Wednesday, September 02, 2009


South Korea has the world's highest rate of per capita broadband connectivity at 70 percent and out of a population of 48 million, it is estimated that there are 17 million gamers.

Wherever you are in South Korea you're never far away from a 'PC bang'(PC room). The dimly-lit, smoke-filled dens of online activity, provide the opportunity for the nation's youth to escape to a fantasy world populated by dwarves and wizards, in games such as Warcraft and Diablo.

Open 24 hours a day and extremely cheap at 1000 to 2000 won an hour(50p to 1 pound), the gaming craze is treated by many as a competitive sport. The government is even funding the construction of the world's first e-sport stadium, which will be completed in 2008.

On TV there are even entire channels dedicated to gaming, showing players competing against each-other in modern-day gladatorial contests for the MTV generation. The best become celebrities, who shun the day to day drudgery of working life to play games for a living.

One of the most famous is Lim Yo Hwan, who is treated with near pop-star status by his adoring fans and recently his internet fan club attracted its 600,000th member. A member of T1, a game playing group of cyber athletes, he earnt around 300,000,000 won(175,000 pounds) last year.

In stark contrast there is a dark side to PC bangs, a world away from the limelight and riches on offer to those who reach the pinnacle of professional gaming.

In recent years there have been a number of deaths and addiction is seen as being a growing problem in Korean society. According to government statistics, counselling sessions for those addicted quadrupled from 2,243 cases in 2003 to 8,978 sessions in 2004.

Last year a 28-year-old man from the city of Daegu collapsed in a PC bang after playing games for 50 hours, the result of exhaustion and de-hydration. He was then moved to a hospital where he died three hours later, from what doctors believe was heart failure, although no autopsy was done.

PC bangs also come in all manner of shapes and sizes. Only a few months ago I had the pleasure of walking into one and being told by the man sitting at the front desk that it was for adults only. I thought to myself what a great idea. No screaming children to disturb me whilst I'm surfing the internet.

A bit surprised to find that there were age limits, I assured him that I was 33 years of age, so it was perfectly OK for me to be there. He looked at me somewhat bumusedly.

I then turned round to see that there there weren't rows of PCs lined up with game junkies in front of them, pretending to be Gwildor the Elf in the latest version of World of Warcraft, but cubicles. Each one had its own PC and a lock on the door, obviously for the internet user who seeks that 'little bit of extra privacy'.

The penny finally dropped. I immediately replied with a big 'Ohhhhhhh,' to the assistant, who responded with a look of joy on his face as I had finally understood where I was. I thanked him for his time and immediately began my search for a PC bang that was a little bit less 'adult'.