Video Games: A South Korean National Pastime…Or Addiction?

By Bryan Le 10/21/19

The digitized nation grapples with the good and bad of competitive computer gaming.

teen playing video games in South Korea
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South Korea’s $13 billion competitive gaming industry doesn’t like the World Health Organization’s addition of "gaming disorder" to its 2022 revision of the International Classification of Diseases. Mental health experts in the country say a nuanced examination of the hobby is long overdue.

The nation has seen some gripping examples of gaming addiction. A grandmother watched as her grandson locked himself away in his room to play games, not even stopping his gaming at his grandfather’s funeral.

Some in the country have died for their hobby, neglecting their need to sleep and eat until they collapse. Gaming even led one couple to neglect their baby daughter until she died of malnutrition. They were put away for negligent homicide.

The South Korean government is taking the issue seriously, putting together a panel of experts to detangle the whole thing. Much to the chagrin of the nation’s massive gaming industry, the panel is looking into whether to add gaming disorder to the 2025 edition of the Korean Standard Classification of Diseases.

There’s big money at stake, considering that South Korea exported $6 billion in video games in 2017. That’s more than 10 times more than what K-pop brought in.

“It’ll be a disaster,” says Kim Jung-tae, a professor of game studies at Dongyang University. “The entire ecosystem of the game industry could collapse.”

A Witch Hunt Or Real Issue?

Kim is on a task force formed to combat the classification of gaming as a disorder. He calls the whole thing a “witch hunt” by those who stand to profit from addiction research and treatment, spurred by concerned parents looking for a scapegoat for what’s become of their kids.

“It’s part of a phobia of new media,” Kim said. “Games, like air, are already a part of our lives.”

Those on Kim’s side believe that the gaming industry stands to lose $9 billion and 8,700 jobs if the classification of gaming as a disorder goes through. However, mental health advocates say that the gaming industry and its fans have nothing to worry about.

“Alcoholics don’t blame the company that makes the liquor,” said Roh Sung-won, an addiction specialist. “You don’t stop manufacturing cars because there are automobile accidents.”

Playing For 3 Days Straight

He recalls the owner of an internet cafe calling his hospital on behalf of a man who had been playing games for over 72 hours straight. But opponents of the classification say that such people aren’t suffering from gaming disorder, but are gaming because of some other underlying mental health issues.

South Korea is far from the only nation grappling with compulsive gaming issues. Epic Games, the American creators of the immensely popular game Fortnite, is facing a class-action lawsuit from a Montreal-based firm for purposely putting out a game built to be addictive to teenagers.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter