Several recent headlines have captured an array of misadventures associated with Nintendo’s latest smartphone craze: “Men fall off cliff playing Pokemon Go”; “Florida man shoots Pokemon Go players”; “Man walks on Toronto subway playing Pokemon Go.”

But for those players who keep their heads up, Pokemon Go could carry some surprising mental health benefits.

A University of British Columbia psychology associate professor who studies social interactions and their effects on mental health says the social nature of Pokemon Go could be beneficial for some players, particularly those with depression and social anxiety.

“For individuals with depression, they want to get out in the world and engage and do things, but the depression is really a barrier to everything. It just feels too difficult, too tiring,” Amori Mikami told CTV

“The same thing with social anxiety: they want to get out in the world … but the barrier is feeling that, ‘What if I say something or do something wrong? What if I don’t know how to do the right thing?’”

The popular augmented reality game plunks players into a world where wild Pokemon can be spotted on a smartphone and captured with the swipe of a finger. Pokemon Go encourages players to get outside and search for gyms, PokeStops and rare Pokemon hidden across town.

For players struggling with depression and social anxiety, this nudge into face-to-face social interaction outdoors could be precisely the motivation they need, Mikami said.

“I think Pokemon Go provides a way to get over some of those barriers. It’s a structured and fun activity that really draws you into walking around outside, seeing new places,” she said.

It’s an experience Mikami knows first-hand. Since the game dropped in Canada on July 17, she’s already hit level 10.

“It definitely can draw you into social interactions with other people. For instance, I caught a Pokemon on the street today, it was a very difficult one, and then another player came by and said, ‘Nice catch, I just got that one too!’”

Grab a coffee, catch a Koffing

Some businesses have begun capitalizing off the game’s amiable nature. In Vancouver, some cafes and restaurants have started setting lure modules -- that is, virtual add-ons that attract Pokemon to a certain area -- at their location to attract customers.

Mikami pointed out the positive social benefits that this kind of structured meet-up can have for some players.

“You have an instant entrée of what to start talking about, (and) there’s an instant way to enter that conversation,” she said.

“Also, players will tell other players where certain Pokemon are; it’s not competitive. So when a Pokemon shows up, anyone in that location can catch it, which I think encourages co-operation.”

Pokemon hang-outs have become a common sighting since the game began. In Toronto, hundreds of people gathered at the CN Tower last weekend to celebrate the game’s Canadian release, and in Montreal dozens of players recently gathered at a park after dark to catch Pokemon.

When to unplug

But there is such a thing as too much Pokemon Go, and Mikami says players should keep a close eye on when enough is enough.

“I don’t think that there’s a magic number, in terms of saying this many hours a day is too much for a person,” she said.

“If you’re finding that you’re not getting work done, whether it’s school work or whether it’s the professional work, and it’s starting to interfere with your job or your school productivity, that could be one sign.”

Another sign could be if you’re avoiding seeing friends that you actually really used to enjoy seeing.”

That in mind, Mikami says that the same advice could be given to someone entering a new romantic relationship or training for a triathlon.

“Those are things that some people can get really immersed in and really not know when to turn off,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s unique to Pokemon Go or to video games. I think any time there is a new engaging activity, there’s a potential to take it to excess.”

False perceptions of gaming

Mikami has extensively researched human relationships and the way people’s in-person interactions are reflected in their online habits, particularly on Facebook. In general, she found that people with positive, healthy relationships tend to demonstrate the same behaviours online, and vice versa.

And while she hasn’t applied formal research techniques to Pokemon Go (“I only started playing this week”), she cautioned against jumping to conclusions about negative impacts that the new smartphone game could have on players.

“I think we have, as a society, this presumption that if it’s a video game or it’s something online, that the interaction can never be as good quality or can never be as genuine or real or meaningful than something that occurs face to face,” she said.

“Even the ways some people frame Pokemon Go -- ‘Well, it’s still a video game but it’s not as bad as the other video games’ -- I don’t know. I actually take some issue with that whole presumption, because I think there are a lot of benefits to online interactions as something that people probably don’t give enough credit to.”

For those looking to reap possible physical and mental benefits of the game, Mikami said it’s all about getting outside and, of course, looking up every once in a while.

“I think this should go without saying: use common sense when playing. Similar to the way you should use common sense when walking around the world, and not jump on train tracks or walk off cliffs because you’re not paying attention to where you’re walking. You know, use common sense,” she said.