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Gaming addiction on the rise in South Korea

Meet the criminals who really can point the finger at games.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

A report on Reuters this week highlights the growing problem of online gaming addiction in South Korea, where 11 million of the country's 48 million people enjoy broadband Internet access - the highest penetration rate for high-speed services in the world.

We may have Sky One's Gamezville TV show here in the UK, but in South Korea there are 24-hour cable channels dedicated solely to the pursuit of professional gaming events and fan clubs for the best players. "Some professional gamers are as young as 13, and there are more than 50 pros starring on gaming channels on a regular basis," 25-year-old pro gamer Kim Ka-eul told Reuters. Kim makes a living through corporate sponsorship and prize money. "One superstar even has a fan club with more than 100,000 members."

With MMORPGs amongst the most popular games in South Korea, many gamers can make a living just by selling in-game items on auction sites and privately. However the lengths some gamers will go to play online RPGs like NCsoft's Lineage are starting to cause concern. While many gamers jokily reflect on how long they spend in front of a games console or PC without a break, in South Korea it's a serious problem - a poll by the Commission on Youth Protection showed 60 per cent of 1,440 kids surveyed believed they were addicted to online gaming and the Internet. As regular readers will know, we often have to report on gamers in the Far East who have played so long without a break that they have literally keeled over and died, and in one case a young gamer wound up killing his sister allegedly because he became confused between the online world and real life - a far cry from delinquent rednecks with shotguns blaming it all on Grand Theft Auto.

The pursuit of online gaming is also starting to inspire serious crime. In a boon for the "come hate games with me" brigade, one 12-year-old Lineage fan actually stole the equivalent of $16,000 from his father and fled to the port city of Pusan where he bought and sold in-game items and played almost constantly at an Internet café known as PC Baang. The South Koreans take it seriously too. In April 2002 the government established the Center for Internet Addiction Prevention and Counselling. "We receive reports of some 30 new troubled cases every week but the number keeps rising," says counsellor Lee Su-jin. "Parents are only now becoming aware of the seriousness of the problem."

However Lee-Wang-sang, an analyst at LG Investment & Securities, believes that the 500 billion won (€335 million) industry is quite safe for now. "Neither the game makers nor the government are fully prepared to tackle the problems once and for all, given their relatively few years' experience in the online gaming sector," he told Reuters. With broadband use on the rise all over Europe (heck, even my Mum has broadband), it'll be interesting to see if and how South Korea tackles the problem, and whether it becomes a serious issue here in the future.

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