often a game such as Pac-Man.

Remarkably, only four days after it was released, its daily use eclipsed Twitter, with the average user spending almost 45 minutes a day with it. To put it in context, that is longer than the average user spends on Facebook.

Pokémon Go is a game but is unlike nearly all other electronic games. The user plays a game to capture the eponymous creatures of Japanese origin. These Pokémon monsters look like rats, dragons or perhaps another 250 different beasts, with more surely coming. To capture them, you must go to where they are, and by that I mean physically run, walk or ride a bike.

The Pokémon creatures appear on your screen but are linked to GPS, so you must physically move to where they appear. This is known as augmented reality.

The tween rumor mill tells me that the Pokémon manifest themselves most often near churches, which makes sense if the software programmer wanted to construct an algorithm to insure plenty of the little beasts appearing somewhat uniformly across a map of the United States (and world).

The result of this, which is playing out across the U.S., is legions of Pokémon Go players making their way outside to capture monsters and activate other game features, which are too many to describe. My own 15-year-old male monster (a species not typically known for judgment and restraint) walked more than nine miles across the neighborhood in one day, sandwiching this adventure between his two-a-day swim practices.

The economic impact of this game on my grocery bill alone is significant. For the developers, having more people stare at screens for more time than Facebook, this game is poised to create billions of dollars of advertising value. However, there’s more than just a business lesson here.

To illustrate the economic lesson, I quote my 12-year-old he-monster who observed (or retweeted) that “Michelle Obama has spent eight years trying to get kids to exercise, but Pokémon did it in less than a week.”

He is right of course, and I offer my kudos to the First Lady. Nonetheless, this illustrates a rarely uttered truth about private sector commerce.

The quest for profit by the developers of Pokémon Go has unleashed physical activity of children at a level no amount of government haranguing or coercion ever could. Or, as Adam Smith put it, the good of Pokémon is not from their benevolence, “but from their regard to their own interest.”

Let us all hope they make billions of dollars on it.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to