When Escape Seems Just a Mouse-Click Away

Yun Jong Gu, an office worker in Seoul, plays an online game in a crowded Internet cafe after leaving the office.
Yun Jong Gu, an office worker in Seoul, plays an online game in a crowded Internet cafe after leaving the office. (By Lee Jin Man -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 27, 2006

SEOUL -- Unable to pass tough university entrance exams and under intense pressure from his parents to study harder, 20-year-old Kim Myung gradually retreated to the one place where he could still feel invincible -- the virtual world of electronic games.

In front of his computer screen, Kim played hours upon hours of interactive role-playing games with other anonymous online gamers. When he slew zombies and ghouls with particular dexterity, he recalled, the flashing words "Excellent!" or "Masterstroke!" fired him up. Kim played from 8 a.m. until well after midnight -- and in the process, over four months, gained 10 pounds while surviving largely on one meal a day of instant noodles.

"I guess I knew I was becoming addicted, but I couldn't stop myself," Kim recalled from a clinic where he was undergoing counseling. "I stopped changing my clothes. I didn't go out. And I began to see myself as the character in my games."

In South Korea, the nation that experts describe as home to the world's most extreme gamer culture, authorities are alarmed by what many here are calling an epidemic of electronic game addiction.

Last month, the government -- which opened a treatment center in 2002 -- launched a game addiction hotline. Hundreds of private hospitals and psychiatric clinics have opened units to treat the problem.

An estimated 2.4 percent of the population from 9 to 39 are believed to be suffering from game addiction, according to a government-funded survey. Another 10.2 percent were found to be "borderline cases" at risk of addiction -- defined as an obsession with playing electronic games to the point of sleep deprivation, disruption of daily life and a loosening grip on reality. Such feelings are typically coupled with depression and a sense of withdrawal when not playing, counselors say.

The situation has grown so acute that 10 South Koreans -- mostly teenagers and people in their twenties -- died in 2005 from game addiction-related causes, up from only two known deaths from 2001 to 2004, according to government officials. Most of the deaths were attributed to a disruption in blood circulation caused by sitting in a single, cramped position for too long -- a problem known as "economy class syndrome," a reference to sitting in an airplane's smallest seats on long flights.

In one instance, a 28-year-old man died in the central city of Taegu last year after reportedly playing an online computer game for 50 hours with few breaks. He finally collapsed in a "PC baang " -- one of the tens of thousands of Internet game cafes that have become as common as convenience stores across South Korea. Users can pop in to these small, smoky dens -- with walls covered in gothic game posters -- for about $1 an hour, day or night.

"Game addiction has become one of our newest societal ills," said Son Yeongi, president of the Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity, which offers government-funded counseling. "Gaming itself is not the problem. Like anything, this is about excessive use."

Experts are seeing more cases of game addiction in many industrialized nations -- particularly the United States and Japan. But sociologists and psychiatrists have identified South Korea as the epicenter of the problem.

That is in part because young people here suffer from acute stress as they face educational pressures said to far exceed those endured by their peers in other countries. It is not uncommon, for instance, for South Korean students to be forced by their parents into four to five hours of daily after-school tutoring. With drug abuse and teenage sex considered rare in the socially conservative country, escape through electronic games can be a hugely attractive outlet.

At the same time, South Korea boasts an unparalleled gaming culture. In 2000 in Seoul, the capital, South Koreans inaugurated the World Cyber Games -- a sort of gaming Olympics that now draws players from 67 nations. Professional South Korean gamers can earn more than $100,000 a year in domestic and international competitions.

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