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A gaming pandemic in S-Korea

One Saturday this month, roughly 10,000 South Koreans interrupted their usual weekend activity of playing Internet games for something else: to watch professionals play Internet games.

world Updated: Aug 18, 2010 00:58 IST

One Saturday this month, roughly 10,000 South Koreans interrupted their usual weekend activity of playing Internet games for something else: to watch professionals play Internet games.

They gathered in plastic chairs on a beach just before sunset, paying the equivalent of $3 per ticket.

While South Korea's Internet game industry has grown into an entertainment force on par with television and film, Internet addiction has become a national social problem. A typical high school student spends 23 hours a week playing Internet games.

In the world's most wired country, the government faces a collision of interests concerning Internet game-playing. Some lawmakers say South Korea must fight Internet addiction by targeting the gaming industry, limiting the hours at which their games are available. Others see the industry as a still-growing moneymaker -- even a hallmark of Korean culture -- and they want it left alone.

For at least five years, the government has tried to combat Internet addiction through education for parents, counseling, discussions about alternative activities.

"But these policies haven't been effective so far," said Kim Sung Byuk, an official at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. "So now the government is putting more force into the issue."

The National Assembly is debating a bill that would block underage gamers from playing online between midnight and 6 a.m. The potential for such regulation has set off a chaotic go-round of proposals and counterproposals involving at least four government ministries, one of which refuses to use the term "Internet addiction." Officials at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, who oppose regulating the gaming industry, prefer "Internet overindulgence."

South Korea's professional gaming league has charged into mainstream culture. Matches -- competitions in a game called Starcraft, the most popular in Korea -- are televised. Corporations such as Samsung sponsor teams. The league was hit this year by a gambling scandal that involved some of its highest-profile players.

In the hours before the Starcraft championship, a generation of gamers --most ages 15 to 30, officials said -- descended on Busan's Gwangalli beach. Coaches, dressed in suits, gathered their teams, issuing strategy and calming words. Then two players, one from each side, ducked into penalty-box-like booths positioned on stage, and the match was on.

Opponents of the late-night ban argue that nobody has proved that Internet game-playing is dangerous.

"When people are addicted to a substance, you call it addiction," said Jaehyun Kim, director of the game content industry division at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. "But this is a behavior, so we call it overindulgence."

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