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Online Gaming Kills Baby (A Korean Media Fairytale)

UPDATE: I’ve added an addendum to this article. The link is, appropriately, at the end.

ORIGINAL POST: Here’s something on the ongoing theme of gaming, since I’ve been writing about that.

A few weeks ago, my friend Marc Laidlaw (who barely blogs, but here you go), who is not only a speculative fiction writer but also a game designer over at Valve, sent me a link reporting the case of a child who starved to death in Korea while its parents were raising a virtual baby in an online game. The article (and most of the others I’ve seen on the subject) suggested that the child starved to death because her parents were playing a simulated life game instead of taking care of her.

He wanted to know if it was being reported here, to which I responded that it was, and then added a rather lengthy commentary of my own. The following is an edited version of that, which I am posting primarily because he asked me to, in the interests of anyone else curious about the situation regarding reports like this (and the social anxieties that generate them) within the Korean media. Some sensitive statements have been omitted, and in many places, I’ve expanded on my original thoughts, toned down or clarified my points, or explained something that readers outside Korea might not know about.

I hope it’s useful to those looking for a basic gist of the situation, though claim no special expertise and could have some details or social trends wrong. For example, something could have changed in the last year in terms of the handling of mental illness in hospitals. I doubt it, but it’s possible and I welcome corrections.



Yeah, it’s being reported here, both in the Korean and English-language dailies. But the thing is… stories like this are already so commonplace they’d entered urban legendry by the time I first got here, around the beginning of 2002. The recent “guy who died playing Starcraft/World of Warcraft/Your Computer Game Title Here for 50-some (or 60-some, or 80-some) hours straight with nothing but ramen and cigarettes, and no sleep” story is reminiscent of others I heard over and over back then.

Basically, gaming and the net in general are the focus of huge anxiety by anyone older than 35. I once saw an academic from Vancouver (Florence Chee, if you’ve heard of her) speak of the social function of online gaming, trying to recontextualize the discussion in terms of normal practice. While, in Korea, normal practice is admittedly much more obsessive than we’d normally see in the west, that’s true of everything Koreans do: karaoke, martial arts, drinking, sports and sports fandom, learning a musical instrument, downloading media, using physical punishment on students, applying Confucian doctrine to their social structure, and hell, even praying to Jesus: when they want to do anything, Koreans do it with more zeal than anyone else in the world.

This can have positive effects, of course. It means, for example, that the people I’ve met in my life who most quickly mastered jazz, or the piano, or the drums, were Koreans. It means that when someone has a true passion for something, they don’t hold back. But the negatives also go to the extremes, which means, for example, that anxieties can also be carried to ultimate extremes, as can obsessions. Several young men I’ve known have described having spent six months of their lives on an online game. Mind you, often this seems a substitute for therapy, usually as part of the post-military service decompression period so many guys seem to need before reintegrating into civilian life. But either way, I’ve heard the story enough for it to be familiar and feel like it’s at least not uncommon.

So anyway, I remember this moment at the World Congress of Korean Studies, a conference where I presented a paper in 2008, when this (very cool) media scholar Florence Chee was trying to talk about what young Koreans get out of gaming–the “escape” seen as a functional, useful, communicative mode of interaction, socialization, learning, whatever–this older fellow started asking, in slightly broken Engrish, “Okay, but… computer game is very addiction in Korea. Very very addiction! Child dies! Man dies! What can we do?” She responds by repeating her introduction, that she thinks the popular notion of “online game addiction” (as we see it in Korea) is a problematic one, saying more about Korean non-gamers and parents and authorities than it says about gamers and their activities. She reiterates her whole thing in point form.

As I remember it now, this was when the guy said something to the effect of, “Okay, but… addiction is problem! Many man die, sick, crazy! What can we do addiction?” After the second repetition, this time at elementary school-level English, the guy repeated his incoherent (but oh-so-comprehensible) questions, and another Korean academic stepped in and rephrased it a little more cleverly, again insisting online game addiction (and internet addiction) are real, and that her presentation was ignoring a pressing social problem in Korea, though I also think someone else stepped in to re-make her point in Korean. I don’t really remember what happened at that point, because I’d started tuning out these guys and their histrionic panic.

