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A Fantasy World Is Creating Problems in South Korea

Published: May 26, 2010

NY Times
SUWON, SOUTH KOREA -- Neither had a job. They were shy and had never dated
anyone until they met each other on an online chat site in 2008. They knew so little
about childbearing that the 25-year-old wife did not know when her baby was due
until her water broke.
But in the fantasy world of Internet gaming, they were masters of all they
encountered, swashbuckling adventurers exploring mythical lands and slaying
monsters. Every evening Kim Jae-beom, 41, and his wife, Kim Yun-jeong, left their
one-room apartment for an all-night Internet cafe where they role-played, often until
dawn. Each one raised a virtual daughter, who followed them everywhere, and was
fed, dressed and cuddled -- all with a few mouse clicks.
On the morning of Sept. 24, they returned home after a 12-hour game session to find
their actual daughter, a 3-month-old named Sa-rang, or ''Love,'' dead -- shriveled
with malnutrition.
In South Korea, one of the world's most wired societies, addiction to online games
has long been treated as a teenage affliction, alarming to parents and teachers. But
the Kims' case has drawn attention to the growing problem here of Internet game
addiction among adults.
Sa-rang, born prematurely and sickly, was fed milk two or three times a day -- before
and after her parents' overnight gaming and sometimes when the father woke up
from the couple's daytime slumber, prosecutors said. The baby died ''eyes open and
her ribs showing,'' said their lawyer, Kim Dong-young.
''I am sorry for being such a bad mother to my baby,'' Ms. Kim said, sobbing, during
the couple's trial earlier this month. After six months on the run, they were arrested
in March and charged with negligent homicide. Prosecutors are asking for a five-year
prison sentence. A verdict in the case is expected on Friday.

In recent years, thanks partly to government counseling programs, the estimated

number of teenagers with symptoms of Internet addiction has steadily declined, to
938,000 in 2009, the Ministry of Public Administration and Safety said in April.
But the number of addicts in their 20s and 30s has been increasing, to 975,000 last
year. Many of these adult addicts are former teenagers who grew up with online
games and now resort to them when they are unemployed or otherwise feel alienated
from society, said Dr. Ha Jee-hyun, a psychiatrist at Konkuk University Hospital.
This development and a recent string of cases like that of the Kims have prompted
the government to announce plans to open rehabilitation centers for adult addicts
and expand counseling for students and the unemployed, groups considered the
most vulnerable to compulsive gaming.
''Unlike teenagers, these grown-ups don't have parents who can drag them to
counselors,'' said Dr. Ha. He treats an average of four adults a month for game
addiction, he said. Two years ago, it was one a month.
At about 700 won, or 55 cents, an hour, online games provide ''the cheapest
diversion available for the jobless and a liberating exit for children suffocated by the
country's over-competitive educational system,'' said Kim Boo-ja, herself an avid
online gamer and a professor at Sogang University's Game Education Center, which
trains software developers for online games.
South Korea's virtual-reality game industry took off during the Asian financial crisis
in the late 1990s and expanded in the recent recession, both times of higher
More than 90 percent of South Korean homes are fitted with high-speed Internet.
Nearly every street corner has a PC Bang, or ''PC Room.'' In these dim, 24-hour-aday gaming parlors, ''the line blurs between reality and the virtual world,'' said Jung
Young-chul, a psychiatrist at Yonsei University.
Especially popular among adult players are M.M.O.R.P.G.'s -- massively multiplayer
online role-playing games.
There, players form alliances and wage battles that can last for days, with players
taking shifts to keep the action going around the clock. The more time a player

spends online, the more powerful his game character becomes. So does his online
Cyberbattles often spill into the real world. There have been several reports of
players tracking down and physically attacking others for killing the online
characters they had identified with for years.
If the game is addictive, it's also highly commercial. ''Items'' -- cyberweapons, outfits
and special abilities acquired through gaming that strengthen their owners' combat
prowess -- are traded for real money online. Such trading was valued at more than
1.5 trillion won, or $1.2 billion, last year.
''For Valentine's Day, I bought my wife a pair of swords worth 280,000 won,'' said
Park Ki-hoon. ''People spend money on drinks and cigarettes. Online gamers spend
on 'items.'''
Mr. Park and his wife, Choi Jin-hee, both 37, run a swimsuit shop by day and play
online games at night for fun and money. During the winter off-season, Mr. Park has
played up to 18 hours a day and won 3 million won a month, enough to cover the rent
on his shop. Recently, the couple sold a magic staff worth 500,000 won to pay for a
If Mr. Park knows how to juggle his offline and online lives, many do not. In
February, a 22-year-old man was arrested and accused of killing his mother for
nagging him about his obsessive playing. In the same month, a 32-year-old man
dropped dead of exhaustion in a PC Bang after playing through the five-day Lunar
New Year's holiday. Excessive gamers eat at the computers and don't sleep or wash,
driving other players off with their odor.
''Some jobless men come here in hope of a financial breakthrough,'' said Hong
Seong-in, a PC Bang owner. ''PC Bangs do best in mid- or lower-class
South Korea promotes online games, with exports growing by 50 percent to $1.5
billion last year -- by far South Korea's single largest cultural export item. Its games
are hugely popular in China and other Asian countries.
At the same time, the country has become one of the first to address Internet
addiction. Hundreds of counseling centers and boot camps receive children suffering

from compulsive gaming. Before the South Korean Parliament now are bills that
would block teenagers' access to online gaming sites from midnight to 6 a.m. or
punish obsessive teenage players by confiscating their virtual wealth.
But little has been offered to help adults.
PC Bang owners and game buffs complain that media reports about the Kim couple
and other cases undeservedly give them a bad name. They assert that compulsive
playing has actually been decreasing as the prices of items fall.
Enterprising players in South Korea and China have been running ''item factories,''
where hundreds of computers are programmed to play the games without human
users with the sole purpose of generating items for cash. These and a proliferation of
new games entering the 3.5-trillion-won market are driving item prices down, said
Mr. Park.
''Online games are a culture,'' he said. ''To me, people who hike or fish are as crazy as
they think I am.''