Pokémon Go and China: Who Banned Whom?


The augmented reality (AR) game Pokémon GO has been the cause of many ridiculous incidents since its launch in Australia. Players have been spotted following Pokémon into dangerous locations and turning in-game battles into physical brawls.

On July 12, a Chinese international student live streamed his trip to challenge a gym located at the Sydney Opera House. In Pokémon GO, players challenge gym battles to claim the space and face other challengers. He brought along two experienced players who were also excited to make the attempt.

At the Sydney Opera House, the three clashed with the uniform-clad gym team. The players attempted to circle the challengers and batter them in real life, and the three fled immediately.

The live broadcast lost its signal during the chase, shocking many viewers who were watching in China. Soon after, the host came back online and reported he and the other two players were safe.


Although the game is exciting, Chinese player remain unable to experience it. On its official Facebook page, the developers announced on July 12 that “Pokémon GO is available to play in all countries except China, Korea, Taiwan, Cuba, Iran, Myammar and Sudan.”

This comment has since been deleted, but it was sad news for many of China’s Pokémon fans.

Some players set up their own private VPNs to access the Niantic’s Pokémon servers through other countries. However, Niantic’s Asia Marketing Executive Kento Suga announced on Twitter that the company was rolling out an update that would permanently exclude Chinese players.

The developers seem committed to excluding the gigantic Chinese market.

Creating Pokémon GO

Pokémon GO is a phone game utilizing location-based services, RPG elements and augmented reality. This sudden and impressively profitable game was created by Niantic and Pokémon Company, with the support of Google and Nintendo.

The game is mostly the brain child of John Hanke, former vice president of product management at Google Maps.

According to an article on Doit published on July 13, Hanke founded a company within Google named Niantic Labs in 2010. They mainly explored and improved AR technology to create the game Ingress for Android.

In 2015, Google’s reorganized parent company Alphabet allowed Niantic to become independent, with John Hanke as its the CEO. In September of that year, Niantic cooperated with Pokémon Company to develop Pokémon GO. Soon after, Google, Nintendo and Pokémon Company invested $20 million in the project.

Pokémon GO became the most popular game in the app store within hours of its launch, BI Chinese reported.

According to statistics by Sensor Tower and SimilarWeb, the game is installed on 5.6 percent of all Android devices. The average time each user spends on Pokémon GO is approximately 43 minutes and 23 seconds, exceeding popular social networking apps such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder and Messenger.

According to Fortune magazine’s interview with Global Equities Research Executive Trip Chowdhry, “In terms of investment, Google was clearly the winner.”

However, was Niantic intentionally blocking Chinese players?

China has many domestic services that occupy the same market segments as Google, Facebook and Uber. Pokémon GO cannot operate in China because it depends completely on Google Maps’ location services, which are blocked in China.

Furthermore, as an offshoot of Google, it is highly unlikely Niantic will be able to cooperate with Chinese map providers such as Baidu Maps and Amap.

Google exited the Chinese market, blaming the government for hacking its users’ accounts. Pokémon GO may carry a similar risk.

Public Safety Concerns

US Senator Al Franken of Minnesota wrote Niantic CEO John Hanke a letter regarding privacy in the world of Pokémon GO. “I’m worried that Niantic could collect, use and share the users’ information without their permission. We need to know how Niantic will deal with these privacy risks, especially for younger players,” he wrote.

Because most players use their Google accounts to register for this game, Niantic may have the ability to view and collect user information. It may even be possible for the company to check emails, search history and location information, making the game a fresh avenue for hackers.

Since Pokémon GO’s launch, the game has appeared in unexpected places worldwide.

During a daily US Department of State News Conference, spokesman John Kirby caught a reporter playing the game while he was delivering a statement about ISIS, 163 News reported.

The addictive quality of this game is significant, and the search for Pokémon has led some players to accidentally cross the US-Canada border, to wander into a military base and to end up shot while trespassing on the property of a gun owner.

Many countries have published pleas for players to exercise better judgement.

According to Sina News’ editor Li Tianyi, the French Police Department tweeted a plea to not play Pokémon GO while driving. Two temples in Japan also banned visitors from playing the game inside to avoid accidents.

Before questioning Niantic’s decision to ignore the Chinese market, we might need to ask whether Pokémon GO should come to China.

The urban traffic in China is no joke. It’s difficult enough to cross the street with both eyes checking left and right. Imagine what might happen when everyone – even the drivers – is out chasing Pokémon.

Other see the game as a new business opportunity. JSChina News reported on July 12 about an Australian named Matthew Latteman who created a business to drive players around on their search for the ideal Pokémon.

As much fun as the new technology may be, safety and the time we devote to these games is something we need to consider. There’s a lot more to the world than what’s happening on your smartphone screen.

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