Consider the gaming addict, for example, Lee Seung Seop, the most recent ostensible victim of “death by gaming” in the article linked above:

Although people of both sexes and all ages play, the most prevalent are lower-middle-class men in their 20s with unsatisfying professional lives. Lee 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.

”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.”

The irony in Park’s comment is this: the description of Lee’s working and personal life sound, basically, like hell. If this is what passes for normal and ordinary, then little wonder the depression and suicide rates here in Korea are so high. Kim, like most supposed “gaming addicts,” found gaming satisfying because it was obviously a sorely-needed escape from a reality which had grown completely intolerable–in a society where hope of advancement beyond his current status and position was, for all intents and purposes, unimaginable.

(Attending vocational college here is, I should note for those readers abroad, not even as almost-respectable as in some parts of the west. If you don’t have a Bachelor’s degree in Korea, you’re extremely unlikely to get even a so-so job, or at least this is the widespread perception of how competitive the job market is–despite the declining size of the working population. Students rarely flunk out of university because life without a BA is imagined so horrid that enough professors feel outright failing a student to be cruel and unusual punishment, especially for someone who has managed to score high enough to get into university in the first place.)

Getting fired in South Korea right now, by the way, is probably just as alarming subjectively as getting fired in the USA right now. There’s no mortgage crisis on here, but, then again, the way real estate is, there’s a sort of constant crisis here concerning housing costs, which should set off some alarm bells when we read the next passage:

Park Chul Jin fired Lee about six weeks before his death, after repeated warnings about being late. Around the same time, Lee split up with a girlfriend, who was a fellow gamer, co-workers said.

An investigation attributed the fatality to excessive game-playing. But gamers said Lee’s behavior wasn’t different from others’.

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

Although Kim’s assertion that others game this way is alarming, the final statement is correct: a person simply cannot die from excessive game-playing, just as a person cannot die from too-vigorous sex. The too-vigorous sex can trigger a heart attack. Too much gaming in one sitting–especially if the sitting is days-long without a break–can probably do the same. But when someone dies of a heart attack in his car, or sleeping, or at the office, investigators never say, “He died of lifelong cigarette smoking,” or “He died of too much lazyass loafing in front of the TV set” or “He died of road rage” or “He died because he worked too many years in a row in a crappy office for a complete prick of a boss.”Death by heart attack is death by heart attack.

So why the patently ridiculous attribution? It stems from this: Lee’s behaviour was crazy. That’s it, plain and simple. He lost his marbles, he decided to immerse himself in a game as completely as possible. In the absence of computer gaming, he might have stayed up for four days carving bars of soap into statues, or chopping down trees, or spending his life savings on a heart-stopping binge of cognac and steak–or of coke and strippers. Confronted with some obvious mental illness conjoined with a computer game, though, the blame is transferred to the game, because mental illness remains relatively taboo in Korea.

And here’s why the craziness matters: the sad reality is that when it comes to the state of public discourse regarding mental illness, Korean society is still lost somewhere in the mid-to-late-twentieth century, at least by a Westerner’s reckoning. Not in one spot in the twentieth century, mind, but instead, scattered (in roughly generational distribution) across the spectrum from 1950 to 1990 or so. There are counselors, and there are working psychiatrists (though the medicine they prescribe is usually available right out of the psychiatrist’s clinic–to spare patients the shame, one imagines, of picking up one’s Prozac or Zoloft from the local pharmacy).

But mental health issues are, sadly, rather taboo. This is changing, but only slowly. The fact that suicide is the #1 killer of Koreans in their 20s is something you’d think would get a strong response, but in fact, the response is relatively minimal. Where I teach, I and another few foreign teachers (who seem to get approached by Korean students in crisis far more than our Korean colleagues do, for reasons that are probably easily inferred from the above, among others) have pushed for something to be done about providing more and better help for students who need it. The news was passed down to us not long ago that serious change is unlikely to occur in advance of a crisis, because the people who’d need to sign off on it simply don’t grasp that there is a problem–and likely won’t until something happens that makes it undeniable.

