Control Alt Delete: A Snapshot of Gaming Culture in South Korea

By Clark Rhodes

In hindsight, maybe I should have played more video games when I was younger. In addition to riding bikes and building forts, I spent much of my childhood magnetized to a television, blowing into Nintendo cartridges, and surfing up and down Cinnabar Island looking for “Missing No.” If you don’t understand these references that’s okay (although you should put this article down and invest in an old school game boy color and find a copy of Pokemon Blue right now). While my mother was amazingly cool enough to buy me Nintendo gear, she never told me about the six-figure salaries and fame many South Koreans earn in their pro-gaming leagues and competitions. I can imagine traveling back in time to tell my prepubescent self about the possibilities of the future. Play more video games, I would say.

Here in the States, video gaming isn’t considered (by most) to be a sport. If anything, I feel as though the stereotype portrays the polar opposite. I imagine the typical American generalization as being moderately obese, greasy, and ghostly (although in my experience, it’s usually only one of those characteristics, if any). In South Korea and many other Asian countries, gaming is an “E-Sport.” As far as I can tell, there is no accurate stereotype of a modern gamer. You can see this by stepping into one of the many PC bangs in South Korea.

PC bangs (internet cafes on steroids, literally translated as PC rooms) are a popular pay-as-you-go means of gaming and socializing. It’s not just teenage boys you’ll find there. The demographics are diverse in age and gender. With the fastest WIFI on the planet, South Korea’s PC bangs are a staple in any competitive or recreational gamer’s life. People of all ages and interests will show up to play cards, Tetris, or the game we most associate with Korean culture: StarCraft.

StarCraft is a strategy-based futuristic military-style computer game. Not being an E-Sport’s star myself, describing exactly what goes on in a single match is too ambitious of a task for this article. However, a simple YouTube search can illuminate the curious commoner. Thousands of spectators cheer on their favorite competitors as they strategically place their chess-like pieces throughout a sandbox style landscape. A single game will last fifteen minutes, give or take, until a victor emerges. And with victory, comes tens of thousands of dollars. Halfway through 2012 alone, over $1,000,000 was allotted to the winners of numerous competitions (not limited to competitions taking place in South Korea). With such inviting benefits, what reason could there be in pursuing another career?

While social stigmas might exaggerate our perception of gaming, there is a dark side to this counter-culture. Perhaps the most well-known instance of gaming-related problems occurred in Suwon in 2009, when the negligence of a couple took the life of their baby. While the couple spent twelve hours a day raising a virtual daughter, their real daughter starved to death. The infant weighed a pound less when she died than when she was born. A few years prior, after losing his job and his girlfriend, Seung Seop Lee died of exhaustion after a 50 hour gaming binge. He was 28 years old. These two instances are tragic, but their familiarity resonates globally. Similar cases have occurred in the United States and across eastern Asia.

It is well-known in most, if not, all cultures, that moderation is necessary for any indulgence. Yet, the stresses of society often weigh more than we’d like to carry. Whether it’s a glass of Chardonnay, a Choco Pie, or virtual reality, we all need something to distract us from the daily grind. But what is it that attracts so many South Koreans to gaming?

According to the BBC, as of 2005, 30% of the South Korean population is registered for online gaming. Statistically speaking, at least one member from every K-pop group is a gamer. With one of the most technologically innovative countries in the world, this should be no surprise. In addition, a society that expects perfection from its students, its employees, and itself, is likely to foster citizens with high blood pressure and insufficient sleep. In the virtual world, a player can live vicariously through a superhero, a soccer star, or his or her own civilization. The player is in control. The problem, however big or small it may be, lies in the ability to discern between our distractions and our personal identity.

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