Consequences of an Intense National Sport

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Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

We have heard stories or even had firsthand encounters with addiction to various entities, and no one can downplay the devastating effects computer game addiction has on users. Being fixated on the Internet and online games has already become a social problem in South Korea, the most wired country in the world. It is often referred to as "electronic narcotics" which in some cases could be far more severe than addictions to tobacco, alcohol or even drugs.

While addiction is typically associated with substances, such as drugs or alcohol, doctors recognize addictive behaviors in gaming as well. In a WebMD feature on the definition of addiction, psychiatrist Michael Brody, MD. set forth the following criteria:

1. The person needs more and more of a substance or behavior to keep him/her going.

2. If the person does not get more of the substance or behavior, he/she becomes irritable and miserable.

Compulsive gaming meets these criteria, they become angry, violent, or depressed and South Korea has seen its share of incident after incident of tragic events that occur where technology, specifically video games and computer games are the stimulus. One incident took place in Busan when a 15-year-old middle school student strangled his mother to death in a fit of anger during an argument over him playing games and then took his own life; he was addicted to a violent combat, first person shooter (FPS) game when this took place. Another incident was when a 32-year-old man died at an Internet cafe after playing computer games for five days straight with little food and few breaks. Another shocking incident was when a middle school girl was caught selling sex to make money for online games. These tragedies are only a few, but illustrate how destructive their game addictions were.

These cases were not the first of its kind in the nation. A man in his 20's killed his mother who scolded him for doing nothing but play Internet games. A month later a couple let their three-month-old daughter starve to death by feeding the baby only once or twice a day, while being too preoccupied with raising a virtual child (character) in a role-playing game. Sadly, the unemployed parents seemed to have put their cyber child ahead of their reality.

Needless to say, technology has contributed to the nation making its way out from under the wings of other hegemonic powers from all corners of the world, to becoming the fourth strongest economy in Asia, but it can't be without consequence.  IT has taken South Korea to great levels and admiration for its standard of living and economic resilience should be realized, but is too much too fast a good thing?

An insurmountable amount of emphasis is put on IT nationwide, and why not, it has done wonders for the nation over the years, making the nation recognizable for all its IT glory. However, the addiction should no longer be considered as just a personal problem, in a country as wired as Korea, anyone is susceptible to cyber addiction. Cyber game addiction not only destroys the players, but also brings about terrible consequences for their families and society as the above cases illustrate.

Keith Bakker, director of Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants said in an interview with CBSNEWS.com that, "With addiction, the person is trying to change the way they feel by taking something outside of themselves. The [cocaine] addict learns, 'I don't like the way I feel, I take a line of cocaine.' For gamers, it's the fantasy world that makes them feel better."

Too much gaming may seem relatively harmless compared with the dangers of a drug overdose, but Bakker says video game addiction can ruin lives. Children who play four to five hours per day have no time for socializing, doing homework, or playing sports, he says, "That takes away from normal social development. You can get a 21-year-old with the emotional intelligence of a 12-year-old. He's never learned to talk to girls. He's never learned to play a sport."

From what I understand there are remedies for any kind of addiction for patrons willing to accept them, but it seems that prevention is the best policy for tackling the byproduct of advanced information and telecommunication (IT) technologies. However, it is easier said than done. Right after the starvation of the baby girl, the government came up with anti-addiction measures, including software programs to limit users' access time to online networks. It has also decided to offer educational programs and counseling services to 10 million people, including school children, over the next three years.

Yet, such measures are not sufficient enough to help prevent individuals from becoming victims of cyberspace and virtual reality games. South Korea's status as the world's most wired nation gives them the technical wherewithal to fuel their addiction. According to the National Information Society Agency, the number of addicts to online games is estimated at 1.9 million, or 8.5% of the total Internet users. Minors show a much higher addiction rate of 12.8%. The country boasts the fastest and most developed broadband network on the planet, and more than 90% of homes have high-speed internet connections.

A lot of online activities are popular in South Korea due to the fact that the country possesses the world's fastest Internet connections. Combine that with roughly 23,000 PC Bangs (online sanctuaries where, for a small hourly fee, the real world gives way to a virtual one that some enter only to find they are unable to leave) and you have a driving force behind a gaming industry worth an estimated USD $2.5 billion and involves nearly 30 million people. That's perfect for playing online games which a lot of South Korean kids do. There's a growing fear of South Korean children becoming addicted to the Net.

PC bang

PC Bang, an online haven

As a result of these misfortunes due to video game addiction, the Korean government implemented a ban on the amount of time one can play certain games continuously and as for children under the age of 18, PC Bang operators are not allowed to permit them to play games between the hours of midnight and 9am. Some critics say that imposing a curfew on video games, they are attacking a symptom, not the root of the problem. They point out that Koreans work by far the most among the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international body which consists of the world's richest countries. In addition to that, parents often pressure their children to study at intensive hagwons late into the night, which is another factor, experts say, which creates stress and has contributed to the country's gaming addiction problem.

Some teenagers have been exploiting loopholes to play games which are restricted to adults and manipulate their way around curfews by signing up using their parent registration number. To better enforce its midnight gaming ban, the government may start fining parents who's ID numbers are being used by their children. Still with many gamers clamoring over the release of new games, government officials may soon get inundated as they try to put some restraints on the this intense national sport.

Gaming Detox

Computers have become integral to everyday life, as well as many jobs, so compulsive gamers can't just look the other way when they see a PC. Treatment for this type of addiction is similar to the way one would detox from other addictions, like food addiction, food is everywhere, you must learn to live 'with' it.

Because video game addicts can't avoid computers, they have to learn to use them responsibly. Bakker says that means no gaming. As for limiting game time to an hour a day, he compares that to "an alcoholic saying he's only going to drink beer."

Bakker says the toughest part of treating video game addicts is that "it's a little bit more difficult to show somebody they're in trouble. Nobody's ever been put in jail for being under the influence of [a game]."

The key, he says, is to show gamers they are powerless over their addiction, and then teach them "real-life excitement as opposed to online excitement."