Little surprise, considering government’s response? Frankly, what I’ve seen is repeated characterizations of celebrity suicides as being “caused” by online “rumors” and false scandal promoted by Korean netizens in unregulated comment sections of news portals and other domestic websites. Never mind that locating the “cause” of these suicides in the behaviour of Korean internet users simply erases what anyone who’s familiar with suicide will know is the real cause–mental illness. The model of the suicide becomes that cruel comments online, and–gasp!–use of foul language online somehow “kill” celebrities. As common as foul language is on the street, in films, and so on, I have heard countless young people argue that foul language is literally “hurtful” and could cause suicide. The media has done its job rather well, if its job is serving a “useful” purpose for the government.

It is “useful” in two ways: while incidentally saving face for whichever celebrity has died, stories spun this way more importantly help provide propagandistic support–“evidence”–for the necessity of implementing a pervasive system of control and surveillance of all online activities on the Korean Web, for example by the elimination of all anonymity on major Korean websites. The situation is bad enough in South Korea for Reporters Without Borders to have declared the following (as reported at The Marmot’s Hole):

Among the countries “under surveillance” are several democracies: Australia, because of the upcoming implementation of a highly developed Internet filtering system, and South Korea, where draconian laws are creating too many specific restrictions on Web users by challenging their anonymity and promoting selfcensorship.

And, of course, the hidden warning that anything one posts is traceable because of the fact that one must register on major websites using one’s National ID Number. Yes, you read that right: to comment on the equivalent of a Yahoo! news board, or a Google News article–though such portals dominate much more than in the West–one must use the Korean equivalent of an American’s Social Security Number. In other words, citizens must use their official ID to participate in online discussions in Korea. (Non-citizens often face trouble in even registering on such sites, let alone using them.) This is not a message lost on a population where just last year, a man named Park Dae-Sung, a finance-blogger who used the handle “Minerva,” was arrested and charged for “spreading false rumors online” (that is, posting critical comments regarding fiscal policy and Korea’s economic situation, present and future). At the time, it was claimed he upset the currency market here to the (equivalent) tune of two billion dollars US, but he was blogging, not taking up arms against the Korean equivalent of Wall Street.

Yes, yes, an official charge was actually cooked up: he was charged with “spreading [online] a false rumor maliciously intending to damage the public interest”. Specifically. he had claimed the government had sent notes to different financial institutions ordering them to curb their their acquisition of US dollars. The reality was not too far from this: a meeting was actually held with financial bigwigs, and the same demand made verbally. However, everyone I talked to at the time said that the real offense was not a mistaken citation, but that Minerva had too many followers, was too popular online, had been too influential and too critical of the Lee Administration.

Rather than taking an enlightened, developed-nation approach like, say, debunking Minerva’s writing, or starting their own finance blog (not that anyone would trust it), the government took an easy shortcut: they arrested Park and criminalized his blogging. That he was acquitted soon after (though the government’s appeal of the acquittal apparently remains pending) matters less than the object lesson: when you cannot post anonymously, criticizing your government involves risking censure, arrest, or worse.

I can only speak anecdotally, but the chilling effect is one that a large number of students have reported to me personally, saying they felt it better to limit their political criticisms to face-to-face discussions, since what one writes online can come back to bite one in the arse later on. A number of students told me they felt this way without little or no discussion of my own views on the subject, I should add.

I should also note that not all of the government’s control-seeking in terms of computing is completely in bad-faith. Most of it is wrongheaded, and a lot of it most certainly is in bad faith–the Korean government has unmistakably been clamping down on internet freedoms since the Interent first arrived here, but especially actively since about 2006–but there is also a strong (and widespread) enough belief in the (fantastical) notion of “internet addiction” for various governmental bodies to be sinking money into programs dealing with the problem, by for example funding the creation of computer programs that “gaming addicts” can use to block their own access to the net. One recent article discusses the time-limit app and other kinds of expenditures the government is bankrolling to deal with this imaginary disease. (No word yet on how they’ll prevent the gaming addicts from uninstalling the app, let alone how they will be convinced to install it in the first place.)

