Famous Steed was a legend. For more than two years, the magician had used fire, ice, and lightning to battle dragons and monsters on the fantasy continent of Hellmarsh, eventually climbing 162 levels to become one of the top five players among hundreds of thousands of rivals in the Korean online game A3. Famous Steed's real life, on the other hand, didn't look quite so glamorous. The magician's alter ego, S.H. Kang, had shuttered his money-losing cosmetics store in 2001 and plunged nearly full-time into the medieval world of A3, spending his days and many nights at the local "PC Bang," or online gaming parlor. "Back then, I played at least 24 hours before I went home to crash. I didn't know how much I slept, but when I woke up I was back at the PC Bang to get monsters," says Kang, now 35. "Online games are as addictive as gambling." Even today, though Kang has a full-time job, he says he feels the pull and spends several hours every weekend playing various games.
Kang is one of more than a half-million Koreans suffering from a malady that was unheard of a decade ago: an unhealthy obsession with online games. A government-sponsored survey last year showed that some 546,000 people -- 2.4% of Koreans aged 9 to 39 -- need counseling for Internet addiction, and some experts say it's a bigger concern than alcohol, gambling, or drugs. "Online gaming addiction has become a national problem," says Kim Hyun Soo, a psychiatrist who heads the Net Addiction Treatment Center in Seoul, which has helped more than 1,000 game addicts in the past four years.
The problem can even be fatal. Some players get so obsessed with winning experience points or digital doodads such as magic swords and power-boosting necklaces that they skip school, quit jobs, and play nonstop for days on end. Last year alone, at least seven people died from deep vein thrombosis, heart failure, or exhaustion while playing online games. Another committed suicide after being denied access to a game because he had cheated. "Loss of self-control is the main problem," says Jang Woo Min, a counselor at the state-backed Center for Internet Addiction Prevention & Counseling.
A CALL FOR REGULATION
The problem may simply be the cost of Korea's headlong campaign to wire the country. After all, more than three-quarters of households enjoy ultrafast connections to the Net -- which helped online game developers rack up sales of $1.5 billion last year, almost half of the worldwide online game market.
The rest of the world may not be far behind Korea in this dangerous trend. Global sales of online games are expected to nearly quadruple, to $13 billion, by 2011, research firm DFC Intelligence predicts. In June, a gamer in Shanghai was sentenced to life in prison after fatally stabbing a competitor who borrowed and then sold his virtual "dragon saber." In Amsterdam, the Smith & Jones Center is home to Europe's first inpatient counseling program for people hooked on online games, offering a 12-step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.
In Korea, the government is trying to combat the problem. The Information & Communication Ministry began carrying out an annual survey of game addiction in 2002, and has set up counseling centers in eight cities to help addicts. Game companies such as Seoul-based NCsoft Corp. also spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year each to help finance some 40 private counseling centers. "We don't believe there's concrete evidence that online games are more addictive than other entertainment, but we support educational campaigns to make people aware of potentially harmful effects," says NCsoft spokesman Kim Joo Young.
Some say such measures aren't enough. Lee Hyung Cho, a research fellow at the nonprofit Family Health & Welfare Center in Seoul, says the authorities must enact tougher regulations, including limiting adolescents' access to online games, requiring schools to teach classes on the effects of excessive play, and implementing regulations giving players fewer points if they spend more than a few hours at a stretch in front of their PCs. "Games offer an escape from everyday stresses and worries," says Lee. "But those who get used to such an escape tend to look for a similar escape through drugs or alcohol later."
By Moon Ihlwan, with Steve Jacobs in Amsterdam