I remember when my cousin first introduced me to a GameShark. It looked like a skinny rumble pack, and it had a logo of some kind of tribal shark that I'm sure someone has a tattoo of. When my cousin told me that with this I could get whatever Pokemon I wanted—or, whatever item I needed—I was thrilled, but scared. It felt illegal, and I was certain the Pokémon Company would knock on my door asking me to hand my Game Boy over.
I'd like to think I was just an honest preteen. And yet, years earlier I was catching MissingNo. and duplicating rare candies in Pokémon Red, which really puts a dent in my morality theory. Though it doesn't change the fact that cheating in Pokémon is as old as the game series itself. When Pokémon were first unleashed on the world and GameFreak told us to be the very best (that no one ever was), I don't know if they predicted the lengths some of us would go through to do exactly that. It happened in Pokémon Red and Blue, and it's happening now in Pokémon Go thanks to a couple tricks like "spoofing," or using bots.
Spoofing is a term used to describe hacks where someone successfully falsifies their location or identity. It has also become quite the problem for Pokémon Go players until recently. Basically, it's where trainers trick the Pokémon Go app into using false GPS coordinates—either through rooting their smartphones or through third party apps available on the Google Play Store.
Once a player successfully finds a way to change their GPS coordinates, they'll be able to travel anywhere they please on the Pokémon Go map, catching Pokémon from far away. All from the comfort of their own homes. Combined with Pokémon tracking websites, and finding one's desired Pokémon has become easier than ever. Additionally, spoofing players can battle far away gyms, or do basically anything else that requires players to previously move physically in Pokémon Go's world to accomplish.
Spoofing is apparently so innocuous, websites like the Daily Dot publish guides on how to do it (but don't endorse doing it obviously). Additionally, third party bots can practically automate the experience for some trainers. The most popular bots advertise humanlike walking (so as to not flag security), as well as automatic capturing, evolving, and even transferring Pokemon.
Together, Spoofers cast a big shadow over the Pokémon Go world and its player base. Gyms in particular were hard hit by high level spoofers who would overtake gyms and hold on to them for extended periods of time. This prevented players from getting some of the benefits of gym ownership, including coins and levels.
As Pokémon Go enters its second year, Niantic has allegedly begun cracking down on bot accounts, according to reports. Last month it was revealed that some accounts were getting blinded, basically unable to see any other Pokémon other than the most common ones (hello Pidgey). Niantic gave USgamer a general statement regarding their recent security updates:
"Niantic is committed to maintaining the state of Pokémon Go and our community of Trainers. People who violate the Pokémon Go Terms of Service (including by using third party software and other cheats) may have their gameplay affected and may not be able to see all the Pokémon around them. While we cannot discuss the systems implemented, we can confirm that we are constantly refining new ways to ensure the integrity of the game in order to keep it fun and fair for all players."
Niantic declined to comment on whether or not the game saw an increase in cheaters coming into year two, nor did Niantic reveal whether or not cheaters have affected the game in any meaningful way in terms of either the core business or active users. Niantic was reluctant to reveal the methodology behind their latest wave of bans. Meanwhile, rumors have suggested that Niantic will be implementing machine learning to help curb cheating. A drastic step up from the previous, manual bans implemented in waves.
The various Pokémon Go subreddits were a flurry of activity with legitimate players proudly hailing what is effectively a shadowban, as a step in the right direction, unearthing their long-held frustrations with cheaters in the game. Subreddits for spoofers have become relatively quiet lately as third party hackers try and find ways to solve the blinding situation.
So why do people cheat in Pokémon Go, or rather, in Pokémon?
It could just be a collecting compulsion as suggested in this Forbes report titled, "Science Explains Why You're Addicted to Pokémon Go." In the report, Russell Belk, a professor of marketing at York University in Toronto, ties the Pokémon obsession to a general thrill associated with collecting things in general. While he covers the psychology behind collecting as a challenge on a micro, physical level compared to something like success in a career, I personally fail to see how those things are mutually exclusive.
