Less than a day after Niantic’s smash-hit AR game Pokemon Go launched in Japan, the Japanese servers have reportedly been flooded with Chinese players
Well, that didn’t take long.
Less than a day after Niantic’s smash-hit AR game Pokemon Go launched in Japan, the Japanese servers have reportedly been flooded with Chinese players. A post that reached the top of Reddit’s massive Pokemon Go subreddit, for example, complained about high-level Chinese players monopolizing Japan’s Pokemon gyms.
Some are even using the game as a form of nationalist protest. A photo posted with the Reddit thread shows the gym at the Yasukuni Shrine being dominated by a player with a high-level Dragonite nicknamed “Long live China!”
As usual, there’s a lot of anger directed at Chinese gamers in the comments on Reddit, and in the next few weeks as the game becomes available in more Asian countries, I’d expect to see the arrival of Chinese players causing anger there as well.
So in the interest of mutual understanding, let’s answer some questions about why this happens and what Pokemon Go players elsewhere in Asia should expect.
Why are Chinese gamers playing Pokemon Go in Japan?
The primary reason Chinese gamers are playing Pokemon Go in Japan is that they just want to play Pokemon Go. The game isn’t available in China right now, so Chinese players who want to get in on the fun have to access some other country’s servers to play. As of this writing, Japan is the closest country to China where Pokemon Go servers are available.
Some players are also on Japan’s servers for nationalist reasons, but it seems probable that they are a small minority. Most Chinese Pokemon Go players are just there because they want to enjoy the game as best they can. Unfortunately, because China’s mobile gaming population is so massive, even a “small minority” can mean tens of thousands of people being jerks. And of course, because the jerks are the most visible Chinese players, many people assume that all Chinese players are on Japan’s servers to troll.
How is this related to nationalism?
Although I think most players are just playing for fun, there is a “patriotic” angle to playing the game in Japan too. Firstly, like many Asian countries, China suffered bitterly under the Japanese invasion during the second world war, and that’s still very much on the minds of China’s nationalists. Any kind of symbolic strike at Japan – and particularly at the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines many of Japan’s war dead, including more than 1,000 war criminals – seems appealing from a Chinese nationalist perspective.
But more important, probably, is the recent Hague decision in the South China Sea arbitration. Technically, the Dutch court’s ruling on a dispute between China and the Philippines isn’t really related to Japan, but in China the ruling has been interpreted as an American and Japanese power move aimed at controlling China and (in the view of many Chinese) stealing territory that is rightfully China’s. China’s nationalists are up in arms about this – they consider it an international insult – and taking over Japanese Pokemon gyms is a way of expressing their disapproval and frustration.
Again, though, it’s important to remember that most of the Chinese gamers playing Pokemon Go in Japan aren’t doing this sort of thing. They’re simply trying to play the game.
How are Chinese gamers playing Pokemon Go in Japan?
Since the game isn’t available in China, Chinese mobile gamers have to download the app somehow, access it via a VPN, and then use another app for GPS spoofing. Basically, GPS spoofing tricks your phone into reporting the wrong GPS location so (for example) you can appear to the game to be in Japan where there are Pokemon to catch, even when in real life you’re in China.
Many of these spoofing tools also come with ways to cheat at the game, allowing players to “walk around” simply by pressing a button rather than actually having to move or go anywhere. But these sorts of tools are being used by Pokemon Go cheats all over the world, and there’s no real evidence that Chinese players are using these features more than players from anywhere else.
Will this happen when Pokemon launches in my country, too?
It might. Regular Chinese gamers are just looking for ways to play the game, so they can be expected to show up on servers all around Asia until they have their own to play on. If your country has a territorial dispute with China – many Southeast Asian countries do – then you might also see nationalist Pokemon players flooding your servers as an (annoying) form of protest.
How long until China gets its own servers and they go away?
It will probably be quite a while. Personally I think Pokemon Go probably never will be available in China. But even if I’m wrong, it won’t appear in China for some time, as it would probably need major changes made (like switching to a Chinese GPS map instead of Google Maps) and it would still have to go through SAPPRFT’s lengthy approval process for mobile games.
How is this related to Chinese gamers “ruining” other games, like MMOs?
Some Chinese gamers are definitely trolls, but for the most part, when Chinese gamers flood a game’s overseas servers, it’s because they don’t have access to the game in China, or because there’s some part of the game they like that they can’t access in China.
In the case of some big games like World of Warcraft, there are also economic factors – more people are willing to pay for gold on foreign servers – but often, Chinese gamers will flood the servers of (for example) a new Korean MMO because it looks fun but it hasn’t been released in China yet. Like gamers everywhere, China’s gamers don’t like waiting for games or features that other countries already have.
And have some sympathy for them! Chinese gamers almost always end up getting games last, if they get them at all, and what they do get is usually also censored. I know it’s annoying when they flood foreign servers because there are tons of them, but remember: they can’t help that their country is very populous and their government is very restrictive. They’re just trying to play games.
Who is really to blame here?
That is a complicated and subjective question. But certainly, if Pokemon Go was available in China, the problem of Chinese players “invading” other servers would be far less severe. So why isn’t the game available in China? Perhaps developer Niantic simply doesn’t consider it a priority. Perhaps Chinese regulatory agency SAPPRFT is being restrictive. Perhaps China’s broader government is responsible, since it erected the internet blocks on Google services that would make adapting Pokemon Go difficult in China without major changes to the game’s infrastructure.
Whoever you want to blame, though, I’d argue that most of the gamers are blameless. There’s no excuse for getting on another country’s servers and trolling, of course. But I’d argue that GPS spoofing onto a Japanese server is not, in and of itself, trolling if that’s the only way you’re able to play the game.
This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.