Meanwhile, suicide cases involving people who aren’t celebrities get less ink, and figure much more marginally in the national discussion of suicide. I feel personally that this is despicable, given the fact that by the most recent data, Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD. And for years on end suicide has been, by a pretty long shot, the biggest killer for Koreans in their 20s (and 30s, accoring to the article cited above) coming in just second after car accidents for Koreans aged 10-19. The fact that these numbers are not brought into the discussion of celebrity suicide, to reframe it as a question of a national epidemic that has nothing to do with netizen gossip, is despicable not only because it leaves masses of people of all ages hanging out to dry, but because they were ignored expressly for tthe purpose of furthering an agendsa to secure greater control and surveillance powers online.

Oh, but this, too, is the Internet’s fault. Not the fault of companies that overwork and underpay their employees far in excess of any nation in the OECD. Not the fault of a long-widening gap between the rich and the poor. Not because of often-unaddressed mental health issues, as demonstrated in the assertion that only about seven percent (7%) of Koreans with mental health issues seek professional help (as mentioned in this interesting/depressing paper on suicide and mental health care in South Korea). Not because of culturally-determined (not to say unchangeable) attitudes towards suicide, including attitudes apparently carried abroad by emigrating Koreans. Not even, as in the case of Jeong Da-bin (who directly references “the Lord” in her suicide note, scroll down to see it) because of religion carried to extremes in the throes of obvious mental illness.

No, no, it’s because of the internet. Because, because, er, stop asking so many questions.

To return to gaming, the fact, also, that the major newspapers are essentially socially conservative, and the politician calling for the controls on gaming time tend to be socially much more conservative, means they’re eager to print these kinds of lurid, fearmongering reports. But, again, I’d wager that the reporters in any event likely believe in gaming addiction as fiercely as anyone–the “internet addiction” and “gaming addiction” memes are so widespread–and so very often discussed by so-called “experts”–here that it’s hard to imagine most reporters believe any different than the average Korean.

Now, this is the same media establishment that reports things like that kimchi can prevent or cure any number of diseases (from SARS to bird flu) and which has had a hand in the perpetuation of the myth, seemingly known only in South Korea and parts of Japan, that someone can die by sleeping with a fan on in his or her room at night, known as “fan death” in Korea. It is the same mainstream media establishment that has mentioned not a single word about the situation regarding local resistance to the establishment of a factory by the “Korean” steel company Posco in the province of Orissa, while this is big enough news to have been in a recent issue Time magazine (though under a somewhat different title), and all over the Internet. (More about that in another upcoming post.) It’s a media establishment which is widely understood, among Westerners who’ve been interviewed, as being generally pretty low on standards, quite prone to misquotation, exaggeration, and to creative misconstruction of quotes. (Yes, I’ve experienced extravagant misquotation myself. I’m apparently a published novelist–and no, it wasn’t a mixup with short stories, since I hadn’t published any of those either at the time!–and “expert on the Taiping Rebellion,” for starters.) And what’s more, while most South Koreans don’t know much about what’s being left out by their newsmedia, many I know personally do seem aware of its deplorable standards.

Within that context, I have to say I don’t think there’s much written about gaming that is particularly positive, aside perhaps from the economic angle of any domestic games development market that may exist or be developed. I haven’t done a survey of articles, of course, and I haven’t time for it. (I’m hoping that Korean readers might step in here and fill in the blanks.) The stories I do tend to see in translation, as well as those I hear repeated by students, tend luridly to place the blame for things like suicides or untimely deaths on things outside of the perpetrator–hobbies, pastimes, unusual interests–and they especially tend to do so when a hobby or interest is involved that is beyond the range of “acceptable behaviours” for an older, conservative crowd.

Add in memes like the idea that gaming and the internet are somehow inherently addictive by nature–this, in a society where regular binge drinking is acknowledged as an integral part of the business culture and of college socialization, I might add–and you have a recipe for fantasies of blame.

