SUWON, South Korea — Neither had a job. They were shy and had never dated anyone until they met through an online chat site in 2008. They married, but they knew so little about childbearing that the 25-year-old woman did not know when her baby was due until her water broke.
But in the fantasy world of Internet gaming, they were masters of all they encountered, swashbuckling adventurers exploring mythical lands and slaying monsters. Every evening, the couple, Kim Yun-jeong and her husband, Kim Jae-beom, 41, left their one-room apartment for an all-night Internet cafe where they role-played, often until dawn. Each one raised a virtual daughter, who followed them everywhere, and was fed, dressed and cuddled — all with a few clicks of the mouse.
On the morning of Sept. 24 last year, they returned home after a 12-hour game session to find their actual daughter, a 3-month-old named Sa-rang — love in Korean — dead, shriveled with malnutrition.
In South Korea, one of the world’s most wired societies, addiction to online games has long been treated as a teenage affliction. But the Kims’ case has drawn attention to the growing problem here of Internet game addiction among adults.
Sa-rang, born prematurely and sickly, was fed milk two or three times a day — before and after her parents’ overnight gaming and sometimes when her father woke up during the day, prosecutors said. The baby died “eyes open and her ribs showing,” said the couple’s lawyer, Kim Dong-young.
After six months on the run, they were arrested in March and charged with negligent homicide. On Friday they were sentenced to two years in prison, but the judge suspended Ms. Kim’s sentence because she was seven months pregnant and he said she needed some “mental stability.”
“I am sorry for being such a bad mother to my baby,” Ms. Kim said, sobbing, during the couple’s trial.
Thanks partly to government counseling programs, the estimated number of teenagers with symptoms of Internet addiction has steadily declined, to 938,000 in 2009, from more than a million in 2007, the Ministry of Public Administration and Safety said in April.
But the number of addicts in their 20s and 30s has been increasing, to 975,000 last year. Many of these adult addicts grew up with online games and now resort to them when they are unemployed or feeling alienated from society, said Dr. Ha Jee-hyun, a psychiatrist at Konkuk University Hospital.
This development and a recent string of cases like that of the Kims have prompted the government to announce plans to open rehabilitation centers for adult addicts and expand counseling for students and the unemployed, groups considered the most vulnerable to compulsive gaming.
“Unlike teenagers, these grown-ups don’t have parents who can drag them to counselors,” Dr. Ha said. He treats an average of four adults a month for an addiction to online games, he said. Two years ago, it was one a month.
More than 90 percent of South Korean homes are fitted with high-speed Internet connections. Nearly every street corner has a computer parlor with computers available for a fee. In these dim, 24-hour-a-day establishments, “the line blurs between reality and the virtual world,” said Jung Young-chul, a psychiatrist at Yonsei University.
Especially popular among adult players are large multiplayer online role-playing games.
In these games, players form alliances and wage battles that can last for days, with players operating in shifts to keep the action. The more time a player spends online, the more powerful the game character — and the player’s online status — becomes.
Cyberbattles can spill into the real world. There have been several reports of players tracking down and attacking others for killing the online characters they had identified with for years.
If the games are addictive, they are also highly commercial. “Items” — cyberweapons, outfits and special abilities acquired through gaming that strengthen their owners’ combat prowess — are traded for real money online. Such trades were valued at more than $1.2 billion last year.
Park Ki-hoon and his wife, Choi Jin-hee, both 37, run a swimsuit shop by day and play online games at night. During the winter off-season, Mr. Park said, he has played up to 18 hours a day and won up to $2,400 a month, enough to cover the rent on the couple’s shop.
If Mr. Park knows how to juggle his offline and online lives, many do not.
In February, a 22-year-old man was arrested and accused of killing his mother for nagging him about his obsessive playing. In the same month, a 32-year-old man dropped dead of exhaustion in a computer parlor after playing through the five-day Lunar New Year holiday. “Some jobless men come here in hope of a financial breakthrough,” said Hong Seong-in, the owner of a computer parlor.
South Korea promotes online games, with exports growing by 50 percent, according to the government, to $1.5 billion last year — by far South Korea’s single largest cultural export item. Its games are hugely popular in China and other Asian countries.
Although the country has become one of the first to address Internet addiction, little help is available for adults.
Computer parlor owners and game buffs assert that compulsive playing has actually been decreasing as the prices of items fall.
Enterprising players in South Korea and China have been running “item factories,” where hundreds of computers are programmed to play the games without human users for the sole purpose of generating items for cash.
“Online games are a culture,” Mr. Park said. “To me, people who hike or fish are as crazy as they think I am.”
Source: The New York Times
GameKyu doesn't have time to comment on this, but I'm sure he thinks it's fantastic.