[FORUM]Korea’s true national pastimeThe online game Kart Rider is getting popular across the country. A cute, doll-like driver races a cute little car shaped like a toilet, a baby carriage or a turtle. It’s easy to play, which makes it all the more popular. Many Internet games involve bloody combat, but this one is comic; even if you lose, it’s fun. It’s over in three or four minutes, so it’s not a major commitment, and it sparks the desire to compete.
Women, who tend to have little interest in online games, make up as much as 35 percent of the game’s players. Online games have tended to be a diversion for teens, but Kart Rider is a truly national pastime; about 57 percent of its players are in their 20s or older. With 12 million players, it is played by one of every four people in Korea.
On average, 220,000 people are playing Kart Rider at any given time, in schools, offices, homes and PC rooms. In a school tournament last September, a million students from more than 12,000 schools ― 95 percent of the elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges in Korea ―joined in.
But there is also a great deal of concern about Kart Rider. Some people are getting lost in it, forgetting everything else. Parents are troubled because it takes their children away from their studies. The violence of some online games is a problem.
But this is a cultural phenomenon that cannot be ignored. Information and Communication Minister Jin Dae-je has pointed to the Cyworld portal site and to Kart Rider as representative Korean IT trends.
In the first half of 2005, “Kart Rider” was a more popular term in Korean search engines than “Lotto,” which was the most popular term last year. Nine of the 10 most-searched-for terms were related to online games.
Online games have been given the lofty designation “e-sports,” and won recognition for Korea as their originator. Our country sponsors international e-sports tournaments and dominates them.
Professional gamers like Lim Yo-hwan are stars in Asia. Exports of Korean games are increasing every year. At a point, they accounted for 90 percent of the Chinese online game market.
In July of last year, 100,000 people crowded the finals of an online game tournament in Busan. The world is surprised by Korea’s e-sports fever. Pro gamers are paid hundreds of millions of won annually; their fans number in the hundreds of thousands, far exceeding those of popular entertainers on Internet sites.
Corporations and the government actively support e-sports, and videogame TV channels thrive. These are phenomena that cannot be found in other countries.
I think our competitiveness in e-sports can be largely attributed to Korean people’s unique approach to competition. We have a disposition that cannot stand defeat; it has brought about national enthusiasm for golf and for gambling, has led to excessive competition over the college entrance exam and has made our country strong in baduk, sports and Internet games.
Kart Rider could become one of those success stories, because the game is filled with elements that provoke the spirit of competition. Seven proficiency levels, marked by the color of the driver’s gloves, create an incentive to compete; tools like water balloons enable a driver to stop a rival in dramatic fashion. There are courses with varying levels of difficulty, and the first to win can be the leader of the room.
Online games have their bright side and their dark side. Kart Rider is being exported to Japan, China and Taiwan this year. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has pledged to lend its support to e-sports, declaring this the inaugural year for the industry.
The ministry should take measures to reduce the games’ adverse effects on society and start to find ways to make the industry contribute to the nation’s strength.
Also, parents should talk to their children to find out what games they are preoccupied with and should make sure their desire to play does not get out of hand.
Sixty or 70 years from now, we may have a world in which almost all Koreans in their 80s are enjoying online games together. Because they require the use of hand-eye coordination, they might even turn out to be good preventative medicine for senility.
* The writer is a deputy managing editor in charge of digital news of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Il