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'Pokémon Go' Anti-Cheating Tactics Prevent Disabled People From Playing

Niantic issues ban to disabled player who was using an emulator to recreate walking around her local park.

Ana Mardoll just wants to say goodbye to her pokémon. For two weeks she tried to boot up Pokémon Go and check on her battle pets, but each attempt would only tell her the app had "failed to get game data from the server." She learned why in an email two days ago. She'd been banned from Pokémon Go, specifically for the use of "any of other third-party software or app" that could be "used to falsify your location."

In developer Niantic's view, this is "considered cheating," as are other related tracking applications. By the beginning of last month, about the time Mardoll found herself locked out of her account, Niantic started issuing permanent bans for offenders.

So here's the problem. As most of the developed world likely knows at this point, playing Pokémon Go involves walking around in real-world locations searching for pokémon while also stopping at "pokéstops" to pick up supplies or battling other pokémon for control of "gyms."

But Mardoll has scoliosis. She's had two spinal fusions and multiple rods bolted to her spine. Sometimes she's mobile, but other times she's unable to travel much farther than the distance from her bed to the bathroom.

Mardoll couldn't play the game as intended, so she used an Android emulator that we've discussed before that could be used with Windows to simulate using a normal Android smartphone.

Such emulators let you set your GPS location, and she set it to mimic the area around her local park. Using buttons arranged for the four cardinal directions, she managed to capture pokémon much as she could at the actual site.

"Shutting out disabled people from major cultural phenomena like this helps no one and hurts a lot of people."

Otherwise, she played it much as Niantic wants her to. She wouldn't tell me exactly how much money she spent on Pokémon Go, save that she justified what she was spending in her excitement as like "buying a new Pokémon DS game."

"I am not angry or upset at all about the ban," Mardoll told me in an email. "I am disappointed to lose access to the game and I'm unexpectedly sad at not being able to say 'goodbye' to my pokémon (which is totally illogical, I know!), but I'm at peace with Niantic's decision and I knew this could happen."

She understands Niantic's concerns about cheating. She knows she broke Niantic's Terms of Service and "and was banned fair and square." But Mardoll hopes the trouble she's had makes developers think harder about including accessibility options.

"And while they think about those options, it would be nice if they could not ban disabled people for finding work-arounds," she said. "Shutting out disabled people from major cultural phenomena like this helps no one and hurts a lot of people."

At the simplest, she suggests, Pokémon Go could include a keypad that mimics the action of walking around a local area, and developers could avoid exploitation by limiting how far away players could "walk."

"Having a greater variety of pokémon pop up in your house would be key for bed-bound players," she said, and Niantic could remove localization altogether so all pokémon have a chance to show up. She adds these are problems that rural players often face, as I discovered myself shortly after launch.

Finally, she suggests that Niantic could allow GPS "spoofers," after all, but prohibit players who've been flagged for using them from participating in battles for gyms. She points out that gyms are the only form of player versus player interaction right now and the only place where "cheating" would interfere with the fun.

At of the time of writing, she hadn't heard back from Niantic after filing an appeal. Neither have I, as I requested an official response on Friday evening.