Playing in Seoul: The Omnipresence of Video Games in Korea

Back when I lived in South Korea, video games were a big part of everyone’s lives even though many parents forbade their children from playing and going to PC bangs—rooms full of high-speed computers accompanied by plush, rolling chairs.  My dad, however, allowed us to play video games and even played with us. In our living room, my dad set up three computers so that he, my brother and I could play together. Despite much effort on my dad’s part to provide us a safe environment in which to play games, thus preventing the need to go to a PC bang, my brother still went with his friends. There was just something about those rooms full of computers that attracted my brother again and again.

Seth Schiesel, a writer for the New York Times introduced South Korea as “a home to world’s most advanced video game culture: where more than 20,000 PC bangs attract more than a million people a day.” Ubiquitous and popular, each PC bang has site licenses for various computer games, which eliminate the need for the players to buy game subscriptions themselves. Charging $1.50 per hour, PC Bangs are incredibly cheap and encourage their customers to stay for hours by offering reduced charges per each additional hour and serving food directly to computer stations. With everything a person could need, PC bangs have become South Korea’s central social hubs. Even couples can be spotted going on dates to PC bangs.

Because groups of friends often play together, heated conversations and intense whispering frequently break out among the background noises of key pressing and mouse clicking. These self-produced sounds provide immediate feedback, making the players become part of the games themselves. Karen Collins, author of “Playing with Sound” believes that these self-produced sounds help “players to become a character, or perhaps more accurately, their character can become a part of their sense of self.” The game’s background music, which seeps in through headphones, is also included in the soundscape of a PC Bang. With this symphony of varying noises, players experience what Collins calls the “envelopment,” which is “a sensation of being inside a physical space” that reduces sense of separation between the player’s game and the real world.

This envelopment becomes even more prominent inside a Korean pro-gaming tournament. With more than 40,000 enthusiastic and emotional fans filling the live audience of the high-profile matches at the World Cyber Games, the players must sit in soundproof cubes to avoid being distracted by the noises of the fans and announcers. Lee Jung Hoon, one of Korea’s most famous e-sports athletes also known as “Marine King,” has even experienced fans walking right up to his playing station, giving a crisp bow and handing over an armful of gifts. After such an overwhelming encounter with a celebrity, fans often turn away and cry. Another instance of extreme gamer fandom occurred when a female fan of CJ Entus, a team that came in second in the 2012 “League of Legends” world championship, followed one of the players for two years taking photos. Ultimately, she sent him an album of all the shots she had taken.

At that “League of Legends” championship event, countless fans filled the outdoor soccer stadium to watch. Two teams of five players each—Korea’s Samsung White and China’s Star Horn Royal Club—sat in front of computers on the stage while huge screens displayed their actions for the audience. Although inside soundproof booths, players could still make out the sounds of their fans even while wearing ear buds and listening to the game’s background music. Moreover, the self-produced sounds—communications to team members, speedy mouse clicks and quiet squeals of joy—created an atmosphere that extended into the game world. These sounds were heard by everyone via speakers, allowing the fans to experience the same emotions as their idols. These sorts of events have served to legitimize video games throughout their epic rise in popularity, bringing the virtual closer to the real world.

Today, e-sports are recognized and respected by most South Koreans. Professional gamers train vigorously like athletes. Hoon, a member of a top South Korean team, for example, trains for eight to ten hours every day and earns $105,000 annually. Another gamer, Jung Jong-Hyun, earns $250,000 annually. In Korea, these gamers are celebrities. Lim Yo-Hwan, Korea’s most famous gamer, does not go out in public without wearing a disguise. An estimated 10 million South Koreans regularly follow e-sports while some fan clubs of top gamers have more than 700,000 members according to Schiesel’s New York Times piece titled “The Land of the Video Game Geek.”

A CNN survey found that this widespread South Korean obsession stems from a need to relieve stress. In a country where academic and job competition dominate, games are regarded as good, clean fun. For Hoon, “StarCraft” served as an outlet from academic pressure. When he picked up “StarCraft” in first grade, he immediately fell in love with it. As he drifted further into the game, skipping classes to go to PC bangs, his parents became concerned and sent Hoon to the treatment center. When the treatment didn’t work, they threw him out of the house. Hoon took this as an opportunity to enter an e-sports tournament, which he subsequently won. To this day, Hoon has stated that his ultimate goal is to prove “to his parents and to himself that he was not addicted to the video game that had come to dominate his personal and professional life—that he’s a pro, something his mom and dad should be proud of” according to CNN.

In addition to exciting games, government involvement has played a major role in the rise of e-sports and PC bangs. In 1994, the Korean government established the Korean Information Infrastructure (KII) to promote affordable nation-wide telecommunication technology. KII stimulated competition among the telecommunications companies, resulting in the expansion of high speed information and communication networks. With this increase in Internet access, PC bang industry began as “internet cafés”— these very first PC bangs provided café-like environments for people to gather and use online services to check emails and to play simple games. Then, with the onset of the financial crisis in 1997, the South Korean government again focused on Internet infrastructure, pushing to install ultrafast internet connection nationwide. With this intense government push and the release of the game “StarCraft,” the PC Bang industry took off to provide Internet access for the country’s many fans of “StarCraft.” By 2000, a vibrant community of gamers emerged.

The government also created the Korean E-Sports Association (KeSPA) to manage e-sports. KeSPA’s main goal is to make e-sports an official sport in Korea, and it does so through organizing new competitions and teams and regulating television broadcasting of tournaments Today, gaming channels, such as MBC game, GOMtv and Pandora TV are among the most viewed. In addition to government support, big technology companies like Samsung have begun to sponsor gamers by providing dormitory housing for pro-gamers and high-tech computers to help with vigorous training that can last over 12 hours a day.

South Korea’s craze for e-sports goes beyond sheer enthusiasm.  An individual’s needs to release bottled up frustrations, prove themselves and have fun are guaranteed by the games. Moreover, in a country with high-speed Internet connection that allows downloading to happen almost instantaneously and with Wi-Fi wireless hot spots in almost all public spaces, gaming is an accessible and easily part of daily life. The pervasiveness of virtual games in Korea—through the involvement of the government, sponsorship by big companies, and television channels dedicated to viewing game tournaments—blends video games with reality.

The sounds of Korea’s game culture are heard everywhere. The screaming of the frantic fans, the intense whispers, the agitated shouts among the pro gamers and the rapid clicking and pressing all blend together, triggering emotions from players and fans alike. Korea’s unique culture allows collaboration and competition to happen naturally, and the emotions that arise from them are very real. So games, which many may acknowledge as “virtual or unreal” have become a pseudo-reality inside the soundscape of Korea.