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Playing Pokémon Go in China Is Not Easy, But Many Are

'The game is technically 'unavailable' in China's App store, but some people have found ways to download and play it anyway.' (Image:  brar_j via   flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )
'The game is technically 'unavailable' in China's App store, but some people have found ways to download and play it anyway.' (Image: brar_j via flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

Pokémon Go has not been officially released in China, but Chinese players are finding creative ways to access the record-breaking augmented reality game that has captured the imaginations of millions of mobile users around the world.

The game uses Google Maps data to superimpose characters from the Japanese Pokémon video game series into your geographic surroundings. As you walk, your smartphone uses GPS to track your position in the world, and it will know if you get close to one of these characters. You can then capture the character on your phone screen, train it, and then deploy it in the “augmented reality” battlefield that is Pokémon Go.

Launched on Apple’s App store in select countries on July 6, 2016, it was developed by U.S.-based Niantic Labs. The game is technically “unavailable” in China’s App store, but some people have found ways to download and play it anyway.

Here are six things that make it hard — and risky — to play Pokémon Go in China:

1. App stores are heavily censored in China

To be displayed on Chinese app stores, all online games — including Pokémon Go — have to be approved by the censor board. Since Pokémon Go has yet to receive such approval, fans have to register their phone with an overseas Apple ID in order to find and download the Pokémon Go app.

2. Pokémon Go users have to climb the Great Firewall

To register a gamer account, players need a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to climb over the Chinese Internet filter, or the so-called Great Firewall, and access the game server. The gamer also needs to register a Google account, as Google services are also blocked in China.

3. Most players have to spoof their GPS location

Since the game’s GPS features are locked in most parts of the country, players have to spoof their GPS location. In early July, many Chinese players set their location to Australia, leading to numerous server problems.

4. A few players use the game for making patriotic statements

After the game launched in Japan on July 22, Chinese players spoofed their location again, which resulted in some technical problems. Moreover, a few of them used the game for making political statements. According to TECHINASIA, Pokémon Go’s Japanese servers have reportedly been flooded with Chinese players, and one of them appeared at the Yasukuni Shrine, a politically sensitive site honoring those who died serving the Emperor of Japan during wars from 1867–1951:

As the Yasukuni Shrine is a well-known location among Chinese, it is quite natural for Chinese players to visit the site. Though only a small number of players would use the game to make political statements, such an act is likely to attract a large amount of attention, as well as generate antipathy between people in the virtual world, and fuel extreme nationalistic reactions in the real world.

5. Pokémon characters roam free in Xinjiang and Dongbei

The game is not as much fun if you cannot actually interact with the real world environment. In some parts of China, including Xinjiang and the Northeastern region (Dongbei), the game’s GPS has not been locked, and players can actually capture Pokémon characters there. Of course, if you are not a local resident, you have to travel there to play the game.

One gamer named @chekailiuhai shared some tips on playing the augmented game in Dongbei on popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo:

6. Chinese gamers can face significant political risks

As some have pointed out on Weibo, using a VPN in Xinjiang can result in mobile services being cut off completely.

Also, since the game launched on July 6, a conspiracy theory about Pokémon Go has been circulated on social media, claiming the game is a U.S. government-sponsored project aimed at collecting sensitive geo data.

For example, on July 25, the Communist Youth League from Henan Province posted an article on Weibo quoting various sources commenting on the companies behind the game’s GPS technology:

According to a local gamer, @lizexipablo, Dongbei and Xinjiang were “not unlocked” on July 11. He says he has been accessing the game since its launch. He elaborated that the game developers have drawn a GPS locked zone according to this map:

pokemon-map

Even though the conspiracy has little evidence backing it up, as geolocation technology is used in many mobile apps, it still received some echoes online. Charles Liu from Nanfang quoted a netizen comment from Weibo:

Given the spread of extreme patriotic sentiment targeting foreign brands, Chinese gamers playing Pokémon Go may also risk being labelled traitors, and subjected to bullying or attacks online or offline.

All this raises the question: Is there a safe way to play Pokémon Go in China? Under such political circumstances, the safest way to play the game is to spoof your location and hope that others think you are “performing patriotism” on overseas servers.

However, given the massive population of Chinese gamers, the minority of nationalist trolls has already caused resentment and anger in other countries. The most reasonable solution is to wait for an official launch of the game inside China. Niantic Labs is also applying for the game’s trademarks in China.

But ordinary netizens don’t think Chinese authorities will let the game enter the country.  A Chinese Twitter user explained:

This article by Oiwan Lam originally appeared on Global Voices.

[Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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