This is especially likely to get into the media because older, conservative men tend not to be gamers. This means that gaming is a prime target for shifting the blame when someone who is mentally ill, for example, allows his or her child to starve to death.The reason is that gaming is new, and alien, and weird. Older men–who are publishing papers, who are determining the editorial policies, who are by being the biggest newspaper consumers also those who most profoundly determine the shape of the discourse in Korea–perceive gaming as something foreign, as well, which in my experience, in itself tends in Korean culture to a kind of moral danger.

The counter-example is easy to find–the hobby or practice that is never highlighted as being a “cause” for some aberrant or criminal behaviour, that is. While it’s possible–or maybe even likely, who knows?–that, for example, a number of recent high-profile cases involving older men who have sexual assaulted children have, given the historical size of the sex trade here, probably used prostitutes in the past, perhaps even more than the national average, or while it’s entirely possible that they have drinking problems, or whatever else could be advanced as an “explanation,” nobody bothers to draw a line between those two possibilities. Nobody even looks into those behaviors, or other likely behavioral patterns. After all, whoring and drinking don’t make people go out and kill. Everyone knows that–and given the enormous size of the sex trade, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that older married men (who apparently are Korea’s biggest consumers of paid sex, if not of alcohol, and who also happen to dominate the government) often are likely to know this from personal experience.

Nor are “invisible” causes of the problems likely to be targeted. The prime example, of course, is mental illness, but another is the state of education. It seems completely possible for a woman to graduate from high school with high enough grades to attend university, but without such a fundamentally basic understanding of human biology to know that her newborn baby needs milk, or formula.

I am not making this up: I have it from the mouth of the former intern who examined her starved child, a child so deprived of nutrients that he was, at the age of six months, declared likely to be mentally handicapped for life. Why? Because she was told by a pharmacist, eager to sell dietary supplements, that formula was bad for babies and that vitamins, on the other hand, were good for the baby.

(And no, the woman was not reported to any organization like Child Protective Services. She was reprimanded by a supervising physician and sent home to feed her child. One wonders whether she really understood what she’d done wrong. One wonders whether the child was wrecked for life, and what other harms the woman went on to inflict on the poor kid.)

Nor, even, are the cases when systemic failures at least contribute help up to problematize the imaginary causality of gaming on parenting. For example, the teenaged girl who recently committed infanticide in Jeonju, whose parents and teachers claim that they “didn’t know she was pregnant.” Yes, sometimes pregnancies don’t show for quite some time, but when the family doesn’t notice when a member is pregnant enough to give birth on a roof–and to come back downstairs after delivering and murdering the baby– it means the family simply isn’t paying enough bloody attention. Likewise her teachers: sure, she did have the baby in the summertime, when she was (presumably) off school for a month or two. Still, 7.5 months pregnant is something you’d think someone might notice, if not from the physical changes than from the disposition, the other symptoms, and more.

This means that when someone, for example, starves his or her child into sickness out of ignorance or stupidity, or commits infanticide, it is–by virtue of being useless for the whatever moral panics are in vogue–it tends to draw very little attention in terms of attempted explanations, and by extension in terms of massive systemic reforms.

Do people go to extremes on gaming? I also have to say, yes. As I wrote above, though, I don’t think this is particularly unusual. Korean society today is a society of extremes, through and through. Extreme drinking is not unusual, as anyone who’s new to the country will inevitably observe. Extreme passions are common both in entertainment and in real life. Doctrines are interpreted in extreme ways. Korean society is a society of extremes in so many ways.

But more than that, Korea seems to be at that point in the process of modernization where it’s finally arrived in the developed world, but has not yet recovered from the shock of losing everything it (apparently) had to jettison in order to get there.

And, in that space, there is very little to fill the void of lives of those who, say, experience marital dissatisfaction; who hate their jobs, but feel they cannot quit to do what they would like; who feel the constant pressure from their society which is such an important part of the culture shock that so many Koreans experience when returning here from abroad. Little wonder that one could wander into a PC-Bang, as Internet cafes are called here, and find a surprising number of adult men there playing online games until late at night. Games, like religious extremism and trips to the red-light district and drinking, all comprise a kind of escape–and if computers and MMORPG games had been available in London during the height of the Gin Craze (ie. during the first half of the 18th century), one cannot help but imagine that the teeming drunken masses would have been gaming like mad, too.

