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Inside the South Korean Rehab Clinic that Treats Gaming Addicts With a German Sci-Fi Novel

In a country where 14 percent of teens are addicted to electronic media, an emerging rehab industry is finding new ways to reintroduce people to the real world.

John Power

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When Dr. Lee Tae Kyung set out to develop a new program for treating electronic media addiction in South Korea, he wanted to find the perfect manual for his patients. If Alcoholics Anonymous had "The Big Book," he thought, why shouldn't people addicted to computer games or their smart phones have their own self-help guide?

The problem was, there weren't any specialised guidebooks for this particular type of addiction. So Lee took to the library for inspiration. There, he found just what he was looking for: Momo, a fantasy novel written in the 1970s by German author Michael Ende.

Momo depicts a dystopian future in which sinister paranormal creatures, known as the Men in Grey, have convinced humans to give up leisure and socialising in order to save time. For Lee, an addiction specialist who has watched the rise of electronic addiction in his home country, it was the perfect metaphor for how electronic media addiction robs people of their time.

"When we participate in a video game, the time in the game is faster than real time," he told me on a visit to his office at Seoul National Hospital, an uncharacteristically antiquated-looking facility awaiting relocation in the ever-changing capital.

"Gamers do not feel the passing of time in the real world. Because of that, their sleep schedule is disturbed and they forget their schedules – even what they have to do for the future."

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Lee was so inspired by the book, which he had originally read in college, that he named his treatment program after one of its main characters, Master Hora, the administer of time who helps the child protagonist Momo defeat the Men in Grey.

"Master Hora asks Momo, 'What is the first thing we have to do when the Men in Grey surround this house?'" said Lee, explaining the parallels to his treatment program's focus on regular mealtimes and daily routine. "The answer is, 'We have to take breakfast!' When I looked at the words, I was very surprised. How did Mr. Ende realise these things in the 1970s? At the time, we didn't have the internet!"

Photo via Flickr user Marc Smith

Globally, internet addiction and other forms of digital obsession have become a pressing concern. One study published last year by researchers at the University of Hong Kong estimated that 6 percent of the population worldwide is hooked on the web.

In South Korea, the craving for electronic stimulation is apparent almost everywhere you look. In countless PC rooms across the country, Korean youth wile away hours playing massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or League of Legends. A lucky few manage to make it into the ranks of the country's professional gamers, who are counted among the best in the world and can potentially earn millions playing games online.

Step on the subway in Seoul, and you'll see whole carriages of commuters who barely a glance up from a screen – four out of five teens in South Korea have a smartphone, one of the highest penetration rates in the world. Inevitably, some of the country's tech-lovers become literal tech junkies. The problem is especially pronounced among the young: 14 percent of adolescents in South Korea are believed to have an internet or smartphone addiction, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

"A small percentage of adolescents who drop out of school and haunt the internet cafes because of an internet addiction problem do not get attention from anybody, which can be a serious threat to the society in the future," said Jung-Hye Kwon, a professor of psychology at Korea University.

For 24-year-old Kim Sang-ho, the obsession was online computer games, especially Starcraft and League of Leagues, which are practically national pastimes in South Korea. Eventually, his addiction to games began causing conflict with his family, and his compulsion led him to neglect sleep and proper meals. In college, his obsession caused his academic performance to slump so dramatically that, one semester, he failed all of his exams.

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Kim identifies himself as an addict. "If I think about the criteria for alcoholism and substitute gaming for alcohol, it seems correct to say I'm addicted," he told me matter-of-factly. He recalled one marathon gaming session that lasted 27 hours. "I just sat down in a PC room and just started playing games," he said. "I just got up two times to go to the bathroom."

Still, there is some question as to whether being hooked to the internet or computer games is a legitimate addiction, on par with say, substance abuse or gambling. There isn't a medical consensus on this point, and the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the manual of the American Psychiatric Association, does not recognise any such disorder.

Lee acknowledged the controversy over classification, but insisted that treating the issue as a mere morality problem won't work. "We think that by defining this phenomenon as a disease, we can find a solution to this," he said.

Classifications aside, Kim, at least, seemed glad that he has sought help. After eventually heeding his parents' pleas, he entered Lee's clinic for treatment with a group of people suffering from various addictions. There, he underwent the treatments that Lee has incorporated into his fledging program HORA, or "Happy Off to Recovery Autonomy."

For a month, Kim went cold turkey from all electronic devices. With computer games off the table, Lee prescribed reading and music for stimulation. When I visited the clinic, a dozen or so patients of all ages were making a din in a room off the main corridor. The tambourines, shakers, and other percussion instruments were all part of the patients' regular music therapy – a way to help them break their fixation on electronics and reenter the real world.

To work through the roots of his problem, Kim also participated in group counselling. He also had to keep a regular schedule, waking at 6:30 AM and sleeping by 10:30 PM each day.

When we met at the clinic a few weeks after his discharge, Kim told me he still plays computer games – but now it's never for more than two hours a day. He said that, unlike before, he is no longer obsessed.

"I can think clearly," he said. "I can concentrate on other things more, I can focus on things. I don't feel tired anymore."

Before, Kim explained, he "played computer games because I had no will to achieve other things." He said he has found a purpose now, something to work toward besides high scores on a computer screen. "I discovered my dream of wanting to become a doctor while I was here," he said.

Lee said that giving hope to gaming addicts, most of whom are young men, is one of the main goals of his program. Dazzled by stunning visuals on screen, he said, young people may be losing the ability to imagine their own future.

"Their experience has reduced their capacity to produce they own fantasies," he explained. "We can see that game addicts have lost interest in their own lives. They are absent at school, they do not have any plan for the future."

This, again, is where Momo comes in – as a form of bibliotherapy, or therapy through literature. Lee said his patients have been assigned the novel in the hope it will inspire them to dream again.

"Because when you read a book, you can make your own image," he said. "I want this effect to be applied to this program."

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