Thursday, June 26, 2014

Communication and the fantasy world of video games

Screenshot from Final Fantasy Online
Last September I wrote about a conversation I had with my son about violence, video games, and choices. A few days ago, I came across a story from CNET about South Korea's debate on a Game Addiction law. Intrigued, I looked more into it.

Since its leap into the wired world, Korea has struggled with online gaming and its effect on society. In 2002, before the term "internet addiction" became a global problem, Korea opened the first internet addiction treatment center. It was a bad year for the country in 2005 when ten people died from video-game related causes. By 2010, nearly 10% of Korea's teenagers were considered addicted to gaming. To combat the growing problem of teenagers spending too much time playing video games, an internet gaming curfew was proposed that would make 19 games unavailable to children between midnight and 8am. It became law in 2011 but is still being challenged in court.

Back in December of last year, South Korea's parliament began considering a law that would put online gaming in the same category as drugs and alcohol, labeling it as an addiction. This course of action stemmed from a tragic event in 2009, when a couple let their infant daughter starve to death while they raised a virtual child in an online video game at an internet cafe, called PC bangs in Korea.

AP photo/ Lee Jin-man -
Excessive online gaming has become such an alarming social problem that government needed to come up with a way to address it. By regulating video games similarly to drugs and alcohol, the gaming industry may be held accountable for treatment and prevention programs.

Understandably, Korea's gaming industry is not pleased to possibly be lumped in the same box with other clinical addictions. Opposition to the proposed bill argues that there isn't enough research to prove internet gaming is addicting, and could deal a heavy blow to Korea's multi-billion dollar industry. If this bill were to pass, big-name companies may shut down and move to other countries, taking thousands of jobs, and millions in export revenue, with them.

But what is the real issue here? Lee Dong-yeon, professor of culture theory at the Korea National University of Arts, states in an interview, “An addiction is very complex. The social and education surroundings (of a game addict) play much more important roles than the game itself.” So the underlying problem isn't the addiction to gaming, but the cultural reasons behind why one is addicted.

In South Korea, like anywhere else really, there is a lot of pressure to be productive in the workplace. And the pressure starts young, as Korean parents place a heavy burden on school performance. Despite the government's attempts to curb private "cram schools," or hagwon, there is still the lingering belief that in order to be successful, one must attend university and land high-level jobs. (Did you know that there was a cram school for young adults trying to get jobs at Samsung?

After researching this topic of labeling online gaming as an addiction, I have made my own conclusions; constant internet gaming is the symptom of social, economic, and cultural stress.


Pressure is placed on Korean youth to make something of their futures. As most people of Asian descent, myself included, can attest, doing well in school is priority number one in the household. If I got a "B" on my report card, better. If a "C" popped up anywhere, then the earth opened up and would swallow me whole if I didn't raise that grade up. I got a "D" once. Don't ask, it was quite traumatic. I can tell you that I did get a taste of "cram school" and vowed never to do that again.
Korean cram school, "Hagwon" - via

Yes, education is important, and as a global society we must now compete with other countries for jobs within our own borders. But as the battle for and against Common Core in the U.S. shows us, where we put our time and effort is important. I have never been against standardized testing, but I have been adamantly opposed to its implementation and using the results as an evaluation method

Numbers on a piece of paper don't mean much. I am one of the roughly 20% of Americans who have test anxiety. I don't just get nervous when I take a test. I literally freak out. And in high-school it was all I could do to keep my grades up with extra-credit and impeccably completed homework. My own son doesn't do well on tests, but for a different reason. He thinks the best way to take a test is to get through it as fast as possible. He once took the test in 7 minutes, where the other students averaged about 25 minutes. In Korea, test scores can mean the difference between success and failure.

