[WHY] Dinner for two with a side of Starcraft: A modern take on the PC bang
Here's a quick pop quiz: Out of all these foods, what could you get at a PC bang in Korea; ramyeon, chicken nuggets, burgers, hot dogs, coffee or sushi?
The answer is all of them.
PC bang are often described as internet cafes, but while the mechanics are the same — a place where people can pay to use computers and order some sort of refreshment as well — the reality is quite different. Korean PC bang are almost exclusively used for gaming.
Bang is the Korean word for room, so PC bang literally means PC room. In practice, PC bang are often cavernous spaces filled with top-of-the range computers with loud music blaring in the background and patrons paying around 1,000 won ($1) per hour.
Step into any PC bang in Korea and there's a good chance a lot of seats will be filled with young people playing the latest games and ordering food and drink without ever moving an inch from their seats. The chairs are so comfortable that people’s backs don’t hurt even after they spend long hours glued to their monitor.
As of 2021, there were around 18,000 PC bang in Korea. An average PC bang has around 100 computers, according to market tracker Gametrics, so in theory, 1.8 million people can log on at once.
Occupying these premises are mostly young male in their teens and 20s, coming in groups to play online games for hours after school and during the weekends. These days, some PC bang even have karaoke booths and game machines like arcades to appeal to a wider variety of visitors.
Thirty years have passed since the first PC bang opened in Korea and a unique culture has sprung up in these high-tech dens that offer not only games, but food and comfort too.
In a country armed with some of the best gamers in the world, could the PC bang be the secret source code to creating the unique gaming industry and culture that continues to boom?
What can you get to eat at a PC bang?
Items on the menu can vary from place to place, but it’s safe to say that all PC bang sell basic food and drinks.
The range is quite broad, but it’s mostly one-dish or fast food items that can be eaten quickly so as not to interfere with the gaming, because the food has to be placed in front of the computers while customers are busy playing.
Things like a bowl of fried rice, ramyeon, mandu (dumplings), burgers or chicken nuggets. Some luxurious branches even provide samgyeopsal, or fried pork belly, strips to go with the ramyeon or even slices of pizza.
A PC bang in Suwon, Gyeonggi, sells sushi and hoe, or sashimi. This is possible because the owner also runs a hoe restaurant next door and can deliver freshly-cut fish within minutes.
Drinks are also aplenty. Fizzy drinks and canned soda are available and a lot of joints also serve coffee and tea. Some PC bang even carry ice cream and desserts like brownies and cookies.
How much does this food cost?
Not much. Items are usually sold between 5,000 won and 10,000 won, similar to fast-food franchises. Drinks cost around 1,000 to 2,000 won and coffee around 3,000 won.
So if you’re on a budget but still want to have a good time, you only need 10,000 won for 4 hours of PC bang fun with a bowl of fried rice and a can of soda on the side.
The affordable prices are why gamers choose to spend hours playing and eating. It also adds an element of fun for the gamers, who can make small bets while playing with the loser buying the winner a snack.
“Nowadays, PC bang owners make 40 percent of their revenue from selling food and beverages and the rest from the money people pay to use the computers,” said Kim Jong-woo, chairman of the Korea Internet PC and Culture Association (IPCA). “People usually stay for hours and some people even spend the whole night, which means they’re bound to eat something in the process."
Has the offering always been so luxurious?
No, on the contrary. PC bang didn’t used to sell food at all, because people didn’t stay that long.
Early PC bang were far more similar to internet cafes in that users mostly visited for business purposes like sending emails or printing files, according to Jung Min-ho, CEO of virtual real estate platform Sahara Street.
“I established the first ever internet cafe in the world in March 1994, six months earlier before one was founded in London,” Jung said.
“I installed 12 computers, the finest back then, and connected two computers to a 52-inch television so that people could play simple games together. Back then, people didn’t have computers at home and even if they did, the computers weren’t good enough to carry out many functions.”
Pushing PC bang owners to sell food was the advent of two sensational games that stormed the online world and extended people’s stay from mere minutes to hours in the offline world: Starcraft and Lineage.
Starcraft and Lineage were both released in 1998 and required high-spec computers and internet access to play. Back then, less than 10 percent of the population had access to the internet at home and even if they did, their computers were not good enough to support the heavy graphics and online system for games.
The 1997-98 Asian financial crisis also meant young people were left with much more time on their hands after losing their jobs. People frequented these game havens so many more sprung up across the country to cater to the growing gaming population.
There were only 100 PC bang in January 1998, but by 1999, Korea had 15,150 PC bang across the country, according to the Korea Culture Information Service Agency. That jumped by 55 percent to total 23,538 joints by the end of 2002. As of 2021, there were 18,000, according to Ministy of Interior and Safety.
But why visit PC bang when we have good computers at home?
It’s because the computers at PC bang are even better.
The price of a computer or a laptop varies significantly depending on the spec, but it’s safe to say that people don’t spend millions of won each year to buy the latest models to support the highest resolution games.
But an average PC bang has top-shelf monitors, keyboards, mice and headgear suited for gamers that cost over 2 million won in total. Even the chairs cost over 200,000 won.
And to keep in line with the competition, PC bang change their computers every two to three years, or at least change parts of them to maintain quality.
PC bang also offer games that have to be paid for because they get them at retail prices, cheaper than individual buyers. Many games also offer PC bang users benefits, like better karts for KartRider and more champion choices for League of Legends.
Are top-notch computers the only reason?
For gamers, maybe. But for the layman, it’s the affordable offline experience they can share with their friends that’s the cherry on top.
PC bang are a much cheaper option compared to other indoor activities, such as karaoke, billiard, bowling or comic book cafes.
And compared to the past when visitors could smoke in their seats, there are now separate smoking booths inside PC bang that keep the air fresh and therefore more approachable for people of all ages and gender.
K-pop fans and university students also frequent PC bang when they need the best internet connection to book concert tickets or apply for popular classes where results can change in mere seconds.
What benefits has the PC bang culture brought to Korea?
PC bang have contributed to nurturing the gaming and Esports industries, and can also help foster future businesses.
Because students are exposed to online gaming culture from a very young age, it’s natural that the large consumer base ensures revenue for companies and a pool of talented players.
Starcraft player Yim Yo-hwan and League of Legends player Lee Sang-hyuk, otherwise known as Faker, are just a few examples of world-renowned Esports players.
Online gaming companies, the likes of Nexon and NCSoft, have also found huge success and have grown to earn trillions of won each year.
Some people do blame the prevalence game addiction on Korea's PC bang culture, but minors are mandated to leave any PC bang after 10 p.m. to make sure they don't stay up too late. The government is also working to curb underage game addiction with various education programs.
A culture open to online networking may also mean that Korea could be a leader in the metaverse race. Online game companies have the upper hand when it comes to operating a virtual realm and people are well-acquainted with new digital technologies.
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]