An interesting observation on Korean youth from 2001. Relevant?
TIME MAGAZINE, JUNE 4, 2001, VOL.157 NO.22
Where Does Fantasy End?
Why all of South Korea is obsessed with an online game where ordinary folks can be arms dealers, murderers ... and elves
By MICHELLE LEVANDER Seoul
Stuart Isett for TIME.
Korean gamers spend most of the day and night playing Lineage or hanging out in a PC cafe waiting for the chance to play. The teenagers come together through their obsession with the online game.continue
Five rough-looking men stepped out of a black sedan and burst into the Seoul PC café where Paek Jung Yul hangs out with Strong People Blood Pledge, his clan of online gamers. "Is the wizard here?" demanded one of the toughs, asking for the player who killed his character in an online game called Lineage. The "wizard" was there, alright, and he was feeling bold. He boasted that he had offed the gangman's virtual character just for the fun of it. Bad idea. The roughnecks dragged the 21-year-old into the urinal and pummeled him until he was covered with real-world bruises.
Paek describes the incident—now part of his clan's lore—with jaded nonchalance. Actual violence has become so commonplace among computer-game players that concerned authorities even have a term for it that borrows from the game: "off-line PK" (player killings). Paek, who relishes online killings as a refreshing change from his decorous real-life manner, allows that physical retribution is merited if players engage in particularly craven online behavior, such as theft or scams involving the game's coveted virtual weapons. Online revenge is O.K. too: "Usually, I kill the ones I hate," he says. Those are fighting words, coming from a shy, skinny 16-year-old who regularly tops his high-school class. But this is the other Paek speaking, the ruthless (and female—go figure) elf who is master of Lineage, a medieval fantasy game that has swept Korean society into a gaming frenzy. "In reality, I have few ways to express myself or show off," Paek says. "But in the game, if I put in a little effort, many people will know who I am."
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In South Korea, a deeply conformist society where children must speak to elders with a special deferential grammar, this bloodthirsty game has caught on with a vengeance. In Lineage, gamers playing princes, wizards and elves fight one another to the death in mini-armies or clans, headed by guild masters, to gain control of the castles that dot the virtual world. The victors can then levy feudal taxes upon virtual villages under their control and dun gamers a percentage of each online weapons sale. All this can be fairly lucrative, especially since there's a thriving black market that exchanges the virtual items for cold, hard cash. But what makes the game so addictive is its complex feudal environment, which hooks players after they invest days or weeks building up the strength of their online characters. Based on its success in garnering online subscribers in Korea alone, Lineage is the most popular single interactive online game in the world right now, ahead of Sony's Everquest, Electronic Arts' Ultima Online or even Microsoft's Asheron's Call, according to Samsung Securities.
Why does Lineage have such a hold in Korea? "This is a small country," explains Joonmo Kwon, an educational psychologist. "If everyone you know plays Lineage, you have to play it." Besides, says Kwon, the game's emphasis on winning and working in groups speaks to the Korean spirit. And then there's the universal explanation for escapism: "In the real world, in Korea, you have to repress your drives and hidden desires. In the game they come out."
In this wired nation, there are PC cafés on virtually every street, outfitted with the high-speed Internet connections that make interactive games crackle. Open 24 hours, and charging just $1 an hour to play, these game rooms are well stocked with cheese-whiz sausages, potato wafers and instant noodles. Many games are played here, but Lineage is the most addictive, authorities say. Two million people, out of a population of 46 million, have active Lineage accounts. And when day turns to evening, close to 100,000 Koreans can be found glued to computer terminals around the country, playing the game simultaneously. School kids in Seoul routinely doze through classes after playing all night. Parents either don't know or can't stop them. Shy young boys take on alter egos as aggressive killers online. A doctor plays ruthlessly while a neighborhood bully has a chance to show compassion. Girl characters, meanwhile, have sometimes been known to offer sexual favors to experienced male gamers in exchange for virtual weapons. But, as one Lineage clan's guild master notes, who's to say the girl characters are really girls?