An Addiction in the Digital Age of South Korea

In South Korea most addicts aren’t dependent on “common” vices such as drugs or gambling, they’re addicted to video games, and this escapist’s drug of choice makes up an alarming 90% of addiction related cases. These avid gamers escape for hours at a time into their own virtual world, often losing interest in their real lives as a result. In Korea, video game addiction is especially prevalent among teenagers, and 15% of them are addicted to some form of electronic media.

The average addict spends roughly 7 to 20 hours a week on games, with many spending 80 hours or more, leading to damaging effects on their lives through sheer neglect. Dr. Lee, a researcher who specializes in online addiction, says this occurs because “gamers do not feel the passing of time in the real world.” Many do not prioritize sleeping, and they begin to forego other daily life tasks in favor of more gaming, resulting in uneven schedules. These schedules can lead to several detrimental health effects such as mood swings, sleep deprivation, and even seizures in the most serious cases. One anonymous 24-year-old claims his addiction grew so severe that he began to neglect all of his university classes, and ultimately failed the semester. In an extreme case of neglect, the parents came home from a 12-hour long gaming session in one of Korea’s popular PC Bangs, or LAN gaming centers, to find their 3-month-old dead from severe malnutrition. PC Bangs are sprawled across Korea, and the inexpensive hourly fee on a high-profile computer makes it appealing for many gamers. Kim Sang-ho, a self-acclaimed addict says it’s easy to lose track of time at the centers, “I just sat down in a PC room and just started playing games,” and spent 27 hours in an avid gaming session, moving only to use the bathroom.

Many gamers claim they’re accruing these countless hours spent gaming to show their dedication to training, in hope of being recruited and becoming a full blown Esports athlete. The odds are incredibly slim, but those few with exceptional talent are found due to their online presence and eventually find their place on a team. Esports has always been prevalent in Korea, ever since 1998 when the game Starcraft took the small country by storm. The Esports athletes in Korea draw an equivalence in popularity to traditional sport athletes in the West. They earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and have large fan-bases who flock to watch their matches. If they manage to reach this level of stardom, the hours spent gaming further increases in order to maintain and improve their skill. In exchange for fame, they not only sacrifice their time but their health as well. Professional gamer Lee Young-ho spent 10 years playing Starcraft, and through the years of intense gaming sessions, his muscles became weak, and distorted, resulting in a necessary surgery and a battle scar reaching from his elbow to his right shoulder blade. Only a small percentage reach the professional level, and a majority of these dreamers don’t have backup plan when their plans go awry. Addiction is the driving motivation and it is not an uncommon sight to see PC Bangs full of high-school drop outs who failed in culminating their dreams.

The South Korean government noticed the alarming rates at which gaming addiction had risen, and the negative effects it was having on the youth, and acted to combat it. In 2014 they created the “Cinderella Act” where any young person under the age of 16 is completely cut off from online gaming between the hours of midnight to 6 a.m. This is enforced by the necessity of a Korean based SSN to play any given game online. However, this is easily bypassed by obtaining an of age SSN, which leads to many youths merely using their parents’. Some addiction cases are so extreme that merely inhibiting the activity isn’t enough. Many cases must be treated in a specialized center, where roughly a quarter of addicted teens will end up. Addiction to online gaming is treated differently, as the end goal for someone with a drug addiction is for them to quit entirely, but Dr. Lee, who administers therapy for game addiction, says “it’s not about avoiding using the internet as a whole. It’s more about a patient being able to control their use of the internet like a normal person. That is when we can say that they are cured.” A successful rehabilitation results in the patient no longer feeling an overwhelming desire to only play games, and has recovered the ability to concentrate on other activities.

Despite all the seemingly rampant cases of addiction to video games, there is a stigma of directly comparing it to medically diagnosed disorders such as addictions to gambling or drugs. Even though there is no consensus from a medical standpoint, gaming companies, and even the government are further hesitant on outright calling it a disorder because of what the game industry is worth. The gaming market in South Korea is ludicrous, worth roughly $9.16 billion, and the economy is dependent on the revenue it brings in. There is a conflict of interests, but without proper intervention the addicts will continue to play their games, because that is simply the only thing they want to do.

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