South Korea & The Dark Side Of The Net
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SOUTH KOREA'S REAL RAGE FOR VIRTUAL GAMES
By Howard W. French
New York Times
October 9, 2002
PUSAN, South Korea, Oct. 3 Throughout the year they have been dating, Jang
Min Ji and Jung Tae Kyun have met almost every afternoon at online video
game clubs, where they while away the hours zapping bad guys, dodging
flame-breathing monsters or playing cards against anonymous strangers.
The action is so fast and furious at the RA PC Zone, their favorite meeting
spot among the thousands of game rooms here, that they have almost no time
to talk. Ensconced side by side in their gamers' loveseats, the college
couple murmur and coo mostly news of their latest electronic triumphs and
defeats, their words barely audible over the hail of gunfire, the grunts and
screams of combatants and generalized whirring and clanging.
Only when they finally emerge from the pall of smoke and cathode ray blues
and reds of the club lights will they finally chat. So what do they talk
about? "Mostly about games," said Ms. Jang, a slightly guilty smile playing
on her face as her puppy, Urami, strained in her lap, where it had spent the
afternoon in confinement. Mr. Jung never broke his gaze on the screen.
With the largest high-speed Internet market penetration in the world, South
Korea has seen the broadband future that has stalled in so many other
More than half of all Korean households have high-speed Internet connections
compared with fewer than 10 percent in the United States and the
exploding Web culture has driven economic growth and spawned civic movements
that have powerfully affected everything from politics to consumer culture.
But more and more these days, people are emphasizing a darker side to this
technological success story.
Broadband's killer application the one activity that dwarfs all others
is online gaming, which 80 percent of South Koreans under 25 play, according
to one recent study. Critics say the burgeoning industry is creating
millions of zombified addicts who are turning on and tuning into computer
games, and dropping out of school and traditional group activities, becoming
uncommunicative and even violent because of the electronic games they play.
"Game players don't have normal social relationships anymore," said Kim Hyun
Soo, a 36-year-old psychiatrist who is chairman of the Net Addiction
Treatment Center, one of many groups that have sprung up to cope with
Internet game addiction. "Young people are losing the ability to relate to
others, except through games. People who become addicted are prone to
violence, even when they are not playing.
"They clash in the games, and then they meet later and fight face to face."
Far more than the United States, South Korea is a group-oriented society,
where socializing in bunches is the preferred form of interaction, and
Western-style individualism is frowned upon. Critics say this has been the
secret to the tidal wave of online gaming, and the psychiatrist says it is
the key to understanding its profound impact.
"Very few of our customers come alone," said Kim Gi Beum, the 29-year-old
owner of the RA PC Zone, reputedly the largest of Pusan's thousands of game
rooms, or PC bangs, as they are known here. "Of course they could play at
home, but it is more exciting to be surrounded by other gamers, especially
if they are your friends."
Mr. Kim started his business three years ago, during the the fallout from
the Asian economic crisis, with a $50,000 investment. He had worked a
variety of jobs through college to save money for this dream. Now, he said,
he pulls 1,200 players a day into this shop, where gamers pay $10 an hour to
beat online strangers and wipe out aliens. With similar numbers of players
flocking to the other 13 PC bangs in his expanding empire, nowadays he is
plowing his profits into trying to start his own online game, which he has
evocatively named History of Chaos.
"What feeds our business is that most parents don't allow their children to
do PC gaming at home they are supposed to be studying," Mr. Kim said
briskly. "So what lots of kids will do is pop in after school and spend
three or four hours playing. If their parents ask, they'll tell them they
were somewhere else."
Sure enough, sitting at row after row of computer screens were dozens of
school-age boys, their mouths agape, their desktops cluttered with
cellphones, greasy fast-food snacks and bucket-sized sodas. As they teamed
up, using separate consoles to take on the forces of evil in popular
shoot-em games like Strike Force, Starcraft and Mu, some of them could be
said to be engaging in group activity, but just barely. Utterances like
"quick, shoot!," or "look out," or especially, "attack!" seemed about the
extent of it.
The young women who came to the club with their girlfriends seemed every bit
as locked into a parallel universe as the young men, albeit an entirely
different universe. Although there is no enforced gender separation at the
PC bangs, girls who were not on dates tended to gravitate toward the banks
of computers equipped with small cameras atop the monitors.
For hours, many of them practiced shooting pictures of themselves in
playful, smiley poses, composing them with flowers and slogans and clip art
and sending them off as digital postcards to real, imagined or would-be
Although there was little sign of it on this day, some parents' groups have
complained that the PC bangs are turning into pickup joints, where teenagers
swap pictures electronically and decide whether or not to meet. Reversing
the usual pattern in a male-dominated society, the girls are reportedly in
charge in this game, tipping desired suitors as to the club and even the
seat where they can be found.
Rather than communing, meanwhile, many of those who have arrived on dates
have devised ways of setting up invisible walls.
Back Myung Hee, a 24-year-old insurance company employee, appeared to be
perfectly alone as she browsed through catalogs online, looking at fall
outfits and makeup, which she insisted was cheaper and more convenient than
going to the mall.
Asked why she had come alone, she arched her eyebrows and swiveled her chair
nearly 180 degrees and repeated, "Alone? I'm with him," pointing to a man in
the next chair who was close to oblivious, so locked was he into his online
struggle between good and evil. "I want him to enjoy himself, so I don't
talk when he's gaming."
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