Spot On: Korea reacts to increase in game addiction
Government responds with programs to fight online-gaming addictions; number of gamers seeking help climbs dramatically.
By now most gamers have heard the story of the South Korean man who collapsed to the floor after playing an online game at an Internet café for 50 hours straight. He later died at a local hospital. The press identified him only as "Lee."
The man known as Lee was later identified as Lee Seung Seop, according to a recently published Los Angeles Times article. More details have now emerged about the 28-year-old man who seemed to lead a typical gamer's life. However, his love of gaming soon began to overtake his normal everyday responsibilities, leading to a tragic end.
Lee was a vocational-college graduate with a girlfriend and a full-time job. When the clock struck 6 p.m., Lee would depart his job as an industrial boiler repairman, but instead of heading home to relax, he would change out of his uniform and head to a nearby Internet café--or PC bang, as it's known in the Korean dialect--located in Taegu, Korea's fourth-largest city.
Lee's game of choice was World of Warcraft, and he soon became addicted to it, spending countless hours playing, sometimes forgetting to get adequate amounts of food, liquids, and sleep. Soon, he began to arrive late at work. This continued until one day his supervisor fired him, after multiple warnings regarding his tardiness.
"He seemed like a very normal and ordinary guy," commented Park Chul Hun, the office manager of Lee's former employer. "There was nothing odd about him except that he was a game addict. We all knew about it. He couldn't stop himself."
According to coworkers, Lee and his girlfriend, who was also an avid game player, broke up around this time.
Six weeks later, on Wednesday, August 3, 2005, Lee entered a PC Internet café and sat down to play Starcraft. The establishment Lee frequented was dimly lit, with a haze of cigarette smoke in the air. The room was hushed at times, yet the sounds of muffled gameplay could be heard. He sat down at the keyboard and logged on to play Starcraft.
During this time, he reportedly ate and drank very little (if at all) and left his PC only to take restroom breaks.
Wednesday turned into Thursday, and Thursday turned into Friday. During this period of more than 50 hours, Lee continued his gaming session, failing to adequately replenish his body's need for food, drink, and rest. The evening approached.
Suddenly, Lee coiled over from his chair and fell onto the floor; a witness recalls he was conscious with his eyes open. He was rushed to nearby Taegu Fatima Hospital where he died a few hours later.
"He was so concentrated on his game that he forgot to eat and sleep. He died of heart failure brought on by exhaustion and dehydration," said Park Young Woo, a Taegu Fatima Hospital psychiatrist.
That death came three months after another incident in Incheon, South Korea, that was previously reported by GameSpot. The incident brought to light the consequences of online gaming conflicting with the normal everyday responsibilities of real life.
The incident itself revolved around the death of an Incheon infant girl. The parents of the 4-month-old infant left her alone so they could visit a neighborhood Internet café to play World of Warcraft. The couple, both in their 20s, lost track of time, staying at the cafe from 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. During this five-hour period of time, the infant had turned over onto her stomach, helplessly suffocating herself.
The couple has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, this according to the same Los Angeles Times report that detailed the final moments of Lee's life.
Grace and Moses Lim, a Korean-American sister and brother residing in Florida, know all too well the lure of Internet cafés in Seoul. Both frequented them on an almost daily basis during their individual trips to Seoul this past year to visit relatives. Grace, a 24-year-old master's degree student, would usually check her e-mail and surf the Web, while Moses, a 17-year-old high school student would play his favorite games, which consisted of Diablo II, Counter-Strike, and Starcraft: Brood War.
"The [cafés] I went to usually gave me a discount and free drinks. After I am done playing for four or five hours, I usually pay three or four US dollars. I usually order ramen noodles and Coca-Cola--the food is very cheap," Moses told GameSpot.
Both agree that the low prices kept them coming back. The normal hourly charge of a South Korean Internet café is $1.00. Grace commented that sometimes the competition would even lower its hourly charge to 50 cents, while offering convenient food and soft-drink selections.
"They have a full soft-drink collection, ramen noodles, cookies, chips--they bring it right up to your PC," says Grace.
While visiting Internet cafés, Grace and Moses observed unsupervised elementary school-aged students using the PCs.
"There are some high school, elementary, and junior high school students. It's usually packed on the weekend and after school. It's really hard to find a café that has open spots during those times," Moses said.
A local law prohibits minors from entering Internet cafés between the hours of 10 p.m. and 9 a.m.
When asked why South Korean society has had a more prevalent occurrence of online gaming addiction, Grace offered her own observation, "There is a lot of stress in Korean society. Going to PC bangs is one way to relieve stress and disconnect themselves from the real world. It's mainly the stress-relieving factor."
Relieving stress by spending time in an Internet café to play online games may seem harmless to some. However, it is apparent that the lengthy hours spent playing online games directly contributed to the deaths of Lee and the 4-month-old infant. Both incidents share one thing in common: Addiction to time-consuming online games can potentially interfere with normal everyday responsibilities and result in tragic consequences.
According to the Korea Times, the neglect of everyday responsibilities stemming from online game addiction is nothing new to the Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion (KADO), a government-funded agency that has witnessed an increase in addicted online gamers contacting it for help.
KADO provided counseling to 2,243 people seeking help in 2003. That number more than quadrupled to 8,978 in 2004. So far this year, KADO has provided counseling to 6,271 people, according to the Times. Most clients are male adults and teenagers, and the agency estimates that number will dramatically increase to 12,500 people by the end of this year.
The counseling sessions consist of alternative recreation programs and group therapy to ease addictive compulsions. KADO plans to open more local counseling agencies across the country (in addition to its 40 established counseling agencies already in operation) by expanding its financial support to local counselors, according to the Korea Herald.
Plans are already under way for Korea's Ministry of Information and Communication to build centers that aim to prevent online gaming and Internet addiction, as well as offer anti-addiction courses to local universities.
The Los Angeles Times is reporting that KADO has already begun to send psychologists into South Korean Internet cafés this month to conduct user surveys, make further analysis, and even personally warn customers about the dangers of online gaming addiction. One visiting psychologist, Son Eun Suk, feels that online gaming could be a bigger social dilemma than drugs or alcohol because society is naive of its addictiveness.
"Parents and teachers lecture against drugs and alcohol, but they are very open to the Internet. They think their children are learning something about computers, and they allow them to play from a very young age," Son commented.
This thinking may explain why South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world. Three-quarters of all households have high-speed broadband Internet connections (in addition to its 25,000 Internet cafés), compared to one-third of US households. South Korea's online gaming industry has grown 25 percent on an annual basis, with revenue of $1.2 billion during 2004. Two cable TV channels cover online gaming activities. The channels also profile professional players who garner celebrity-like status and make livings of up to $100,000 yearly by winning tournaments and even gaining corporate sponsorship.
A number of reasons are blamed for the rise of online gaming addiction in South Korea. They range from the longer amount of time needed to finish extensive gaming objectives or storylines, to inexpensive Internet access (averaging $30.00 a month for household high-speed Internet services), to a society used to living in small apartments or homes trying to escape unfulfilling daily lifestyles.
Whatever the reason, South Koreans are slowly but surely coming to terms with a social problem that could be a fair warning to the rest of the international online gaming community. It also sets a benchmark in the area of how far local government agencies might reach out to those who manifest a once-unheard-of addiction, before it potentially gets out of control.
Edward Castranova, the author of Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, which is set to be released November 1, 2005, by the University of Chicago Press, offered his own simple opinion to the Los Angeles Times.
"I think people recognize at least at a subconscious level that there is something subversive about these games," he says. "After all, wouldn't you rather be a spaceship captain than pouring lattes at Starbucks?"