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Understanding Korean experiences of online game hype, identity, and the menace of the "Wang-tta".

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THEME: Internationalism: Worlds at Play The context South Korea continues to set the pace in the world of online games. The nation is a world leader in broadband penetration rates and has a very high level of online game playing. This study reports on the intricate relationship between the sociocultural factors at work in Korean game communities and the context of how games are received. The original field research reported here adds to current knowledge of the interplay between science, technology, and human relationships as expressed in digital games, a growing pastime and mode of social expression. Korean gamers are an excellent field site for studying the global phenomenon of game communities, both online and offline. Gamers in Korea have repeatedly made world headlines with reports on their fascination with games, their real-life social activities relating to game parlours ("PC Bangs"), video game addictions, and even cases of Internet-related death. Of course, moral panics such as these come in waves, and while it is has simply been the case that Koreans are internationally notorious for being very "addicted to video games," there has not yet been a coherent attempt in social research to address the reasons for that in a comprehensive manner. This paper presents an analysis of case studies derived from fieldwork that was designed to consider the different ways Korean game players establish community online and offline. The paper argues that it is possible to formulate a more comprehensive understanding of game players’ life and motivations if we take into account theories of play (e.g., Huizinga). These theories add perspective to game research by highlighting the concept of online sociability as it is created in the interactions between players, online and offline. Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois, and James Hans provide alternative explanations of the experiences involved in the player’s relationship with the game. These theories add to our understanding to the technologically mediated life-world of online gamers in Korea and help us to dig deeper into why gaming seems so compelling in Korea and possibly elsewhere. Methodology The study relied on ethnographic research conducted in a variety of settings, using three primary methods. First, in-depth interviews – online and offline -- were conducted in both Korean and English with players who participate in game communities and subject matter experts in the field. The interviews provided insight into the personal narratives of game players and their motivations for engaging in communities associated with game playing. Second, two focus groups were conducted with a variety of people from different ages and backgrounds on the subject of general Internet addiction in South Korea. This served to compare the many perspectives on Internet usage in Korea. Third, participant-observation in and around PC game rooms (PC Bangs) in Korea allowed the researcher to experience gaming environments and report on the observed situations. This participation in culture and lived experiences was absolutely essential in order to gain an adequate understanding of the role games play in people’s everyday lives. Through these various methods, an assessment of the reasons for intense engagement in online game communities was possible for this study. Collaboration, competition and community This paper is inspired by a Korean term that emerged in interviews: the concept of "Wang-tta." This term describes isolating and bullying the worst game player out of one’s peer group. One can be said to, "make Wang-tta" or be the object of Wang-tta. As a consequence, there is, immense social pressure to be good at games, and many young people take every opportunity to practice the game and become more skilled. In addition, age and gender are important considerations in everyday activities, interactions and life decisions. These issues will be discussed as relayed by informants. Based on this research, we can look at game playing in Korea and rank motivational criteria into three areas, in order of importance: 1. Community and social life 2. Potential profit and stardom through professional/amateur gaming 3. Access to a fantasy life because of more social mobility online. Competitiveness and gaming pervades all aspects of life in Korea. Outside of many Korean classrooms there is a sheet posted of who gets the best grades. There is also a sheet posted of who is best at StarCraft. Video games are seen as a sport, and treated just as seriously. One of the most intriguing things about Korea is that unlike anywhere else in the world, pro-gamers are regarded as celebrities without the common negative "geek" taboo that gamers have in other parts of the world. The mainstream media and sponsorship by big corporations also helps to keep the hyperbole for games like StarCraft going, especially their promotion of pro-gamers. Many people aspire to be just like them and this contributes to the national passion for games. There are many cultural and environmental factors that also facilitate participation in online communities. Korea’s population density, crowded homes, and broadband infrastructure are definite factors to take into consideration when thinking about access to online games. Even if a person has their own computer and online connection at home, it is "easier to communicate in person" at a PC bang—to coordinate with those on your team, and have other tangible experiences together. The "bang culture," of the PC bangs provides meeting places offline. Within this culture one can see indications of the way online communities are facilitated, built, and maintained. This study will provide a synthesis of traditional theories of play within a Korean context, showing that indeed successful online communities work in relation to their offline worlds. This will be useful for understanding of the types of environmental considerations that need to occur when assessing digital gaming habits and culture, at home and abroad.
Contact: Florence Chee, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University,
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