Who's Playing

Who's Playing
Gamer Nation

Allen Varney | 26 Jul 2005 12:01
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With the rise of broadband, Korea's PC baangs have declined from their height in 2000, when there were 50,000 of them for a nation of 50 million people. But gaming is still titanically strong in the Gamer Nation. Tens of thousands of people attend tournaments. Online games have three times the market share of PCs or consoles. Seven online publishers pull in $80 million annually, with 40-50% profit margins, and a dozen more hum along nicely at $30 million. Hundreds of companies "farm" virtual property to resell for actual money. Some Korean MMOGs even connect to the physical world: Players use an SMS gateway to send text messages to their teammates' cellphones.

How has the landscape of Korean gaming developed so differently from our own? The Korean government has gotten involved. Not like in America, where grandstanding Senators bluster about restricting videogame sales. No, the Republic of Korea promotes gaming.

A decade ago, a visionary government initiative funded a huge effort to wire the whole country, building the massive broadband infrastructure that propels Korea's digital culture. In the same way, the RoK government has now initiated major programs to develop a national gaming industry. KOCCA, the Korea Culture & Content Agency, established in 2001 by the Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism, promotes Korean media worldwide: movies, comics, music, licensable cartoon characters ... and games. KOCCA offers pro-level training programs for the "culture contents industry" through its Cyber Culture Contents Academy.

KOCCA is a sister agency to an industry trade group the Ministry founded in 1999, the Korea Game Development & Promotion Institute, which proclaims, "Game utopia in digital age, we build them together!" KGDI's avowed goal is to make Korea one of the top three nations in the game industry by 2007. On the organization's home page, KGDI president Jong-Sik Woo pellucidly remarks, "Our government founded this KGDI and has been trying to accomplish its enthusiastic goal of annual game export of $300 million until year 2003 to prosper (rear) the game industry as the export-leading industries with competitiveness in global market by developing it as the core-industry in the era of knowledge based higher information industry." With KOCCA, KGDI has set up an incubator program for developers, hosted conferences, published reports, and started a lobbying group, the Game Industry Policy Advisory Commission, to promote game business evaluation and research.

Imagine the President of Gamer America making a speech about the importance of funding American online games, and setting up an agency of the Department of Commerce to produce ad campaigns and public service announcements about the virtues of videogames. You can't really imagine such weirdness, can you? Gamer America doesn't exist.

But could it? Ever?

Can it happen here?
So Korea is a gamer's paradise. Who cares? Is there any reason to hope America will follow?

Korea's golden age of gaming is built on broadband. Everyone in the US telecom industry recites, by rote, good excuses why the RoK has crushed us in broadband penetration: Koreans live in dense urban constructs that are easy to wire. Broadband costs are driven down through feverish competition, in contrast to the somnolent Baby Bell cartels in America. Absent a government push on the scale of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, we'll never match Korea's success.

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