And aside from that, there is the fact that–even on a legal level–things like agency, responsibility, and self-control not only are constructed differently, but are also instructed differently, and subject to different definitions and expectations.

One aspect of this is that one often finds a rush to find some external stimulus or reason that caused a behaviour. Perhaps this results from a Neo-Confucian conception of the “civilized” (ie. Korean) person as inherently ethical and virtuous, in which case deviant or horrifying behaviours need be explained in terms of negative influences. Gaming and internet use are implicitly given the blame for some such behaviours, but a conspicuous thread of criticism was heaped upon the “dwenjang nyeo” (ie. Soybean paste girls) of a few years ago, with vitriol over their love of the Sex and the City TV series and of “overpriced” Starbucks coffee being among the definitive characteristics of the group. (I discussed them, in part, here.)

None of this is intended to defend the urban-legend horror of the article, or the story. (Or the many, many other stories like it.) And the inanity is far from unique to Korea. This, indeed, is another example of how much Korea and that nation it loves to compare itself to –the USA–have in common. It is much like the stupidity of blaming shootings and other violence in the US on video games, rock music, or D&D, in that it’s offensively dumb, but also very common and not too surprising. At least in the case of Korea, they’ve only had the Internet here in any real, serious way since, oh, about the end of the 90s. Westerners have had computer gaming of some kind for, what, thirty-some years now? Atari’s almost 40 years old, and Pong is something that many people my age first encountered when it was already old, dusty, garage-cosigned junk.

But if there’s a scarcity of coverage given to the positive effects of computer gaming, I don’t think it’s much cause for alarm. This is a country where there are two TV channels devoted to gaming (usually Starcraft when I’ve seen it, though perhaps other games are shown in the wee hours of the morning, who knows?) as compared to the mere one TV station devoted to baduk (which is what Koreans call game we know as “Go”).

The simple fact is that gaming (in the broader sense of the word, but especially in the computer/online sense) is a massively popular pastime here. There are still oodles of PC-Bangs, though fewer than about a decade ago, but there are also Gameboard Cafes, Playstation Cafes (more like a PC-Bang than a cafe, mind) and Wii and Playstation games available in every major grocery chain as well as at the electronics markets. You easily can buy chipped game units so you can download games, play foreign games (since I think it’s Nintendo that has limited Korean machines to the Korean-released games only). Kids, when asked what they want to do when they grow up, still are known to exclaim, “Pro Gamer!” and Korean pro-gamers get corporate sponsorships like race-car drivers do in the West, enjoy fame and fortune and even, rumor has it, occasional groupies.

This is to say that gaming is an enormous part of youth culture, and even popular culture of adults in their 20s, and even most of the last decade saw Korea overly stalled on Starcraft (a part of that carrying to extremes thing), that game penetrated into the culture so deeply that fans have written songs accompanied by animations, and even done traditional operatic renditions of Starcraft narratives. (The last one is my favorite.) I’ve had students in classroom conversations refer metaphorically to “zergs,” assuming I would know what they meant. (I had no idea whatsoever when I first heard this.) World of Warcraft and Kartrider have also become very popular, but many other games contribute to the immense gaming industry annually generates the equivalent of billions in US dollars.

What I meant to say is that gaming is such a huge, massive part of the Korean life for those under around 35 or so that, realistically, little or no positive media discussion is required for gaming to thrive as a hobby/industry. The people who are gaming are mostly ignoring those articles, and probably will do so until they’re “grown up” and have kids of their own (who start gaming), at which point either social values will shift, or suddenly these adults will see gaming as horrid and bad and dangerous.

