South Korea has long been called the mecca of eSports. If the country’s parliament passes a new law that classifies online gaming as an “antisocial addiction” on par with drug use and alcohol, it could change the way the country looks at professional gaming.
“We need to create a clean Korea free from the four addictions,” parliamentarian Hwang Woo-yea recently said in a speech, the Associated Press reports. The four addictions he refers to are gambling, drug and alcohol use, and gaming.
Countries such as the United States already identify compulsive Internet use as a mental health issue. But South Korea is one of the most connected nations in the world. Although 67 percent of American households now use broadband, that number is at 97 percent in South Korea. Crowded net cafes on street corners are a common sight in South Korea.
“Korea has been most aggressive in embracing the Internet,” Koh Young-sam, head of the government-run Internet Addiction Counseling Center, told the New York Times in 2007. “Now we have to lead in dealing with its consequences.”
The new bill combating gaming addiction includes provisions to limit advertising of online games and take 1 percent of the industry’s revenue to fight addiction.
Hwang, who serves as the chairman of the ruling conservative Saenuri Party, has been gaining worldwide notoriety for his strong stance against gaming addiction. Last month, he classified his push as a crusade to save “society from evil.”
“We have to understand the pain individuals and families of alcohol, drugs, gambling, and game addicts go through to heal them and provide them with a proper environment so we can save our society from these evils," he said last month,
Fourteen members of the Saenuri Party, previously known as the Grand National Party, are behind the latest push that is just one part of a series of cultural battles being waged in Korea over gaming. A 2010 law banning gamers under 16 from playing after midnight is currently being challenged in a constitutional court.
Sects of parents, religious groups, and doctors are backing the bill, the Associated Press reports, but Korea’s powerful tech industry and more than a few gamers are pushing back, claiming that “prejudice” against gaming will only hinder industry growth.
"The 100,000 people employed in the game industry are not drugmakers," the Korea Internet and Digital Entertainment Association told the AP.
Earlier this year, the same legislators supported a bill aimed at regulating the manufacture, distribution, and sale of “addictive substances,” such as online games.
As professional gaming globalizes, it’s important to remember that Koreans have been doing it more successfully and on a bigger scale than anyone else for more than a decade. One major reason for the unparalleled success of Korean players is their famous and singular dedication to practicing their craft.
In games like StarCraft, top Koreans have always been a tier or two above international competitors due in large part to their ability to play many more hours every day than most Western players. That famously successful Korean gaming mentality is one particularly visible part of a culture that is attracting increasingly loud criticism from conservatives.
As many as 2.4 million people, or 30 percent of South Koreans under the age of 18, are at risk of Internet addiction according to Ahn Dong-hyun, a child psychiatrist at Hanyang University in Seoul, in a 2007 government-funded study. A 2011 government study found that number was closer to 2 percent.
Korea’s online gaming addiction problem has been met with a number of solutions. Organizations like Jump Up Internet Rescue School aim to rehab students deemed too dependent on cyberspace. In fact, “Internet detox” is a theme that has popped up with increasing frequency in connected societies around the world, most notably in other East Asian countries like China and Taiwan.
“It is most important to provide them experience of a lifestyle without the Internet,” counselor Lee Yun-hee told the Times at a rehab camp. “Young Koreans don’t know what this is like.”
As more politicians take up the cause of fighting Internet addiction, some experts are pointing out what they see as flaws in the argument.
"I think addiction is really a cultural category," said Henry Jenkins, the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at USC.
"If I stay up playing a video game, I'm addicted. If I stay up reading a book, I'm congratulated. If I spend weeks getting better at World of Warcraft, that's bad. If I spend weeks rehearsing and getting ready to play on the football team, that's good."
Jenkins argues that much of the furor over perceived addictions are the result of ignorance and prejudice. Instead of Internet addiction, he says, most of the cases suffer from depression which manifests itself as an unwillingness to go out into the world and face other people.
Depression often leads to “a desire to do things over and over because they’re comfortable and they’re familiar,” he told Frontline. “They minimize the risk. That can manifest itself in the behavior of staying indoors and playing the same game over and over but the game and the Internet didn’t cause that. They’re not addicted to that, that’s simply the vehicle through which their depression is manifesting itself. It’s a symptom. It may also be therapy.”
Jenkins says that interacting with friends and peers online, discovering new skills, and leading organizations—for instance, a World of Warcraft guild—can yield important positive effects that are not well understood, particularly by those people who those who simply disapprove of gaming.
Whether or not this bill passes, the issue of Internet addictions and the way we spend our time in cyberspace will inevitably creep further into political discourse around the world as we become increasingly connected.
As for eSports in Korea, the question this legislation poses is not so much whether the industry survive, but how it might be changed.
It’s unlikely that Korean culture will warp so drastically that the legendary 10-hour per day Korean eSports practice regimen will become a source of scorn. However, there's always the possibility that legislators might find a way to regulate the amount of hours young pro-gamers can spend training.
How would that affect Seoul’s place as the worldwide leader in professional gaming. The implications for their gold medal count, at least, would not be good.