When people think of South Korea one of the first things to come to mind to westerners are crowded PC rooms filled with people playing Starcraft. After covering the 2012 G-Star Game and Trade Show; the Korean version of E3 and TGS, it did nothing to dissuade that stereotype. Catch the coverage here if you missed it many months ago. Korea is like any other country that actively plays games. It has Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft fighting for a slice of the marketplace. But what is interesting after three years of living in the country is it has an entirely different gaming culture than other counties across the globe.
I am a console gamer, first and always. Other than Football Manager and a random strategy game that is not released on a console like Civilization, I don’t like to game on a PC and there are PC rooms everywhere in Korea. A person does not even have to ask where one is — just walk down a random street and if you don’t find one you’d better get that lotto ticket. Having spent time in them there is a lure and attraction that makes you want to stay as long as you want.
Korea is just like Japan in that there are a lot of people crammed into a very small land mass, which makes space a premium. Westerners have the space to have ten different systems hooked up to multiple TVs in a dedicated room in our houses or apartments. Here, apartments are barely bigger than a university dorm room if you live the non-married life, and even less room if you have multiple roommates. PC rooms are the place to go to if you are a gamer because who wants to play Starcraft in the same room as your mom watching her dramas?
PC Rooms are also so cheap, and the atmosphere is so relaxed that it never feels like a significant amount of money is ever being spent. $1 an hour is the going rate for a good PC room. Good is defined as a nice, plush, reclining business chair that you can sleep in and a computer that runs smoothly. Any cheaper and you risk junky PCs and cockroaches and any more expensive you just get a plushier chair. The best part is since everyone is there to game, no one cares what you are playing or doing since you’re part of the group. One time I walked into a place and a guy was sleeping half off his chair, looking like he was going to fall out of it at any second, but no one cared, not even the staff. Yes, this is a sure sign someone has gamed for way too long, and also a collective mentality that leads to the deaths heard about in the news when someone goes on a marathon session. But as someone who slept in a PC room as a cheaper alternative to an expensive hotel while traveling, an inner peace can be felt that the judging eyes of the outside world cannot intrude. Food and drinks are also available to purchase, allowing people to not have to leave in order to get refreshments. It is one of the little hospitality traps that keep people in their seats for as long as possible.
For those who have never been in a Korean PC bang (bang meaning room in Korean), all you do is pick up a card at the front desk, find any free PC, punch in the code and you are ready to go. All the PC bangs have the standard games westerners have heard of like Starcraft and Warcraft 3, but they also have a lot of Korean made games like Sudden Attack. If you don’t like to game then the Internet is at your disposal as well which makes them really valuable for those traveling. During my first month in the country I did not have Internet at home so I was constantly at a PC bang for simple things like checking my email. To keep track of how much your bill is, all the computers have a program that calculates your usage. The first hour is always the full hourly price, whether you were there for a minute or the full hour. After the first hour it charges by the minute, so if it is 1000won an hour and you stay for an hour and a half, it will only cost you 1500won.
Interestingly enough, Korea is trying to clamp down on kids from spending all their time at PC bangs, trying to enact legislature to cut off access to games after a certain time at night. To the average westerner this might seem like an impossible task, but big brother is everywhere in South Korea. Some games and sites require a national ID to be inputted before access is granted. These are usually only for Korean-made games and sites, as foreign games like Starcraft and Warcraft are immune to that restriction. From an outsider’s perspective I’d argue it would be better to let them game because if parent’s are going to let their kids stay out until 3am, better they are at a computer playing a game than on the streets. But there is a cultural reason behind the decision as Korea is currently in an educational flux, with an educational system that pushes studying for the test. Unlike countries like Canada or America where public schools are based on location, in Korea a lot of middle and high schools are based on merit. A student’s future can be decided as early as the 6th grade depending on how well they do on their middle school testing or high school testing. Even during test day for university entrance, cars are not supposed to be on the street and cops will pick up stragglers so students will not miss the exam. Parents want their kids studying rather than out at PC bangs all night.
So you’re a foreigner who wants to play Starcraft or just surf the internet? Good luck because, as expected, everything is in Korean. If you learn how to read Korean, which is actually very easy, then a person can get by figuring stuff out as a lot of foreign words are just written in Korean but pronounced like in English. If you’ve not mastered the language then learning by pictures is the way to go. Having never played Warcraft 3 before it was a rude awakening how hard it is to play a game as simple as that without actually being able to read the commands, or even know what the buildings do. Playing against a friend was near impossible so trying to take my skills against random people online was a disaster waiting to happen.
PC rooms are not just a Korean phenomenon but they are something that the country is best known for. Be on the lookout for part two of this series where I delve into the depths of console gaming in Korea, a welcoming or unwelcoming surprise for the unwary first getting off the boat.
Dane Smith is the Japan editor for PSU and resident world traveler, currently making Nagoya, Japan his home. Want to follow his random thoughts about life in Japan? Check him out on Facebook and Twitter. Interested in the backlog of other articles written for the site? Check out the back issues.