South Korea Computer Gaming Culture

South Korea is Infaturated With Video Games

World of Warcraft
An image from the World of Warcraft MMORPG, courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. Blizzard Entertainment

South Korea is a country infatuated with video games. It is a place where professional gamers earn six-figure contracts, date supermodels, and are treated as A-list celebrities. Cyber competitions are nationally televised and they fill-up stadiums. In this country, gaming is not just a hobby; it’s a way of life.

Video Game Culture in South Korea

More than half of South Korea’s 50 million people play online games regularly.
This activity is sustained by the country’s sophisticated fiber-optic infrastructure, which has helped turn South Korea into one of the world’s most wired societies. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea has a broadband subscription rate of 25.4 per 100 residents (the United States is 16.8).

Although the per capita access to broadband internet is high, most Koreans actually conduct their gaming activities outside of the home in local gaming rooms called “PC bangs.” A bang is simply a LAN (local area network) gaming center where patrons pay an hourly fee to play multiplayer games. Most bangs are cheap, ranging from $1.00 to $1.50 USD an hour. There are currently over 20,000 active PC bangs in South Korea and they have become an integral part of the country’s social fabric and cultural landscape. In Korea, going to a bang is equivalent to going to the movies or the bar in the West.

They are especially prevalent in big cities like Seoul, where heighten population density and the lack of space offers residents few options for recreational and social interaction.

The video game industry makes up a large share of South Korea’s GDP. According to the Ministry of Culture, in 2008 the online-gaming industry earned $1.1 billion dollars in exports.

Nexon and NCSOFT, South Korea’s two largest game development companies reported a combined net income of over $370 million in 2012. The entire game market is estimated at approximately $5 billion dollars annually, or about $100 per resident, which is more than three times what Americans spend. Games like StarCraft have sold over 4.5 million copies in South Korea, out of a worldwide total of 11 million. Video games also stimulate the country’s informal economy, as millions of dollars are traded yearly through illegal gambling and betting on game matches.

In South Korea, cyber competition is considered a national sport and numerous television channels broadcast video game matches regularly. The country even has two full-time video game television networks: Ongamenet and MBC Game. According to the Federal Game Institute, 10 million South Koreans regularly follow eSports, as they are known. Depending on the matches, some video game tournaments may garner more ratings than pro baseball, soccer, and basketball combined. There are currently 10 professional gaming leagues in the country and they are all sponsored by big corporations such as SK Telecom and Samsung. The monetary rewards for winning a league tournament are colossal.

Some of South Korea’s most famous players like the StarCraft legend, Yo Hwan-lim could earn more than $400,000 a year just from league matches and sponsorships. The popularity eSports has even led to the creation of the World Cyber Games.

World Cyber Games

The World Cyber Games (WCG) is an international eSport event that was formed in 2000 and sponsored by the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Ministry of Information and Communications, Samsung, and Microsoft. The WCG is considered to be the Olympics of the online gaming world. The event includes an official opening ceremony and players from various countries compete for gold, silver, and bronze medals. This international gaming competition was originally held exclusively in South Korea, but since 2004, it has been hosted in five other countries including the United States, Italy, Germany, Singapore, and China. The WCG event attracts over 500 professional gamers from more than 40 countries to compete in games such as World of Warcraft, League of Legends, StarCraft, Counterstrike, and many others. The exposure and success of the World Cyber Games has even galvanized the spread of gaming culture worldwide. In 2009, the American cable channel SyFy spawned a reality television show called WCG Ultimate Gamer, which had professional gamers compete in elimination style matches while living in the same house together.

Gaming Addiction in South Korea

As consequence to having a strong video game-centered culture, gaming addiction is now one of the biggest problems facing South Korean society today. According to surveys conducted by Seoul’s National Information Society Agency and Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 1 in 10 Korean adolescents are at high risk for internet addiction and 1 in 20 are already considered seriously addicted. Video game addiction has become a life-threatening epidemic, where every year hundreds to thousands of people get hospitalized and several die due to excessive gaming. Some players get so addicted that they ignore sleep, food, and even bathroom visits. In 2005, a 28-year-old man died from cardiac arrest after playing for 50 hours straight. In 2009, a married couple got so immersed in a game where they took care of a virtual infant that they neglected to feed their real life infant, which eventually died of starvation. The parents received a two-year prison sentence.

Over the past decade, the Korean government has spent millions of dollars on clinics, campaigns, and programs to minimize this problem. There are now publicly funded treatment centers for game addicts. Hospitals and clinics have installed programs that specialize in treating the disease. Some Korean game companies such as NCsoft also finances private counseling centers and hotlines. In late 2011, the government took a stern step further by imposing a “Cinderella Law” (also called the Shutdown Law), which prevents anyone under the age of 16 from playing online games on their PCs, handheld device, or at a PC bang from midnight until 6 a.m. Minors are required to register their national identification cards online so that they can be monitored and regulated.

This law has been highly controversial and is contested by the majority of the general public, video game companies, and game associations. Many people argue that this law infringes on their liberty and would yield no positive results. Minors could just register using someone else’s identification or completely circumvent the ban by connecting to Western servers instead. Although by doing so, it certainly affirms one’s addiction.