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[News Focus] Critics call time on ‘shutdown law’

Shutdown system sparks a storm of controversies over Minecraft and Korea’s age-based restrictions on gaming

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

Disputes are raging across online communities and political circles in South Korea over the controversial “shutdown law” that purportedly protects children from excessive gaming.

Last week, an online petition was filed to the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae, claiming that the “Cinderella law” is denying access to the child-friendly game Minecraft. Popular YouTubers who play the global hit game for younger audiences, also criticized the regulation, saying they are now playing an “R-rated” game.

The controversy traces back to 2011, when a revision to the Youth Protection Act barred children under the age of 16 from playing online PC games between midnight and 6 a.m. Since then, intense confrontations have flared up between game enthusiasts and those who have a negative view of games over the effects of the shutdown law.

The latest dispute over Minecraft is reflective of the clashes between the peculiar Korean regulation and global game developers. Minecraft, developed by Mojang Studios, is rated playable by those aged 7 or older. But Microsoft, which acquired Mojang Studios in 2014, recently changed the Minecraft account system, requiring users to use Xbox Live accounts.

Koreans under the age of 18 cannot sign up for Xbox Live accounts, as Microsoft revised its account policy for the Korean market to deal with the shutdown law in November 2012. Users are now required to go through age verification with their mobile phones to obtain Xbox Live accounts.

Microsoft’s way of handling the regulation results in a strange application of the law for users. The vast majority of Minecraft users here are schoolchildren. But they are likely to be denied access to the game as the account migration progresses over the coming months.

There are other age groups who have to swallow a strange policy. The shutdown law does not apply to those aged 16-17, but they cannot play Minecraft because they have no way to pass Microsoft’s age verification system that sets the minimum user age at 18.

Other global game providers, such as Sony and Nintendo, also restrict Korean minors from signing up for their accounts. The Korean government does not officially apply the shutdown law to console games, but since the global game giants collect user information to provide their paid services, such account systems are subject to local shutdown regulations.

Blame game on Minecraft dispute

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which spearheaded the legislation of the shutdown law, is now trying to pass the blame to Microsoft. In a post on Twitter, the ministry claimed that the problem with Minecraft is due to the change in Microsoft’s policy. The ministry’s logic is that the law restricts game play hours for minors, not the details about game account systems.

But the Twitter post sparked criticism against the ministry and calls for the abolishment of the shutdown system.

“It is puzzling that the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is blaming Microsoft because the whole issue is due to the shutdown system,” a user on Client, a major online community, said. “Why does Microsoft have to set up a separate age verification system for the Korean market?”

Kim Seong-hoe, an influential game analyst who runs YouTube Channel G Encyclopedia, touched off the latest round of shutdown-related disputes by posting a YouTube video titled “The World’s First R-rated Minecraft: Korea’s Gender Ministry Pulls It Off Again” last Wednesday.

The video attracted nearly 1 million views and generated over 14,000 comments as of Tuesday.

On Monday, Kim posted another video to explain the key issues that are misunderstood by the public and under attack from the critics. Some left-leaning users argued that the shutdown system has been led by the conservative political camp, but Kim used past National Assembly voting data to show that support for the shutdown was equal among conservative and liberal lawmakers.

Other critics claimed that the Gender Ministry has no responsibility since it just follows the law legislated by the National Assembly, but Kim also countered such logic by showing past TV interview clips in which then Gender Minister Baek Hee-young said the ministry proposed a revision bill aimed at introducing the shutdown system.

In the YouTube, Kim explained that Korea’s government agencies are capable of pushing for a bill and the Gender Ministry repeatedly pushed for the legislation of the controversial bill.

The underlying logic behind the shutdown law is that excessive gaming can lead to addiction and even suicide.

The Culture Ministry, in charge of regulating games and their ratings in Korea, issued a press release titled “Shutdown System Offers Chance to Prevent Gaming Addiction and Suicides” in October 2011.

The press release listed a couple of suicide cases in which the youngsters claimed games were the cause of conflicts.

Does playing games lead to suicide?

“In recent days, Korea society has faced a number of incidents caused by internet games. In the majority of such cases, youngsters brought about irreversible consequences after they got addicted to internet gaming,” the press release said.

The reasoning that playing games causes violent acts and suicide is too simplistic, critics say.

Another logical jump is the mix of online gaming and internet addiction. The government’s press release mentioned above has a table on the number of those addicted to internet, while offering no data about gaming addiction. If online addiction is so deadly, critics argued that regulations should aim to restrict minors from using the internet in other ways, including web surfing and streaming YouTube videos, questioning the fairness of the regulation that targets only game players.

But the shutdown bill passed the National Assembly, even though it targets only PC-based online games played by local users, and has many loopholes that can be easily exploited by minors. Youngsters who want to play online PC games at night are bypassing the shutdown regulation by using the accounts held by their parents or relatives.

The shutdown system is also heavily criticized as it regulates only PC online games, allowing minors to play mobile games without any play time restrictions. According to a report by the Korea Creative Content Agency, 64.2 percent of people played mobile games, followed by PC games with 41.6 percent and console games with 14.6 percent. The survey was based on multiple answers of respondents.

The Gender Ministry, in fact, attempted to expand the scope of the shutdown system to mobile games earlier this year, but failed to get enough support.

Even some government officials have expressed skepticism about the efficacy of the shutdown law and a handful of lawmakers have proposed bills to abolish or revise the controversial law. But the Gender Ministry shows no sign of easing up on its defense of the shutdown system.

In April 2014, Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled the shutdown law was constitutional as it does not violate people’s basic rights.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)
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