Lost in Space: The Virtual FixIn a competitive, tough society, entertainment often becomes a means of escape. Those lucky enough to afford it can fly off to Tahiti and have a nice margarita cocktail. But ordinary Koreans are more likely to be stuck in stuffy PC rooms, checking the latest Kosdaq rate while grousing about their lousy sex lives in the adult chat room. Life is tough and reality is not much help.
Role-playing games, recently gaining popularity among all ages, seem to be the perfect diversion for those who are fed up with the stresses of everyday life. Digital "avatars" － a term derived from Hindu mythology that refers to an earthbound incarnation of a divinity － are here graphic icons that represent players' bodies in virtual space, allowing people to choose the life they want to lead through the character.
Not only that, but these high-tech simulation games also allow players to take an active part in "creating" their own living conditions based on the most updated plug-in manuals. These games are the farthest humans have come so far in realizing their desire to attain the unattainable.
Visit one of these interactive three-dimensional communities on the Internet and you can experience the kinds of possibilities available to the avatars. Notions of "real" and "virtual" immediately become blurred and abstract. The games offer occupations ranging from bartenders to marriage counselors, and the places in which these characters can hang out are as diverse as stock exchange markets and art galleries, featuring close replicas of the real thing. The days and the seasons also change as they do in real life. Some sites even update weather changes every few hours.
A site called Cydream (www.cydream.com) is the most popular community game site, and has become a social network for young Koreans. Once you become an official member, you are provided with a new house through a real estate consultant. Most cities and districts in Korea are available and closely resemble real-life geography.
The virtual houses in Gangnam, southern Seoul, which are some of the most popular among buyers in real life, have all been taken in the game.
Once you are assigned a house, you are provided with a three-dimensional view of its interior and a wide selection of furniture and wallpaper. If you are erring on the side of caution － after all, deciding where to live is a momentous decision － you can even visit a showroom model of the house or apartment first, as many Koreans do in real life, and check that it meets your high standards before signing on the dotted line. And community counselors are available to help you maintain good neighborly relations so that life in your locality is harmonious.
The player can earn electronic game cash in several ways. They can either click on the advertising banners that, as in real life, litter their virtual worlds, or fill out marketing questionnaires for the game companies regarding service. If players want to do something productive, they can also try to catch fish in the neighborhood lake.
In creating a digital avatar, options are centered around physical appearance. Starting with skin color, the player is then asked to select height, sex, age and occupation, gradually putting together a persona for their character.
Outfits and accessories are also available for the avatars and players can change them at will depending on their mood. If players are unhappy with existing models, they can even produce their own.
This may sound like the perfect fantasy ground for anarchists, but rules also exist in the role-playing games very similar to those in real life, like paying tax and practicing monogamy.
Game Everland (www.game.everland.com), which has over a million members, is best known for its virtual wedding ceremonies. Once your avatar reaches 20 years old, you are entitled to register for marriage. But the process of registration in the Game Everland is as tricky as in real life. Once you are married － to another avatar － your marital status is permanently recorded by the Webmaster. And unless there is mutual agreement between the two parties in cases of dispute, players are not "legally" allowed to dissolve their marital ties in order to marry another avatar.
But real life put a spoke in this wheel a few weeks ago. As most student players went back to school at the beginning of March, there were growing complaints among users about the sudden disappearance of their partners. That's why the Web site advisors organized an official panel inviting "widowed" players to plead for an official divorce. It was an incident in which virtual life overlapped with reality.
Lim Hee-jin, a content advisor at Game Everland, says the panel was a chance to send players an important message.
"March is low season for online businesses. So we organize these events partly to attract public attention. But it was also a chance to show that there are rules in cyber life which need to be respected," she said, adding that the most interesting thing about managing these role-playing games is to see the extent to which players identify themselves with their characters.
Despite the companies' stated ambitions to create "utopian" communities in virtual space, there are mixed opinions about their success.
The manuals, which mostly differentiate between characters according to outward appearance and possessions, mirror what for many is a distinctly non-utopian overemphasis on these qualities in the real world. Instead of focusing on the creative development of the characters' identities, the game further stimulates urges to consume, own and be beautiful.
But it may just be part of the nature of a video game. After all, it's only a game － where else can you earn cash by catching a few electronic fish?
by Park Soo-mee