A tweet from the official U.S. State Department account warning Pokemon Go players in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to avoid buried landmines has sparked outrage for its allegedly frivolous nature, but officials insist it is not a joke and intended to keep young players safe.
“Playing #PokemonGo in #Cambodia #Laos #Vietnam? Beware of #landmines or anything that looks like an old bomb! #UXO,” the State Department account tweeted earlier this week, with #UXO described by Time as “a blanket term for various explosives that were utilized but never detonated.” The image attached to the tweet featured what appeared to be a screenshot of the game being played in southeast Asia, featuring the common Pokemon Pidgey.
— PM Bureau, DoS (@StateDeptPM) August 15, 2016
Liberal outlet Salon reached out to the State Department seeking clarification on whether the tweet was a joke. Experts they addressed certainly appeared to think so, calling the tweet tasteless given that many landmines were placed there by American troops decades ago. “Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives in Laos and Cambodia since the Vietnam war ended, as a result of the unexploded bombs the U.S. illegally dropped on those countries,” NYU professor Greg Grandin told Salon.
The State Department insisted this was not a joke, however. Bureau of Political-Military Affairs spokesperson David McKeeby confirmed it was a real warning, as “we take this responsibility to own up to our historical legacy very seriously” and lamented that “we have to tweet Pokemon characters to get anyone’s attention about it.”
This is not the first encounter the State Department has had with Pokemon Go players. In July, spokesman John Kirby interrupted his comments to call out a journalist for having the game open during the briefing, asking the journalist, “did you get one?” The reporter confirmed he had failed to catch a Pokemon during the briefing.
Pokemon Go has become increasingly popular throughout rural Asia. Reuters notes that the game, in which players must travel through the real world looking for monsters on their mobile phones, has triggered a boom in wireless internet equipment sales in places like Indonesia and rural Cambodia. “Asian fans of smartphone game Pokemon Go are hunting out the best telecom providers and network gear to overcome the hurdle posed by patchy network signals in their race to capture virtual cartoon characters,” the outlet notes.
In nations like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, however, the game presents unique dangers by encouraging players to explore real-world settings, often plagued by abandoned explosives. As the nations retain their communist identity, officials also fear players wandering into secret government locations or violating location restrictions. The Vietnamese government has banned the game from all Communist Party offices and military locations.
Officials have also warned players that numerous counterfeit versions of the game have surfaced as “phishing” scams in an attempt to gather private information from players to use for theft.
Cambodia has also banned the game from major Communist offices and sensitive sites like a former Khmer Rouge torture center and museums dedicated to observing the Cambodian genocide. “This is a place of sorrow, not a place to play games,” the director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum told Reuters.