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Gaming not just for kids

Adults make up large number of online multiplayer gamers

Computer games were often considered strictly for kids. An adult staring mindlessly at a PC screen, slashing monsters and upgrading character levels would be looked down upon, if not ridiculed as a man-child.

But as game-loving children turn into adolescents and then adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s, gaming transforms into a mainstream pastime, especially in South Korea where high-speed Internet connections are plentiful and a slew of cash-rich game developers continue to produce one hit title after another.

Many kids are still dying to play online and video console games whenever possible, but it is now adults who are the mainstream consumers in the gaming industry. Thanks to the prevalence of such game fans, it’s not difficult to spot office workers talking about popular games such as Diablo 3 over lunch or men in their 30s poring over game magazines at a local bookstore.

Korea is known as a country where gaming is big business. There are a range of professional game leagues online and offline based on a solid fan base as well as countless game-related Internet communities. Korea has even hosted some of the biggest gaming events in the world such as the World Cyber Games, which offers a huge cash prize for those who excel in multiplayer online games. 

Top professional gamers here are touted as celebrities and are said to make as much as 100 million won ($88,500) annually, though their salaries are not officially disclosed. Famous professional “Starcraft” player Yim Yo-hwan reportedly earned 300 million won per year when the popularity of the game developed by U.S.-based Blizzard Entertainment was at its peak.

According to the “2012 Report on Gamers in Korea and Japan” issued by the Korea Creative Contents Agency, the gaming market in Korea makes up 25.9 percent of the global online game industry’s revenue. This figure is remarkable given that Korea is only the 25th-most populous country in the world with a population of about 50 million.

While the popularity of PC-based online games remains high, recent studies indicate a demographic shift within the gaming population.

In a survey by the KCCA, 45.2 percent of respondents aged 9-49 who purchased game-related products at least once in the past six months went to PC rooms 5.4 times a month on average. Years ago, those who played games at Internet cafes were predominately in their teens and 20s. But the demographics have shifted to include those in their 30s and 40s, reflecting the fact that gaming is a key leisure activity for adults.

The percentage of Internet cafe users was highest among those aged 25-29, at 73.8 percent, but the frequency of visits was highest among those aged 45-49, at 6.5 times a month.

The increase in the number of adult gamers is reflected in the game ranking chart announced by Inven, a local website which tracks popular and major online games. Of the top five games, both “Diablo 3” and “Blade & Soul” are gaming titles for mature audiences only.

The growing proportion of adult players who can afford to pay a set fee on a monthly basis has prompted local game developers to target primarily adult users.

Online role-playing game “Rift,” developed by U.S.-based Trion Worlds, was initially given the 15-plus certification by Korea’s Game Rating Board. But its Korean publisher CJ E&M Netmarble filed a new age rating application to get an 18-plus rating.

“According to our survey, the majority of our users preferred 18-plus ratings and we also considered (mature ratings) more appropriate, considering the features of the game,” said Bae Min-ho, a public relations staffer for CJ E&M Netmarble.

It has been reported that the game’s publishing team deliberately added slang to the game in order to earn the desired rating.

The preference for older gamers is in sharp contrast to the past when local game developers sought to get an all-age rating to host as many teenage gamers as possible.

A report by the Game Rating Board showed that of the 385 online games that were rated in the first half of this year, 29.9 percent were categorized as having content suitable only for those aged 18 or older. The figure marks a sharp increase from the same period last year, when only 19.9 percent of the games received the same adult rating.

Government policy also fuels the drive for adult-centered online games. Pressured by concerned parents, the government has adopted what is called the “selective shutdown system” and other anti-gaming restrictions to “protect” children and students from gaming addictions. Under the system, children under the age of 16 cannot play games between midnight and 6 a.m., and game companies here are required to establish a system that will automatically shut down the games targeting teenage players during that time.

For game developers, much more money is involved when their prospective titles target adult gamers. Compared with teenage gamers, adults are willing to spend more money on their hobby, which in turn props up paid gaming services.

Some adult users even pay real money to buy better and more powerful cyber items, such as virtual weapons to boost the fighting capabilities of their online characters.

The sales volume of virtual item trading websites, based on the fast-updating listings, is estimated to be huge. A number of game item sellers, many of whom have obtained business licenses, make money worth millions of won a day. A growing number of adult gamers pay cyber game money in return for real money ― usually less than $100.

“In essence, adults are buying time by buying items. Unlike teens, grown-ups don’t have much time to spend on playing games. Thus we buy game items to make up for the lack of playing time,” said a 28-year-old office worker surnamed Song in Seoul.

Adult gamers who have a full-time job do not have enough time to upgrade their characters. Frustrated to see their characters stuck in low levels, they look for quick paths to build them up. The conventional method is to purchase game money at major item trade sites. Although there is an ongoing dispute over whether gamers should spend real money to buy virtual weapons, such fast-track upgrades are far more widespread than generally assumed, considering the number of trades made on a daily basis.

“With the economy taking a turn for the worse, the marketing strategy in the gaming industry is shifting toward players in their 20s and 30s who have purchasing power,” said an official from Ntreev Soft, a Korean video game developer. 

By Yoon Min-sik