Workplace pressure is no different. Companies have used the excuse that we are still in an economic downturn to institute hiring freezes, lay off employees, and cut back on raises. But remaining employees are now burdened with not only maintaining their own productivity, but taking on the productivity of other roles that have been vacated through layoffs or never filled because the company won't hire. Add insult to injury, companies reward surviving employees with 3% raises (if any at all) while touting to their shareholders of an increase to the company's bottom line. In a country where people work more hours per week than any other industrialized country besides Mexico, doesn't it make sense that Korea's young working adults need some stress relief?

But if the pressure to perform doesn't drive you to drink or smoke, you have to find some way to relieve the stress put on you in your daily life, right?


Our lives are full of responsibilities. Work, school, home, family, friends, community. There is so much going on that we find little time for ourselves. Increased stress leads to increased health problems, so to combat stress one must find a way to de-stress. This can be exercising, going to a movie or sporting event, reading a book, or playing video games.

League of Legends
Before there were computers, I took a breather from school work and house chores to read. I read so much that my grandmother actually banned me from reading during school-weeks. Used as an analogy to Korea's current problem, one could say that I was addicted to books. Every free moment was spent reading. I had to be dragged from my room to eat dinner, where I would inhale my food as fast as I could and get back to my book. I would fall asleep reading books. I spent every penny I had in allowance to buy books. Take the word "books" out of the last few sentences and replace it with "video games" and replace "reading" with "playing." Didn't sound so bad until you re-read the sentences, huh?

We all want to escape sometimes. While some are content to escape with a three-hour epic like Lord of the Rings, others require a 24-hour marathon of Dr. Who. Others may be satisfied with an hour of Candy Crush, but a few won't be happy without a 12-hour dose of Minecraft. It boils down to how badly we want to escape. 

Research studies have found that depression and anxiety are a global phenomenon. Symptoms of depression can differ from one person to the next, but one symptom is indulging in escapist behavior, including addiction and participation in dangerous activities. I don't think it is a coincidence that a rise in depression is also happening at the same time as internet addiction.

But there is also another symptom of depression and anxiety, withdrawing from social interactions. I'm not saying that everyone who is "addicted" to video games is depressed or has an anxiety disorder, but I will hypothesize that people who engage in online gaming are searching for a sense of community that they are not getting in real life, and this could eventually lead to depression or anxiety.


Let's bring this back to the couple who let their infant die of starvation so they could play an online video game. Here are the facts as I read them: The mother was a young woman of 25 and the father was older, 40 years old. He introduced the mother to online gaming. Neither had children prior to their daughter, who was born prematurely. The baby died of starvation while the parents went out every night to play a game where they had to raise a virtual child to increase its powers. The mother recognized that her child appeared malnourished, but fed her only powdered milk a few times each day. 

Now, let's take what we know and extrapolate. (Again, guesswork here, but very plausible.) Imagine yourself as a first-time parent who never raised a child before. Perhaps you don't have any nearby family members or you do not feel comfortable talking with people in your community. You try to figure out the best way to nurture your newborn given the limited knowledge you have. What you do know is games, and you discover a game where you can raise a virtual child to become a strong young adult. Here is where we extrapolate further - what if these new parents, unsure of how to be parents, used the game as a way to understand parenting? 

Stupid, yesto you and me, but in an increasingly isolating society where we no longer communicate "the old fashioned way" (meaning actually talking and writing acronym-free correspondence), we get caught in the 140-character world of social media where we have hundreds of "friends" but no one to connect to.

The first website was launched in 1991 (CERN). That makes me older than the internet. But my son was born into the increasingly advancing technology of the World Wide Web. He will never know life without a computer screen or smartphone. His method of communication is evolving into a completely different beast, and one I am not entirely comfortable with. If we can't communicate to each other face-to-face, where will we turn to for our information and advice?

In the end, it isn't internet addiction and online video games we need to worry about. We need to focus on the social, economic, and cultural pressures that are driving us to escape and isolate ourselves. When someone says "I played World of Warcraft for 18 hours straight," your first thought shouldn't be 'Gaming is bad,' it should be 'What is going on in this person's life that would make him think 18 hours in front of a computer playing a game is okay?'

1 comment:

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