The world will never forget the Tamagotchi craze. Children clutched their three-button toys from Hong Kong to New York; feeding, petting and virtually grooming their pets. Parents complained about once diligent students losing their focus and shirking their chores, but their missed duties were nothing compared to those of Kim Yun-jeong and Kim Jae-beom.
In 2009 the South Korean couple hit the headlines when their three-month child Kim Sa-reng died of malnutrition. The reason? So they could groom their online personalities, otherwise known as avatars. Kim Sa-reng’s parents had become obsessed with the free massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Prius Online, neglecting their own daughter to spend hours in an internet café grooming a virtual one instead.
Sa-reng’s death sparked a discussion over gaming addiction. Over 80% of young South Korean’s primary pastime is online gaming and it’s not uncommon for students on summer holidays to rise at 11am and game for 13-14 hours before going to bed. Whilst South Korea is widely panned as the global gaming capital, spawning the majority of StarCraft II champions and World of Warcraft (WoW) heroes, gaming addiction is an Asia-wide phenomenon. Two deaths in China in 2007 from unwillingness to stop gaming underscored the growing problem.
The Mainland has met the challenge with typical didactic gusto – after three hours of online gaming a player is prompted to stop and “do suitable physical exercise.” After five hours their avatars stop accumulating experience points, the primary goal of the majority of MMORPG gamers.
There are thousands of rehab centres treating gaming addiction in Mainland China, the first of which was established over 10 years ago at the Military General Hospital in Beijing. Some patients come of their own accord while others are sent by their parents. The majority are teenagers or in their early 20s and they’re subjected to a brutal military regime and denied access to any electronic equipment. All of them have dropped out of education or employment because of their inability to stay away from computers - behaviour which is not tolerated in one child China.
The price of treatment, however, is massive. On average it costs HK$25,000 to attend a full rehabilitation course but many of the patients don’t take to their new surroundings. Last year 14 inmates escaped from a rehabilitation centre in Jiangsu after tying their supervisor to a chair. According to data released last year by the China Youth Association for Network Development, there are up to 12 million adolescents addicted to online games in China.
Hong Kong has its own fair share of gamers. Some play in large public facilities - such as those offered by i-One - but most play at home. We met with a local 21 year old Starcraft II aficionado who goes by the gaming name ‘NMXSanyu’. It isn’t uncommon for NMXSanyu to put in 12 hours of gaming per day and he admitted “I am so addicted”. He’s also started his own clan, Team Nightmare, which he built with a friend and now boasts 90-100 members. He hasn’t met any of them in real life but they play against other clans and try to climb levels. He said a key part of the addiction is trying to reach higher levels. Essentially, having already climbed from Bronze to Diamond, he now games to reach yet higher levels and greater achievements.
Typically, the strongest addicts play games that allow one to “level up” over time by putting in the hours. Games like WoW draw gamers by requiring them to put in a huge amount of work to build stronger characters and collect better gear. In an effort to game the system, you can buy gear online that others have collected.
For instance in May a prison in Jixi was busted for “gold farming”. Officials were forcing inmates to play WoW for hours and then sell the fruits of their labour in online markets. The Guardian quoted prisoner Liu saying, “There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000RMB a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.” There are an estimated 100,000 gold-farmers in China, servicing wealthier markets in Japan, South Korea and the USA.
More popular in Hong Kong are first person shooters. 188 Wan Chai Rd Shopping Centre, Hong Kong’s gaming Mecca, attests to the love of “shoot-em ups” in which the player sees through the eyes of their avatar, slaying enemies and solving puzzles to advance. A shopkeeper at 188 Wan Chai said the majority of games they sell are first person shooters and that 90% of their customers are young local men.
Posters splashed on the walls agree with his assumption that Call of Duty is the most popular game in Hong Kong. It shows a green twinged soldier looking eminently cool as he barrels across a field flanked by comrades - and it’s a lucrative business. Earlier this month ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3’ amassed record breaking sales of US$400million in 24 hours. Compare that with the total revenue generated by a top movie and you’ll get a sense for the scale of the industry.
Video game addiction is not only limited to systems like Play Station, Xbox and computers but also stretches to mobile platforms. The September 2011 issue of the quarterly Youth Hong Kong was titled Young Addicts Talk. Of course drugs, alcohol and smoking addiction were covered but mobile addiction also took a spread. The next time you’re on the MTR take a second to look up from your iPhone or Blackberry and look around – chances are that well over 50% of those around you are staring down at their own smartphone or mobile gaming device.
Meanwhile another anonymous Hong Kong gamer we met considers himself a casual player with unique views on his more extreme counterparts. According to him, there are three levels of gamers: those like NMXSanyu who game to reach higher levels and are involved with gaming as an “E-Sport”; those like himself who game in their free time to enjoy the narrative experience; and those who game on the MTR or whenever they have a couple of free minutes. “Gamers have gotten a lot of bad press recently but 95% of people game just like they read books or watch films.”
He spends up to HK$20,000 every three years on updating his computer to play the best games at top settings but compares it to watching films with a great TV and a good surround sound system. Unlike the gamers that are portrayed by the media, he is a self-sufficient success story with a well-paying job in the stock market. “We’ve gotten to a stage where games are another medium. This is a very valid form of entertainment.”
He also expounded on the great potential of video games to increase hand-eye coordination, puzzle solving skills, speed of thought and reaction times. The idea of “quitting” gaming to him is as foreign as “quitting” listening to music or reading books. The contention that gaming is something that warrants “quitting” is in itself offensive and strange.
National Geographic has called Internet gaming the “addiction of the future”. There is no doubt that with quickly spreading and progressively cheaper and faster wireless broadband it’s possible that future decades will get their dopamine fix not through a quick line of coke or a needle to the vein, but through hours spent in front of glowing screens, battling each other a world away.
At the same time, sustainable gaming such as the form enjoyed by our casual gamer proves there is a valid other side of the argument. Poignantly, most parents would rather their child play problem-solving games that laterally stretch their minds rather than sit in front of mindless television. It seems the decades to come will have everything to offer potential gamers – both those interested in complementing themselves through playing, and those interested in losing themselves in an alternative reality.