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[Yang Sung-jin] Perception of gaming in Korea

In an episode illustrating the efficient use of symbols, Victor Hugo once sent a telegram to his publisher that simply read “?” What he received was an equally simple “!”

Hugo wanted to know how his book was doing, and the exclamation point revealed it was doing quite well. 

When the same symbols are used in multiplayer online games, they serve different purposes. In “World of Warcraft,” a massively multiplayer online role-playing game by U.S.-based Blizzard Entertainment, players often come across exclamation points floating above the head of non-player characters who assign new in-game quests.

In “WoW” and other online games, the meaning of “!” is nothing like what Hugo’s publisher wanted to deliver; rether, the symbol indicates that something is yet to be activated (usually a quest involving a reward). Once the quest is accepted and completed, the player gets back to the NPC, who is now adorned with a question mark. Click “?” and the quest is officially done and the player receives a reward.

In the MMORPG genre, in other words, “!” is the starting point for a new challenge and “?” is an indication that certain tasks have been done and a reward is waiting. At first, it was difficult to understand why the symbols had these reversed functions in most online games. But I got used to it fairly quickly. I assumed that the exclamation mark was relatively intuitive for hectic gamers in search of something exciting.

Blizzard Entertainment is currently toying with the exclamation point as its much-awaited “Warlords of Draenor” expansion pack for “WoW” has been launched worldwide. The Korean edition of the expansion pack was scheduled to go live Thursday, and I can safely predict that many of the search queries on major portals such as Naver will involve “WoW” and Blizzard in the coming days.

Indeed, Blizzard deserves some praise for the continued roll-out of updates to its cash cow title. As of September, “WoW” still ranks in the top slot in the MMORPG business with more than 7.4 million paying subscribers. In Korea, gamers have to pay.

Given that it was first developed in 2004 and a growing number of users are migrating from PC to mobile devices to play games, the strong performance of “WoW” deserves a big exclamation point.

For all the doomsday scenarios about PC games, select developers like Blizzard are faring well, largely because a number of gamers still have a strong appetite for virtual battles and adventures based on intricate rules and interaction with many other players on a bigger screen.

However, this optimistic outlook cannot be applied to South Korea’s once-thriving online gaming industry. The Korean government’s official stance toward it is utterly negative. Games are, in short, evil ― with a big exclamation mark. Games can seriously corrupt the otherwise sound minds of youngsters, stealing away their precious time reserved for cramming for the university entrance exam. It’s no wonder that many Korean parents, including those who grew up playing MMORPGs, do not want their kids to play games on mobile phones or PCs.

Policymakers, mindful of such parents, came up with what is called the “Online Game Shutdown” policy, which forces game providers to shut down their services for teenagers from midnight to 6 a.m.

The regulation is already taking its toll on the Korean gaming industry. A host of developers, led by NCsoft, are finding their market shares shrinking due to the strict regulations. Just imagine having top-notch expertise about computer graphics and artificial intelligence. If you work for an online game company in Korea, you’re automatically a member of the evil organization that churns out game addicts. But if you apply the same expertise to produce a digital movie, you’ll be treated with respect.

When I was roaming around beautiful castles or through fields dotted with ferocious monsters in online games, I gained satisfaction from improving my character while enjoying the storylines and subplots, along with interaction with other game players. It’s a mix of refined digital entertainment, with storytelling taking the center stage and technological innovation generating totally new experiences. Literature, myth, music, computer technology, psychology and other myriad academic fields are put together to create something new ― something that deserves an exclamation point.

Whenever I encounter the “creative economy” slogan promoted by the Park administration, I cannot help but regret the current status given to game developers in Korea. Gaming is certainly part of the creative economy but it’s regarded as one of the main causes of social ills, comparable to narcotics, smoking and gambling.

If somebody sends a telegram to me that reads “?” asking about how gaming is doing in Korea, I would answer with the same question mark with a mix of regret and doubt.

By Yang Sung-jin 

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