Is it ethical and fair to play Pokémon GO in South Africa already?

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It’s 6.30 in the evening and dark outside in Joburg’s northern suburbs. Bob puts a tray of vegetables in the oven and takes his nine year old daughter by the hand to walk to the nearby park. She’s just installed Pokémon GO on her phone, a third-hand Android handset, and wants to check out the Pokestop a few hundred meters away.

When Bob and his daughter get there, there’s already three cars parked by the small play area. Three adults – a young couple and another man – are stood looking intently at their handsets. One car drives off. Bob hangs around for half an hour but there’s nothing on his daughter’s screen except a spinning Pokémon logo. The game crashes a couple of times.

“It’s ten o’clock in the US,” one of their fellow spotters says, “So the Americans have come online and the servers just can’t handle it.”

A few minutes more and Bob and his daughter head off to rescue their dinner. They wish the other addicts good luck.

“We had some great spots last night,” the man says, “Over in Waterfall.”

Pokémon GO, in case you haven’t heard yet, is an augmented reality game for Android and iOS smartphones in which players traverse the real world in search of pocket monsters.

Pokestops are landmarks in the real world, around which the virtual beasties tend to cluster. The game isn’t officially released in South Africa, yet, possibly explaining why those who are already playing it – having acquired it via various methods are patient with its foibles. Even the nine-year-old is unphased – after all, she’s caught six creatures on the way home from school already.

Some, however, feel that South African players leaping onto the worldwide phenomenon (which has pushed Nintendo’s share price up by 93% since release) may be damaging the game by refusing to play by Nintendo’s rules and wait for a formal release with proper server support.

“I’m totally opposed to the unauthorised playing of Pokémon GO for a number of reasons” Jaco van der Walt tells us.

Van der Walt has been an active member of the South African Pokémon community for a number of years and works closely with Nintendo and Pokemon distributors to insure South Africa is recognised as an active Pokémon playing community.

“We registered our first official Pokémon League in South Africa in 2011 and we’ve been fighting for years to uphold the community and to promote the growth of Pokémon in South Africa,” Van der Walt says.

“Throughout the years one of the main reasons cited for the lack of support to South African Pokémon Players by The Pokémon Company International is the low number of registered players.”

“By breaking the terms and conditions Niantic, Pokémon Company International and Google may refuse service to all unauthorised installs of the game. Additionally the bypass [sideloading the app] can influence the statistics of Pokémon players in a region and hinder the future localised support we can expect to receive,” Van der Walt says.

It’s clear Nintendo and Pokémon GO creator Niantic didn’t expect the huge response. Last night servers struggled across the world to cope with demand for the always online game, and new players struggled to register as the login system was closed down repeatedly for Pokémon virgins.

According to Van der Walt these server outages are happening because of the impatience of aspiring trainers.

“I also find it appalling that players who are in breach of the terms of service flock to Twitter to vent their frustrations about server issues and bugs in the app. The scheduled regional release of Pokémon GO is intentional.”

Van der Walt says that the staggered roll-out of Pokémon GO was likely meant to maintain server availabilty during peak times, help identify and fix bugs and most importantly, “Adhere to any local or regional laws related to content distribution.”

Pokémon was created in 1995 by Satoshi Tajiri as two games for the Game Boy. The idea behind the game was inspired by Tajiri’s love for collecting insects which remains the premise of the game to this day. Today the Pokémon name lends itself to numerous movies, animated TV series and a hugely popular trading-card game.

It seems in the rush to get in on the Pokémon GO hype, aspiring trainers may not only be testing Niantics server, but the law as well.

“Yes – Pokémon GO is a free App but piracy has as much to do with getting stuff for free as it has with the theft and distribution of digital IP,” explains Van der Walt.

“I urge all South Africans to wait patiently for the local release of Pokémon GO. Believe me – I’m just as excited as everyone else but not to the point where I’m going to cut off any future local support we can expect for the game I love.”

For those that simply cannot stave off the FOMO, we do ask that you at least be safe. As the game has rolled out numerous reports have surfaced of people crossing the street without looking, engrossed in their quest for a Pikachu. Hell, we’ve seen tweets from folks bragging about swerving off the road to catch a digital Charmander.

What iss clear, judging by the cluster of Pokémon trainers in this relatively obscure park where Bob and his daughter will pilgrimage once again tonight, is that when the game is officially released, it’s going to be huge.

[Image – CC BY 2.0 Blake Burkhart]

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz writes news, reviews, and opinion pieces for Hypertext. His interests include SMEs, innovation on the African continent, cybersecurity, blockchain, games, geek culture and YouTube.