Little Korea gets big online, boosted by games’ popularity

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Little Korea gets big online, boosted by games’ popularity

In the real world, Korea is a small country that was formerly colonized by Japan and is still divided in two. But in the unlimited virtual world of cyberspace, Korea is a mighty country and a cultural power.
Korea succeeded in developing one of the first graphic online game ― “Land of Wind” by Naxon ― in 1996, sparked by the country’s competitive edge in abundant digital opportunity and technology infrastructure. In 2005, Korea game sales accounted for 23.5 percent of the world market. In the Digital Opportunity Index (DOI) and International Institute for Management Development (IMD) rankings released last year, Korea was ranked first and second, respectively. There are more than 100 million users of Korean online games in the world.
Traditional game giants Japan and the United States, as well as newcomer China, are quickly catching up, but Korea is still ranked on the top of all customer satisfaction indices. Of the 10 best-selling games in China in 2004, five were Korean, according to figures from International Data Corporation. At the Online Game Awards hosted by a Japanese company named WebMoney on Jan. 20, 2006, Korean games won 17 out of 20 categories.
But the prospects for Korean online games are not exactly bright, because their success is based more on the consuming power of Korean users than on superior technology. The programming and storytelling of Korean game developers are not better than those in the United States and Japan. Also, only a few developers have the skills to make sophisticated graphics offerings by foreign competitors.
Fresh storytelling methods have been a signature for Korea. The stories are similar to traditional Korean narrative literature, but are not being told the way they used to be. Espen Aarseth, the renowned scholar of ludology, the study of games, mentioned “Lineage,” a Korean massive multiplayer online game, as a social experiment that would change the future of online games.
In fact, some say Korean online games have created a new storytelling paradigm, changing the ways in which games are narrated. In Korean games, the stories are created by the players as they deal with difficulties in different ways, often over more than 1,000 hours of gameplay. Also, players as heroes realize the importance of social justice and human freedom, just as they do in the real world.
An often-cited example is the Batz Liberation War, which took place on the Batz server in Lineage 2. Low-level common players stood against a group of users called Dragon Knight, who had stabbed to death up to 200 users in 2004. An enormous number of players from different servers created new user names on the Batz server to fight Dragon Knight. After two months of virtual bloodshed, regular players won the war and the Batz server was “liberated.”
The war on the Batz server was mentioned in countless newspaper articles and research papers. A book was even published, called “Korean-Style Digital Storytelling ― The Story of the Batz Liberation War.” It was an example of the “self-sacrifice” of a massive number of users to win the freedom of the “weak people,” or players, who showed up online.
As shown from this example and others, lives in cyberspace are imaginary but as multifaceted and complicated as in the real world. Despite the anonymity of the Internet, human freedom and common sense are by no means absent, which has provoked academic curiosity for years.
Today, many Japanese users can’t wait for Korean online games to be translated into Japanese, and so play games with one hand while consulting a Korean dictionary in the other. Also, players in North America and Europe have adopted survival Korean into their online lexicon, using Korean words such as annyeong (hi), sarangheyo (I love you) and ppali-ppali (do it quick) frequently in chat windows with other players.
In cyberspace, users from all over the world are connected by a single server, but there is still some nationalist elitism in the guilds, or groups of characters who play together. To be recognized as gosu, or master-level characters, users must have Korean user names, which has led to complaints from U.S. players. As upper-level guilds are composed of Korean users, foreign users eager to advance must try to fit in with Korean players. Sometimes, foreign users are castigated for their poor Korean skills. When a JoongAng reporter was on a Lineage server, a Korean user was scolding a user from Paris: “How can you play the game when you can’t speak Korean? You should at least know Korean.”
The enormous rise in consumer interest that drove the development of Korean online games took place in the late ’90s. Amid the foreign currency crisis, vast numbers of workers had been laid off, and the unemployment rate soared as many college graduates failed to find jobs. This was also the time when broadband Internet was penetrating the Korean home, Internet cafes had propagated throughout the country and the single-player game market had collapsed due to massive piracy.
These conditions didn’t last forever, and whether Korea can retain its leading position remains to be seen.


by Lee In-hwa

With reporting by Lee Young-su, Shin Sae-mi

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