South Korea is a country that lives and breathes video games; the online game market is currently estimated at $2.83 billion according to IHS, and is estimated to hit $3.5 billion by 2018. More than half of South Korea’s 50 million population actively use the internet, which is supported by the country’s sophisticated broadband network. 95% of households in South Korea have broadband, compared to 60% in the U.S.
Despite their connected homes, most gaming happens in “PC Bangs”- a simple LAN (local area network) gaming centre where there is a cheap hourly fee for playing on powerful computer hardware, likely better than in the players’ homes. Starcraft, Diablo, League of Legends and World of Warcraft are the most popular titles across the country’s 12,000 Bangs.
In the last few years, online gaming has become a tale of two halves in the nation. South Korea is hailed as one of the countries that does gaming best; E-Sports stars are revered, dating the hottest models and boasting six-figure salaries. There are even two dedicated television channels for e-sports tournaments which broadcast matches regularly, and the big corporations like Samsung and SK Telecom sponsor the country’s professional gaming leagues.
The education system is starting to take notice too, with Chung-Ang University announcing earlier this year that it now considers competitive gamers to be equivalent with traditional athletes. It’s not just educators either; at the end of last year, South Korean player Kim “ViOLet” Dong Hwan was the first person to receive a P-1 US visa normally reserved for pro-athletes, which enables him to live in the US and train alongside other players.
At the other end of the gaming spectrum, mobile gaming is also going from strength to strength after the dominant South Korean social network Kakao launched their game publishing service in the summer of 2012, enabling developers to easily publish and distribute their games to the 100 million Kakao users. Traditional online game publishers such as Nexon and CJ E&M have also tried to muscle in, with competition becoming more intense and an average of four new titles being released on the platform every week, with this rate set to increase in the future. PC and mobile are low cost and easily accessible, making these the platforms of choice of both small and large publishers.
This growth has been taking place in the context of a wider debate about the effect of gaming on players, however, and gaming addiction is considered by some to be one of the biggest problems facing South Korean society today; three years ago, the Shutdown Law (also known as the “Cinderella Law”) came into effect which made it illegal for children under 16 to play online games between midnight and 6am and limits players under 18 to a certain number of hours. This law is currently being challenged in the country’s constitutional court. Earlier this year a two-year old starved to death after his father spent more than a week at his local PC Bang, only returning every three days to feed the child. In 2010, a three-month old baby starved to death after her parents spent long periods of time playing Prius Online, ironically caring for a digital child, the same year a 22 year-old clubbed his mother to death for complaining about his gaming habits. Perhaps one of the first fatalities of gaming addiction to achieve global recognition was the death of Lee Seung Seop, who died after playing Starcraft for almost fifty consecutive hours.
The Government is caught between promoting gaming due to its huge economic impact, making more than all its other cultural exports put together, but also trying to ensure the welfare of gamers. From January next year, smoking will be banned in all restaurants and cafes, including PC Bangs, which has angered much of the gaming community. But, more significantly, recent talks of surrounding the Video Game Addiction bill could mean they are regulated like alcohol and drugs, even allowing video game addicts to be exempt from military service. Many have argued that South Korea needs to explore the factors behind online game addiction, such as its extremely competitive education and scarcity of other leisure options for kids and teens. South Korea had the lowest percentage of happy students compared to 65 countries surveyed in 2012. Despite this, there does seem to be consensus among gamers regarding the proposed law: if people want to game, they are always going to find a way to do it.