Monday, October 03, 2005

Article on my Korean gaming research

Originally uploaded by FlorenceChee.
Video gaming holds Korea in its grip
CYBER-CULTURE: Researcher discovers national 'addiction' a quest for personal space

Jim Jamieson
The Province Sunday, May 22, 2005

CREDIT: Les Bazso, The Province
Florence Chee spent four months in Korea studying online gaming, including such games as Starcraft.

Florence Chee boarded a plane for Seoul last August to discover why Koreans are world renowned for their love of the Internet in general and online video games in particular.

The Simon Fraser University graduate student spent four months in the South Korean capital studying what Koreans themselves call a national addiction. She returned to Vancouver with keen insights into a society transformed by technology over the last decade.

"I wanted to see if the controversy over addiction to online games in Korea was warranted," said Chee, 25, who undertook the trip as research for her master's thesis in communication.

"I wanted to look at holistic factors and what other reasons there might be as to why the game stats were so elevated in Korea."

Korea is a veritable petri dish for applications and services tied to the Internet or mobile phones. Thanks to a visionary government, a corporate sector that boasts the likes of Samsung and LG Electronics, and a tech-hungry population, Korea is a hotbed of high-tech consumption.

Korea has the world's highest penetration of high-speed Internet usage -- 25 per cent of the overall population and 75 per cent of households -- while 54 per cent play online games. The world's video game industry -- a $13-billion-a-year business and growing fast -- pays close attention.

Chee, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Malaysia before she was born, spent a year learning the Korean language before her trip. In Korea, she interviewed 20 young, hard-core gamers and hosted several focus groups.

Her first discovery was that Internet cafes -- which are much more common in Korea than here -- have functions far beyond playing games. Korean youth may spend long hours at these hangouts, which are often open 24 hours a day.

Chee said much of the popularity of the game rooms comes down to economics --the cost is about $1 US an hour to play -- and privacy.

The typically multi-generational makeup of the Korean family in a densely populated city such as Seoul (10.3 million) leaves young people with little personal space.

"In Korean culture and because of population density, entertaining isn't really done in the home, especially if you are a youth," Chee said. "Some people date at game rooms. They have couple chairs, like a love seat, in front of two computers. The girl will be playing with the guy sometimes or she will be [online] chatting while he plays Starcraft with his friends."

That's why mobile-phone text messaging is so popular in Korea, she said. A young person can be sitting on the couch next to his or her grandma while having a private conversation.

But don't think gaming for its own sake doesn't have a high profile in Korea. "They actually have live TV broadcasts of professional gamer matches," she said.

"They have play-by-play and colour commentators and the players wear sponsor logos on their jerseys.

"A good pro gamer makes about $500,000 US a year."

Young Korean men find themselves under huge peer pressure to excel at the games and to play for long hours at a stretch. Chee knew of a group of young men who played for 36 hours straight, with the losers paying the tab.

An underground economy has grown up around online gaming, with credits and other virtual goods earned in the games sold for real-world cash. This has led to incidents of extortion and fraud.

"There are some in Korea who consider this culture a problem, the dark underbelly of the tech revolution," Chee said. "They see it as useless behaviour."

Canadians are also keen online-game players -- Canada ranks fifth in the world in terms of high-speed Internet penetration, at 17.6 per cent. But Chee doesn't think we'll emulate Korea's game culture any time soon.

"In Canada we are more independent, much bigger and we don't talk to each other so the same extent," she said. "Korea is so much smaller [about three times the size of Vancouver Island], so much easier to manage. Here, you go outside of a city and there's no cell coverage. There, it's everywhere."

As for the online "addiction," Chee now realizes you can't separate technology and culture. "It's very complex so people dismiss it and say its addictive," she said.

"The addiction amounts to wanting to hang out with friends. When you live in a cement jungle like Seoul, it's really hard to find a place to do more physically engaging things. Here, we can go jogging in Stanley Park."
© The Vancouver Province 2005

(From my old blog that went boom)


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