Computer gaming is so popular in Korea that it might just be the national pastime. Even the smallest of towns have a local PC bang (PC cafe) where you’ll find the local youth battling one another in games such as StarCraft and World of Warcraft. Thanks to Korea’s world-leading IT infrastructure, almost every home has access to broadband Internet, turning every residence into a potential game station.
The PC Room
Step into any of Korea's ubiquitous PC bang's, or Internet cafes, and you'll find rows upon rows of neatly arranged late-model personal computers. In front of those computers, more often than not you'll find a young Korean with his eyes fixed on his monitor, his right hand on the mouse and his left furiously clicking away at keyboard "hot-keys." On the monitor, one might expect to see any number of things--combat scenes that seem straight out of Saving Private Ryan or Blackhawk Down, East Asian heroic epics unfolding upon the lush scenery of ancient China, World Cup battles between digital recreations of national football teams, anime-like carts zipping around fantastical cyber race courses.
Most of these "gamers," as they are called, are in their teens and 20s, although you'll find younger players and the occasional middle-aged gamer puffing away on his favorite brand of cigarette as he challenges cyber-opponents in protracted online battles of the game baduk (perhaps better known in the West by its Japanese name of go). Some are there for just a few minutes' respite from the pressures of daily life, while others will remain glued to their chairs until the wee-hours of the morning.
Stars, not nerds
Far from the image often associated with computer game aficionados in the West, i.e., that of socially maladjusted "nerds," Korean "pro gamers"---yes, there really are people who play computer games for a living---enjoy rock star status with herds of adoring fans. Pro gamer Im Yo-hwan, 24, considered by many the greatest gamer who's ever lived for his reign over Blizzard's real-time strategy game Starcraft, has an online fan club of 580,000 and earns a six-figure salary through prize money and endorsements. There are even TV programs dedicated to the sport.
Korea's gamers have responded to the accolades (and money) with dominating performances on the international stage.
Korea has placed in the top three of the medal count in each of the World Cyber Games, held annually since 2001. This included first placefinishes in 2001 and 2002 and second place finishes 2004 and 2005. So dominant are Korean gamers in games such as Blizzard's StarCraft and Warcraft that Korean terms such as gosu (used to refer to expert players) are in general use within the international gaming community. Not bad at all for a relatively small nation of 40 million.
Bandwidth, bang's and bonding
You might wonder why online gaming has been such a sensation in Korea. There are several reasons for this, but at the top of the list are: 1) Korea's high bandwidth penetration; 2) the proliferation since 1998 of PC cafes, known in Korean as PC bang's; and 3) the gregarious nature of Korean society.
Korea is well known as the world's "most wired nation," with 95% percent of Korean households having broadband Internet access, in large part thanks to a long-term strategy set out in the 1990s. Access to cheap, fast Internet allows Koreans to enjoy the latest online games, which require massive and fast transfers of data, if they are to be played as designed to be played.
The omnipresent nature of the PC bang is related to Korea's equally widespread broadband access. Even in the smallest of Korean towns, one can find a PC cafe--this writer spotted one even on the remote East Sea island of Ulleung-do during a trip there in 2003. The average PC room is equipped with broadband access and top-of-the-line personal computers capable of satisfying the taxing hardware demands of today's graphically intensive games. PC bang also pay for online game subscriptions.
The PC bang provides a place for young Koreans to hang out and relax for an hour or two of online fun. This also leads to an interesting mixing of online and offline worlds. As H.C. Herz put it in a 2002 piece in Wired, "In the U.S., going online is not generally a group social experience and almost never a face-to-face social experience---in fact, we presume that if you're online, you're not talking to someone who's in the room." In Korea, however, your online opponents are more-than-likely a group of friends hanging out together talking, laughing and barking out orders at a local PC bang.
Finally, there is the cultural element. Thanks, in part, to Korea's Confucian heritage, Koreans tend to be a gregarious bunch who prefer doing things in groups rather than alone. They are also comfortable accepting hierarchy and rank, even in cyberspace. This explains in large part the popularity of so-called massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) in Korea. A MMORPG is a form of online games in which countless players--represented online by avatars--populate an ever-changing "persistent world" hosted by the game's publisher. Korean gamers will organize into teams, with players marching in tight formations and following orders in a manner Western gamers--who tend to be "lone ranger" types--would be hard pressed to emulate.
Console? What Console?
Outside Korea, the gaming culture centered on console gaming platforms produced by companies like Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Western gamers are more likely to blast away on a Sony Playstation or Microsoft Xbox rather than a personal computer. In Korea, however, where Japanese consoles games were until relatively recently vorbotten, the PC became king. Even after the ban was lifted and Sony Playstations flooded into the Korean market, console game companies found computer games to be tough competition. Things are changing slightly---the Playstation, Xbox and Wii enjoy some popularity in Korea, and games are easy enough to get. PC games are still much more popular, however.
Computer games come and go, but in Korea, StarCraft remains a constant. Released over a decade ago in 1998, the game still enjoys a strong player base in Korea, where 4.5 million copies of the game have been sold since its debut (accounting for just over half the game’s sales worldwide). A real-time strategy game, StarCraft pits players in a gallactic battle of resource collection and military supremacy. The winner is determined by grand strategy, battle tactics and teamwork. While there is a single-player campaign, it is the multiplayer matches, which pit human players against one another, that have earned the game its mass appeal.