Gamer Nation

Envision an alternate reality we might call “Gamer America.”

In Gamer America, every home and office has 20MB/s broadband that’s cheaper than milk. Everywhere that real America has a Starbucks or a fast food restaurant, Gamer America instead has LAN hangouts where, for a buck an hour, you can play online 24/7 with all your friends and socialize with the opposite sex. The coolest kids in Gamer America high school go out for the StarCraft team. Gamer America’s Commerce Department heavily funds a Domestic Gaming Agency to promote games to your mom and your grandma and the world. And there’s a Gamer America network TV channel (not cable, network) broadcasting online game tournaments round the clock. No, wait, there are two channels.

Sounds like an EverQuest fever dream? A console fan’s Robitussin high? Okay, Gamer America doesn’t exist – in America. But it lives for real – right now! today! – in the Republic of Korea (RoK).

Land of the Wired Baang
Most urban South Koreans live in apartments the size of a walk-in closet, and some may eat nothing but 200 kinds of kimch’i, but they are truly, deeply wired. They don’t use the term “broadband” because there is nothing else. They can get a 100-megabit DSL line for $20 a month. The internet streams glass-smooth HDTV and better-than-MP3 music on demand. Korea’s, a hydra-headed Yahoo!/eBay/Amazon/PayPal/Blogger/ Skype monster, is one of the world’s most popular sites, despite accessibility limited only to those who understand the Korean language. The online community (sort of a Friendster/MySpace/Blogger/ IRC/Flickr) has pulled in a fifth of all South Koreans, including 90 percent of all Internet users aged 20-29.

And everywhere, there are the PC baangs – twenty thousand of them.

A PC baang (pronounced “bahng,” “room”) is an information-age temple with two or three dozen computers on a fat-pipe network. They all sell computer time by the hour, along with terrible coffee and (for those long gaming sessions) ramen noodles. Under bad lighting, in air gone blue with cigarette smoke, amid an insanely loud thrum of spellcasting and explosions, young and old men sit in Aeron-knockoff chairs. They’re downloading bootleg movies in the background and maybe Skyping with friends in Hong Kong or Taiwan, but mostly they’re playing Lineage or Ragnarok or a horde of smaller online games like Shot-Online (online golf), APB (cops vs. gangs), and Wiki (time-traveling quests around a World Tree – oh, that old cliché).

Above all, they’re playing Blizzard’s venerable 1998 real-time strategy game StarCraft. Omigod, do Koreans play StarCraft. Competition ladders rank hundreds of thousands of names. Two TV channels broadcast StarCraft matches between professional players.

Fans devoutly track the tactics of celebrated media stars like Lim Yohwan (SlayerS_BoxeR), two-time winner of the World Cyber Games, who has released a DVD of his best games with commentary; Lee Yunyeol ([Red]NaDa), the “Tornado Terran”; and the current #1 player, Choi Yeon Sung (IloveOOv), who won the MBCGame Starleague an amazing three times in a row. The Korean scene draws foreigners as well. Daniel “Rekrul” Schreiber, one of America’s best StarCrafters, moved from Ohio to Seoul to play professionally, but then found greater success there playing poker.

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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.

Then, too, Koreans have been game-crazy since well before the Internet. Some argue the new cybergaming culture is just existing Korean culture with a coat of fresh pixels. Before PC baangs there were noraebaangs (karaoke lounges), DVD baangs (for watching movies in private rooms, just you and your lover), boardgame baangs, and a general baang culture.

But don’t the StarCraft TV channels (for instance) represent a potent symbol of a new gaming culture, a possible model for America? Not necessarily; there’s also a channel for Korea’s chess-like boardgame, Paduk. Hmmm, a nation where TV viewers were already watching Chinese checkers – what lessons do we really want to take from them?

Still, it’s worth looking closely at Korea to see a truly game-tolerant society. Korea’s embrace of gaming at all levels proves the pastime isn’t inherently geeky; it’s not inevitably a reason to feel outcast. It’s part of a culture’s attitudes, and can be changed like any other arbitrary attitude.

Let’s get to it.

Allen Varney

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