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“Now I’m Feeling Zombified”

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The broadband future is here in South Korea, with over 50% household penetration. Digital utopia? Not exactly:

    Broadband’s killer application — the one activity that dwarfs all others — is online gaming, which 80 percent of South Koreans under 25 play, according to one recent study. Critics say the burgeoning industry is creating millions of zombified addicts who are turning on and tuning into computer games, and dropping out of school and traditional group activities, becoming uncommunicative and even violent because of the electronic games they play.

    “Game players don’t have normal social relationships anymore,” said Kim Hyun Soo, a 36-year-old psychiatrist who is chairman of the Net Addiction Treatment Center, one of many groups that have sprung up to cope with Internet game addiction. “Young people are losing the ability to relate to others, except through games. People who become addicted are prone to violence, even when they are not playing.

    “They clash in the games, and then they meet later and fight face to face.”

    Far more than the United States, South Korea is a group-oriented society, where socializing in bunches is the preferred form of interaction, and Western-style individualism is frowned upon. Critics say this has been the secret to the tidal wave of online gaming, and the psychiatrist says it is the key to understanding its profound impact.

    “Very few of our customers come alone,” said Kim Gi Beum, the 29-year-old owner of the RA PC Zone, reputedly the largest of Pusan’s thousands of game rooms, or PC bangs, as they are known here. “Of course they could play at home, but it is more exciting to be surrounded by other gamers, especially if they are your friends.”

    Mr. Kim started his business three years ago, during the the fallout from the Asian economic crisis, with a $50,000 investment. He had worked a variety of jobs through college to save money for this dream. Now, he said, he pulls 1,200 players a day into this shop, where gamers pay $10 an hour to beat online strangers and wipe out aliens. With similar numbers of players flocking to the other 13 PC bangs in his expanding empire, nowadays he is plowing his profits into trying to start his own online game, which he has evocatively named History of Chaos.

    “What feeds our business is that most parents don’t allow their children to do PC gaming at home — they are supposed to be studying,” Mr. Kim said briskly. “So what lots of kids will do is pop in after school and spend three or four hours playing. If their parents ask, they’ll tell them they were somewhere else.”

Gender gap:

    Sure enough, sitting at row after row of computer screens were dozens of school-age boys, their mouths agape, their desktops cluttered with cellphones, greasy fast-food snacks and bucket-sized sodas. As they teamed up, using separate consoles to take on the forces of evil in popular shoot-em games like Strike Force, Starcraft and Mu, some of them could be said to be engaging in group activity, but just barely. Utterances like “quick, shoot!,” or “look out,” or especially, “attack!” seemed about the extent of it.

    The young women who came to the club with their girlfriends seemed every bit as locked into a parallel universe as the young men, albeit an entirely different universe. Although there is no enforced gender separation at the PC bangs, girls who were not on dates tended to gravitate toward the banks of computers equipped with small cameras atop the monitors.

    For hours, many of them practiced shooting pictures of themselves in playful, smiley poses, composing them with flowers and slogans and clip art and sending them off as digital postcards to real, imagined or would-be friends.

Is this better or worse than a generation of TV zombies? On the one hand you might think the “interactivity” of the games make them preferable to the passivity of TV; but conversely, at least when you are watching TV you can do other things, like play video games.

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About Eric Olsen