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Gamers Rack Up Losses

Times Staff Writer

By day, Lee Seung Seop was a skinny guy with glasses who wore a gray polyester uniform in his job as a repairman of industrial boilers.

But after work let out at 6 p.m., he would take off his uniform and head to a nearby Internet cafe. There, the 28-year-old would enter a far more enticing virtual world populated by saber-toothed dragons and purple-haired women in metallic bodices.

Gradually the evenings stretched into nights and the nights into the dawning of the next day. Lee sometimes forgot to eat. He didn’t sleep. He came into work later and later until his boss finally fired him.

One night, after a 50-hour binge playing an online game called “World of Warcraft,” Lee collapsed and fell off his chair. He died a few hours later.

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“He was so concentrated on his game that he forgot to eat and sleep. He died of heart failure brought on by exhaustion and dehydration,” said Park Young Woo, a psychiatrist at Taegu Fatima Hospital, where Lee died.

Certainly, more people drop dead while eating dinner or having sex than playing online games. But Lee’s death this month gained widespread notoriety, bolstering creeping fears among South Koreans that they’ve become hooked on the Internet.

South Korean authorities have linked several high-profile deaths to excessive Internet game playing. Some believe that cyber cafes have in effect become the opium dens of the 21st century, luring players into staying around the clock in disregard for their health and responsibilities.

In May, a 4-month-old girl left alone at home in Inchon died of suffocation while her parents were playing at an Internet cafe.

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“We were thinking of playing for just an hour or two and returning home as usual, but the game took longer that day” -- that’s how a policeman was quoted in newspapers paraphrasing the parents. The couple were charged with involuntary manslaughter, police said.

Authorities seem mindful that they have a social problem in the making. This month, the government-run Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion began sending psychologists into cafes to warn players of the dangers. Players also are being handed questionnaires asking, for example, “Do you sometimes wish that what is happening in the games was your reality?”

Son Eun Suk, one of the psychologists visiting the cafes, believes that online gaming is potentially a bigger social problem than drugs or booze because people are unaware of its addictiveness.

“Parents and teachers lecture against drugs and alcohol, but they are very open to the Internet. They think their children are learning something about computers, and they allow them to play from a very young age,” Son said.

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South Korea boasts of being the most wired country in the world. Nearly three-quarters of its households have broadband connections, whereas the United States remains in the comparative Dark Ages, at about one-third. Forrester Research, a technology research firm in Massachusetts, doesn’t expect the U.S. to reach South Korea’s level of connectedness until at least 2010.

But by dint of their status in cyberspace, South Koreans may be providing the rest of the world with a scary glimpse of the future.

“What Korea is experiencing we might all be experiencing soon,” said Edward Castronova, an Indiana University economist and author of the forthcoming “Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games.”

“This poor man’s death could be a harbinger of just how powerful this fantasy world could become for many of us,” Castronova said.

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The most seductive games are known in the industry as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, in which more than 100,000 people around the globe can play at the same time.

In these virtual worlds, participants make friends and form alliances. Each creates an online persona who develops skills and can climb the social ladder -- from serf to knight, say, medieval Europe being one of the more popular themes -- and acquire virtual treasures such as a magic sword or castle.

South Korea’s online gaming industry brings in revenue of $1.2 billion a year and has been growing about 25% annually, according to the trade association in Seoul. The country is pushing exports of its games to the United States, China, Japan and other markets.

Online gaming is taken seriously enough here that there are two cable channels devoted to the activity, professional players and “e-sport” tournaments. The best known is the World Cyber Games, which South Korea’s Samsung Electronics has sponsored since 2000.

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South Koreans are considered the world’s most avid online gamers by far. In fact, a poll the government published in May found that online activities were more popular than television among South Koreans ages 9 to 39.

The games are thought to be especially appealing to South Koreans because they live in small apartments with little physical and psychological space of their own, said Castronova, who has studied the demographics of participants. Although people of both sexes and all ages play, most prevalent are lower-middle-class males in their 20s with unsatisfying professional lives.

“After all, wouldn’t you rather be a spaceship captain than pouring lattes at Starbucks?” he said. “I think people recognize at least at a subconscious level that there is something subversive about these games.”

Lee Seung Seop was a case in point. He grew up in Taegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city. His family was poor and lived in a shop they ran, a relative said. Lee attended a vocational college near home and after graduation moved in with a married older sister and her family. He worked in a drab, walk-up office that looked like a time capsule of the 1960s, with harsh fluorescent lighting and curling linoleum.

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“He seemed like a very normal and ordinary guy,” said Park Chul Jin, the office manager. “There was nothing odd about him except that he was a game addict. We all knew about it. He couldn’t stop himself.”

Park fired Lee about six weeks before his death after repeated warnings about being late for work. Around the same time, Lee split up with a girlfriend, a fellow gamer, co-workers say.

The last weeks of Lee’s life were spent largely in an Internet cafe. The PC bangs, as they’re called here, are homes away from home for many South Koreans. The cafes typically charge just $1 an hour and are open round-the-clock.

The place Lee frequented has dim blue lighting, a faint haze of cigarette smoke and a hushed atmosphere, the only sound being the soft popping of virtual gunfire. During the day, some customers spend their time writing e-mail or checking stock quotes. Later, the cafe is taken over by hard-core gamers. Lee was among them, often staying through the night, eating instant ramen noodles in front of his computer and napping in his chair.

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Lee died on a Friday night. He had been at the keyboard since Wednesday.

“He just fell off his chair. His eyes were open, he was conscious, but we could tell right away that it was serious,” said Kim Jin U, who was there at the time.

A police investigation attributed the fatality to excessive game playing. But gamers say Lee’s behavior wasn’t very different from that of countless other young men.

“If you could die from playing too many games, I’d have been dead long ago,” Kim said. “I just can’t believe it.”

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With cases like Lee’s, the industry has become more aware of the potentially addictive nature of its product.

NCSoft Corp., South Korea’s largest game developer, has put warnings in its popular “Lineage” and “Lineage II” games alerting players that after an hour online, they ought to take a break for the sake of their health.

“We want a decent, healthy gaming culture. Of course, you can’t force people not to play games, just like you can’t force them not to smoke,” said an NCSoft spokeswoman, Min Ji Seon.

In the nation’s 25,000 Internet cafes, minors are barred entry between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m.

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Recently, the South Korean media have delighted in offering up cautionary tales about children skipping school or stealing money from their parents to buy expensive gaming paraphernalia. In the modern-day equivalent of collecting and dressing dolls, girls purchase online characters called avatars, then buy them the latest virtual clothes and accessories -- everything, of course, existing only in cyberspace.

The father of a 7-year-old boy wrote to a newspaper complaining about his son using the parents’ cellphone and their computer passwords to buy $300 worth of goods.

But even South Korean children today seem aware of the pitfalls of spending too much time on the Web.

At a cafe in Seoul, two 12-year-old boys listened politely to a government psychologist’s pitch and then resumed playing “KartRider,” a wildly popular online racing game. But they broke off after 20 minutes, saying they were going home for dinner.

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“The games are fun. They relieve stress,” said Jeong Dong Hee, who admits to spending up to 14 hours a week playing online. “But I know it’s important not to play too much. We need exercise, and we need to study.”

“I don’t want to become an addict,” said his friend, Song Ji Woo. “I want to be a lawyer.”


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