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[Yang Sung-jin] Gaming takes courage in Korea

A couple of months ago, I was hospitalized. As expected, the overall atmosphere of the hospital remained subdued with some able-bodied patients roaming around in the hallways in search of something refreshing that might alleviate their pain.

One such venue for reprieve was indeed available on the floor where I was staying: a recreation room fitted with a TV set and a bunch of cushioned chairs. Normally, watching TV is a quick way to forget about pain. Korean TV schedules, after all, are filled with silly, mind-numbing entertainment shows and cookie-cutter soap operas in which actors are constantly forced to engage in ludicrous out-of-plot scenes crafted for product placements.

Unfortunately, the TV room turned out to be a source of resentment, frustration and hopelessness. The culprits behind the distress were President Park Geun-hye and her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil. Of course, there are plenty of other high-ranking, well-educated figures who teamed up with them to ruin the nation, but let’s stick to Park and Choi. The problem for poor patients and myself in the hospital ward was that the stream of news about the duo was aggravating our condition.

Whenever news anchors reported about allegations of their wrongdoing, the average blood pressure of patients sitting in the TV room shot up to a dangerous level. TV was supposed to offer some comfort and pleasure, but, thanks to the peerless teamwork of Park and Choi, it made our medical conditions worse, as we struggled with rising anger and utter disbelief about what happened at Cheong Wa Dae, Samsung, Ewha Womans University and beyond.

When I came back to my bed and browsed the internet, I came across a pertinent article that linked patients and the influence-peddling scandal. The gist of the article was that some sensible doctors are urging their poor patients to quit watching TV altogether. Since TV is inundated with depressing news about Park and Choi, patients who keep watching TV are very unlikely to see any improvement in their condition. The best strategy is to avoid news like the plague and find alternative sources of entertainment.

My choice of escapism is gaming. I kept playing a smartphone game in bed, instead of lamenting the fact that Koreans elected the daughter of a notorious dictator who does not have any opinions of her own and cannot take any questions from reporters.

At least, that’s what I tried. To tell the truth, gaming is not a wise choice to deal with the suffocating omnipresence of the Park and Choi scandal in the media.

Traditional PC games are a relatively safe haven for pure escapism from the harsh reality. However, mainstream mobile games here are cutthroat battlefields that mirror the hypercompetitive Korean society in which all tvalues often succumb to the power of money.

“Lineage 2 Revolution,” a popular mobile game developed by Netmarble and licensed by NCSoft, is a case in point. Launched last month with much fanfare, the title is sweeping the mobile gaming charts. On its launch day alone, Netmarble earned 7 billion won ($5.8 million) from the game as a huge number of Korean gamers opened their wallets to stay ahead in the race. “Lineage 2 Revolution” boasts high-quality graphics and addictive game play. It’s basically a mobile role-playing game in which you have to build up your virtual character by slashing monsters, completing quests and working with your friends to fight against other players.

So far, it all sounds so typical. But “Lineage 2 Revolution” is different from ordinary PC games in its strange level-up mechanism. In RPGs, you have to increase your character’s level to become stronger. In this particular mobile game, however, moving up a level often leads to a drastic downgrade of your character’s strength. At the heart of this strange system lies money. All the major upgrades in the game require virtual currency, but you are given no viable option to make money. If you keep fighting your way through monsters and faithfully complete quests, your character level goes up at a steady pace, but your balance of virtual money remains at a paltry level because monsters become much more powerful and if there’s such a strength gap, killing monsters earns you little or next-to-zero money.

The only way for gamers to climb the ladder and avoid getting killed by other powerful players is to pay cash for a host of items, upgrades and virtual money. It is fairly common to pay to play for mobile games, but “Lineage 2 Revolution” has taken this to a whole new level. In short, if you’re not capable of investing at least a few hundred dollars in the game, your character has no hope whatsoever.

One might ask whether players have a chance of getting an awesome weapon and transforming into a much-dreaded hero overnight. It’s not impossible, but given that the official ratio of obtaining the top-rated weapon is 0.14 percent, the majority of players will not enjoy such rags-to-riches success.

Of course, if you are born with a diamond spoon in your mouth like Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of Choi Soon-sil, you might get some easy money from conglomerates and turn your Lineage character into an all-destroying monster overnight. But for cash-strapped ordinary gamers like me, playing a game in which paying real money is the only way to keep your character alive is deeply stressful, if not depressing.

Not long ago, it used to be fun to play games since they offer a time-honored way out of stress and worries. Now that mobile games reflect the money-trumps-everything reality, you have to be really brave or fabulously rich to play games and remain sane. By the way, keep avoiding news like the plague, at least until there’s a decision made about the impeached president, if you want to keep your health.

By Yang Sung-jin

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at -- Ed.
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