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Online Gaming Is South Korea's Most Popular Drug

Can a new law curb the country's addiction?

Last month, South Korea's parliament started considering a new law that would put online gaming on the same legal footing as vices like gambling, booze and drugs. One bill, if passed, would put limits on how game companies could advertise, and another would take one percent of the industry's earnings and put the money toward anti–gaming addiction efforts – essentially, the government would start treating video game companies in a way not unlike how the UK treats cigarette manufacturers.

I wasn't surprised by news of this bill. In Seoul, where I live, there’s a PC Bang (gaming cafe) on every block, and two TV networks dedicated to Starcraft. To young Koreans, pro gaming offers the same appeal professional sports offer in many other countries. Elite gamers, who often practice up to 12 hours a day, are treated like rock stars, drawing massive audiences to their matches and earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. For a lot of young people here, gaming is both an aspirational activity as well as the most common form of entertainment.

It's unclear how many South Koreans are addicted, but it's a serious enough problem that the government subsidises treatment programmes for game addiction across the country. There have been a number of high-profile instances of addictions that lead to horrible consequences – from Starcraft marathons ending in death to Trainspotting-esque infant neglect.

What strikes me about the campaign against gaming is the parallel it draws between online gaming and drugs, despite the latter's impact on South Korea being fairly negligible. In a nation that has largely succeeded in the fight against narcotics, keyboards have filled the void. Everything that recreational drugs represent in the UK – escapism, socialising, a means of becoming an axe-wielding dwarf – is embodied here in gaming.

Unlike Western internet cafes, which are objectively uncool, Korean PC Bangs are actually hip. And until last year, when the government banned gaming between midnight and dawn for anyone under 16, sometimes the party didn't stop until six in the morning. I decided to visit one of my local PC Bangs to see how gamers felt about the controversial bills.

It was midnight on a Saturday, a prime hour for getting high, and sure enough, the cafe was jumping; every one of the more than 60 monitors had a body in front of it. Scanning the room, I found the vacant expressions of drug users plastered on the gamers' faces – everybody was off their tits. There was even "that guy" who’d done too much, his eyelids drooping, nodding off under the pressure. Scientists have found that the comparison between gaming and drugs goes deeper than lame metaphorical devices used by journalists – after monitoring the brain activity of several gamers, one group of researchers concluded in 1998 that levels of dopamine (the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and is triggered by drugs, among other things) were boosted “at least twofold” during gameplay.

The manager, Young-Hoon, told me that his customers are usually in their early 20s. Some of them are here every day, and there’s no limit to how long they can play. When I asked if any of them are textbook addicts he responded, “Absolutely, but it’s difficult to spot. Online gaming is just like a drug.”

During smoke breaks, I approached some of the gamers. Minkuy, a 20-year-old Starcraft player, told me he prefers this to clubbing and partying. "It’s a lot more enjoyable," he said. "I had some friends who were addicted, but they managed to get healthy again. They didn't go to a clinic. It’s not part of Korean culture to admit you have a problem.”

Seungyong, a 30-year-old gamer, said he comes to these places as a release from stress and work. “Lots of kids get addicted to gaming, so it’s good that [the government is] trying to help them," he said. "There’s a lack of activities for young people here. The problem lies in the economy – gaming brings in a lot of revenue which is essential to the economy.”

The South Korean gaming market is worth £5.6 billion by some estimates, so naturally the game companies are opposed to any law that brands their product as addictive or seeks to control how they sell it. But the gamers I talked to were casual when they admitted that, sure, some people wreck their lives for the sake of the buzz they get from games. That doesn't mean that they should necessarily be strictly regulated, though.

When I asked Seungyong if the proposed law would help matters, he sounded an awful lot like a Western stoner rolling his eyes at failed prohibition efforts: “If people want to," he said, "they’re going to do it anyway.”

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