The wildly popular but often-controversial augmented reality game, Pokemon GO, has only been officially available for the past few weeks, but in this short time span, it has already become one of the most-downloaded apps on Android and iOS around the world, with over 100 million official downloads. However, even as mobile gaming enthusiasts the world over are enjoying catching the Pikachus and the Raichus on their smartphones, gamers in China are continuing to miss out on the fun. That’s because despite being the largest market for mobile games in the world, the country is yet to see the official launch of Pokemon GO even after almost two months of the game’s global launch. While that may sound severely counterintuitive at first, taking a closer look at the full picture should clear up the reasons behind this apparent dichotomy.
Pokemon GO is an augmented reality game developed by an American video game development company called Niantic Labs, and is based on virtual characters called Pokemon that were originally created by Japanese technology giant, Nintendo. The game is currently available as a free download on the Google Play Store as well as on Apple’s App Store in many regions around the world, but some of the notable markets where the game has not yet been launched officially, include China, South Korea and India. While Niantic is widely expected to launch the game in the South Asian country next month, gamers in the two East Asian countries are seemingly are out of luck, at least for now. While the exact reasons for the game's unavailability in the two regions differ significantly, the one common thread that binds them is Google. That's because Niantic has integrated Google services so tightly with Pokemon GO that any blocking of the search giant's mapping services is a surefire way of making the game unplayable in that area. And with Google's disagreements with the Chinese and South Korean governments not exactly a state secret, Pokemon GO has turned out to be an unwitting bystander caught in the crossfire.
Sadly for Chinese residents, not only do Pokemon GO players have to register on the app through a Google Account, but the location-based game also makes use of Google Maps for navigation, making it pretty much impossible for gamers in the world’s largest mobile gaming market to get official support for Pokemon GO in their country. That’s because virtually all of Google’s online services, including search, mail, maps, the Play Store and others, are legally banned in China. The ban is strictly enforced through the so-called ‘Chinese Firewall’ - a series of strong and often unbreachable measures that keep internet users in the country from accessing content that their government deems objectionable for one reason or another. What that means is that gamers wanting to play Pokemon GO in China have to make use of VPN (Virtual Private Network) services. However, according to an online survey conducted among Chinese internet users after two days of the game’s global release, only 11% of all respondents were able to play the game using such means to circumvent the censorship.
Meanwhile, Pokemon GO is also nowhere to be found on the Play Store in the fourth-largest gaming market in the world, South Korea. That’s because the U.S. search giant has been locked in a long-standing dispute with the South Korean government over access to the country's map data. While the South Korean government cites ‘security’ as its reason for not allowing Google to map the country, the American tech giant claims that the country’s government is blocking its plans in a cynical move to help domestic companies, such as Naver and Kakao Corp., both of which use government-supplied maps with much of the information deemed ‘sensitive’ by the government, either deleted, blurred or camouflaged. It remains to be seen if the much-loved game makes it to either of the two countries in the foreseeable future, but gamers and Pokemon enthusiasts in these countries will be hoping that it happens sooner rather than later.