Predictably, some authorities are pushing hard to limit the amount of gaming time allowed to gamers in Korea, with all kinds of “experts” saying some of the silly things we always see them saying, this time in a very recent article about the proposed time limit cap on gaming. If it goes through, young people will do what they have been doing forever–just like we read comic books under the bedcovers after lights-out, or snuck out to parties we weren’t supposed to go to, they will (easily) find technological workarounds to these kinds of problems, and in the process will likely focus their gameplay on games abroad which will never submit to Korean time-limits. As for the great media frenzy, those youth will simply ignore it or snicker at it the way we ignore grandpas and grandmas complaining about how those kids are dating outside the race, or how out parents complained that we were watchin’ too much TV.

The real worry, for me, is that while all this internet-control scheming is going on, mental health remains so poorly considered and so little-discussed that idiots like the couple mentioned at the beginning of this piece can go out and have another kid after they finish their (likely all too short) sentence. A man can rape a twelve-year-old, videotape it, and put it online… and get out of jail in 30 months here, so I’m thinking they’re still going to be fertile when they get out of jail, to be honest. (I’d be surprised if they get more than half a decade each; if they can use the “video games made me crazy” defense it’ll probably shorten the sentence even more.)

Counseling, therapy, psycheval–none of that is likely to come into it. When counseling does come into it, discussions focus on how “young” gamers–children–need treatment for their “addictions” rather than on whether there might be something in the structure of familial relationships in Korea that might drive children to feel hostility towards their parents, and in isolated incidents even lash out at them. The discussion surrounding the case I’m thinking of involves a gamer killed his mother for nagging him about his excessive gameplay. The article linked there is titled, “Video Game Addict Kills Mother” rather than “Young Man Kills Abuse Nagging Old Battleaxe of a Mother”. While one would never say killing an annoying parent is excusable, one wonders just exactly what the nature of the relationship was. I have seen firsthand many times just how autocratic, outrageously controlling, and (in Western terms) outright abusive some Korean parents can be of their offspring–young and full-grown adult alike–without the slightest bit of shame or embarrassment. To be honest, I’m surprised that this kind of case, where young men lash out at such parents, isn’t more common. But in the reoport, the focus is on his “gaming addiction,” and completely diverted from whatever of his mother’s behaviour might have played a part in the obvious relationship dysfunction.

In other words: I’d like to laugh it off as a moral panic, and snicker at the idea it might have a negative effect on society. After all, I was an avid RPG gamer despite my mother’s succumbing to the 80s moral panic over Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps after seeing this very news report on CBC. I remember quite clearly how she warned me that it might make me crazy, asking about whether satanic worship was part of the game, telling me I “shouldn’t” play it because I might flunk out of school, go crazy, or hurt myself or someone else. Well, love her as I do, I still ignored her because she didn’t know what she was talking about, and I knew very well that what she was saying was ridiculous. (Games, I knew firsthand, could capture one’s imagination, but they could not hijack the mind of a healthy person.)

So I wish I could laugh. But the problem is that the moral panic also happens to serve as a distraction from much more pressing kinds of reforms that are needed, regarding the taboos concerning mental health care, concerning basic rights and freedoms in Korea, concerning the need to do something about the suicide rate, and general quality-of-life issues that Koreans collectively face. The more people wave their hands about blaming video games for whatever problems they can, the longer it will take before sensible assessment of causes and of necessary reforms will take. That’s the hidden cost of the moral panic, and it worries me.

But I “ain’t from around here” and I don’t believe someone like me can do much to change things for the better, any more than I could, equipped with a time machine, hop back to the 1950s and convince people to just chill out about premarital sex and to treat women better and to institute better mental health care systems and quit freaking out about communist plots in Washington and Hollywood, and so on. Societies change at the speed of birth–or perhaps at the speed of Moore’s Law–but cultures change at a much slower rate, approaching the speed of generational death. It will take time before computer-based entertainment is seen as an equally natural a part of Korean life as, say, kimchi or mountain hiking, and it’s only then that enough people that such moral panics will look ridiculous. Until then, we must expect the media to continue to sell its still histrionic stories, and must expect that useless distractions from the real problems at hand will abound.

ADDENDUM: See here.

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