"I expect no matter how beautiful or ugly the Pokémon is, there's relatively little aesthetic judgement... You want them all—or as many as possible," said Belk in the report. While I'd argue that aesthetics do play a large part in people's obsession with Pokémon, it's not hard to see where Belk is coming from. The mission statement, to "catch them all," is built right into Pokémon's design. In fact, it's kind of always been hard to catch them all without resorting to some illicit means.
"I had always wanted to complete the entire Pokedex but didn't know enough other people playing to do it," said one Pokémon trainer who was happy to share their earliest Pokemon cheating memories from Red and Blue. But I was curious, did it instill in them the fear it did me when I was younger though? The answer was no. Not really. "Following a tutorial online didn't make me feel like a hacker," they said. "It felt more like finding built-in cheat codes for old games."
If cheating in Pokémon is kind of already baked into the series history, what makes Pokémon Go so different? To me, Spoofing or bots in Pokémon Go didn't represent a concrete problem (I'm a lapsed Pokémon Go player who hasn't played in some time) than it did an existential one. Pokémon begets Pokémon trainers and trainers who want to catch them all will find ways to do it.
One Reddit post titled, "For full clarification, what can I actually do with spoofing now?" drew my attention, not necessarily for the original post, but how quickly the thread became a war between, we'll say hackers and anti-hackers.
"I feel like Niantic is just being a bully. Not everyone has nefarious intent to rule the planet. The closest Pokestop to my work is at LEAST a 30 minute walk, and it seems my area has always been a deadzone for any rare 'mons," writes Samantha039 in the original post.
Before long, the thread became a small war of words with some Redditors claiming the ban is what cheaters deserved versus players who defend their actions, either as harmless fun to being the only way to play the game as various reasons prevent them from taking full advantage of Pokemon Go—which actually does carry hidden costs of play like physical location, health, etc.
The thread becomes particularly bad around the subject of disability, with some spoofers saying that meddling with the game's GPS is the only way to enjoy the game like others. "I have a very severe back injury that makes walking difficult," the original poster explained later in the thread. Other, presumable able-bodied players suggested that the physical requirements of Pokémon Go effectively bans them from playing altogether.
"Play a game that's not meant for walking... Go play a console game quit cheating couch here," wrote one Redditor on the same Reddit post. "Are you kidding me... It's called POKEMON GO!!!....GO...not Pokemon sit on your ass. If she's handicapped there are a zillion other games she can play... Cheating from your couch on a game where people are actually putting in the work walking around is garbage," wrote another.
An op-ed published last year on Polygon titled, "Pokémon Go is a barren wasteland if you live in the country" highlights another problem in the game: which is the geopolitics of Niantic's shared Pokémon AR game. "There are plenty of stories of a PokeStops drawing in dozens of Pokémon... but those stories almost always happen in densely populated areas. Away from those cities, away from the coasts, Pokémon Go screeches to a halt," writes author Jay Allen.
As it turns out, cheating in Pokémon Go is a little different. While I was unable to verify some of the claims that health is a reason driving some players to use bots or GPS spoofing, it's not too much of a stretch to see why it couldn't be. Unlike other Pokémon games, Pokémon Go has some additional barriers of entry, and factors that breed malcontent within warring factions of players.
As an AR game, Pokémon Go does require a physical cost that other Pokémon games don't. As a game that layers its world atop real-life locations, urban settings have a better chance at receiving resources than the suburbs. And as an online game with shared resources like gyms, competition is bred into the fight for said resources (Pokémon moving on from evolutionary Darwinism to a social one).
In those ways, cheating in Pokemon Go is a little different than the harmless cheats and codes of older Pokémon titles. As one of the most profitable Pokémon games, and a major win for mobile AR gaming, Niantic has a duty to make sure cheating doesn't reach the point where players stop playing as a result of the actions of others.
Pokémon Go breeds lots of feelings. Like wonder, as well as competition, perhaps the latter stronger and more directly than any other Pokémon game previously. In a way, cheating in Pokémon Go represents a real-world test on whether or not the road to becoming a Pokémon Master is as friendly as it seems in real-life.