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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
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 heightened 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.
Gaming Addiction in South Korea
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.