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.
In many other nations, video game consoles such as Nintendo or Sony PlayStation rule. But South Koreans largely opt for online, interactive role-playing games. Such games have no end and allow multiple players to come together via the Internet.
Online games are hot here partly because South Korea is the world's most wired nation. Nearly 70 percent of South Koreans -- compared with 45 percent of Japanese and 33 percent of Americans -- now gain access to the Internet via the super-fast broadband connections required for the most popular online games, according to Telecompaper, an Internet research organization in the Netherlands. Now, Koreans can also play sophisticated games via cellphones.
But hard-core and casual gamers alike tend to while away their time inside PC baangs, which translates as "PC rooms." At one PC baang in southern Seoul on a recent afternoon, the sounds of electronic swords, guns and fists pounding cyber-opponents filled a dim room lit mostly by the glow of computer screens and smoldering cigarettes. Engrossed in their games, few of the young men and women inside conversed with one another.
Web sites allow players to individualize their game characters by purchasing clothing, weapons and other items -- and for some, such characters can become extensions of their own personalities. Rare items are sold through highly developed online markets. Moon Sung Hoon, a 31-year-old Web page designer who spends about five hours a day inside PC baangs, said he paid $800 in an online auction last year for a virtual sword.
"This is my way of releasing stress," he said. "I'm not hurting anyone, so what's the problem?"
But doctors cite a growing toll on Korean family life. M.H. Kim, a 37-year-old homemaker in Seoul, forced her 14-year-old son into treatment at a private clinic two months ago. The boy had slipped deeper and deeper into his computer games as he entered junior high school.
"My husband began putting an English book into my son's hands and demanding that he memorize the entire lesson in one night," said Kim, who asked that only the initials of her first name be used to preserve privacy. "He would not be allowed to go to sleep until he had finished. But he ended up not studying at all and just playing his games instead."
Mental health counseling of any sort still carries a heavy stigma here, and it took Kim months to persuade her husband to put their boy into game addiction treatment. After their son ran away for three months -- scrounging money from relatives to play games at PC baangs -- Kim's husband gave in.
"I can understand my son's suffering," she said. "He could never satisfy his father and was failing at school. But when he plays his games, he becomes an undefeatable warrior."
The boy's doctor, Chin Tae Won, said the most serious addictions result in violence. He cited a case last year in which a game-addicted grammar school boy with confused concepts of life and death killed his little brother with a hammer after the younger boy interrupted his game playing.
"There is nothing wrong with kids relieving stress through games," Chin said. "But parents need to watch for the warning signs of addiction. If a child gets violent when told to stop playing a game, that's one of the first indications that there's a problem."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.