Life Inside a PlayStation
By YOUNG-HA KIM
Published: November 24, 2013
BUSAN, South Korea -- In October 2012, my wife and I arrived in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick and unpacked our suitcases. We had ended a two-year stay in New York and flown back to Korea in June, but returned to America for five weeks to promote the publication of my novel "Black Flower" in English.
We had found the one-bedroom apartment -- a fourth-floor walk-up with a sofa that sagged in the middle, so that only one person could sit on it -- on Airbnb.com, rented out by a young hipster who worked in the gaming industry. I was sitting on the sofa, feeling disappointed, when the owner of the apartment, who was showing us around, hit the remote control. A large projection screen descended from the ceiling. A Sony PlayStation, a Microsoft Xbox, a motion-sensor camera and surround-sound speakers turned on. I half-listened while he explained how to use these gadgets. I hadn't been on a plane for 14 hours to play a console game. I thought to myself: Hipster, stop pestering me and leave.
A few days later, Hurricane Sandy swept through New York and New Jersey. People swarmed into supermarkets to stock up on water, pasta, bread and bananas. Electric power went out in several neighborhoods. My book's launch event was, of course, canceled. It had been scheduled, of all times, for the very day that Sandy swept through. As night fell, the subway lines running between Manhattan and Brooklyn ground to a stop. We had nowhere to go. Only then did the PlayStation begin to look appealing.
For the next few weeks I lived inside a video and Internet-based game called "Killzone." As soon as I woke up I reached for a game controller that resembled a gun, and shot and killed thousands of bad guys on the screen until my sore arms stopped me from continuing. I battled users from around the world. My book publicist contacted me with plans for a new event, but in a terse email, I replied that I had no interest, and continued playing. I ate tacos and drank Corona beer while killing thousands into the night. I lost weight. My eyes became hollow.
Looking back, I see my life has been a series of addictions. As a child, I went through a period devouring comics and martial arts books. For only a short time (thankfully) I became obsessed with card games.
In my 20s, I became obsessed with the role-playing game "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," named after a classical Chinese novel, and later "The Sims," a life-simulation game, and "StarCraft," a science-fiction game.
After 15 years of smoking, I barely managed to quit, at age 33. Until that point, I had been a chain smoker who even lit up in bed.
After giving up smoking, I began my battle with alcohol. I mixed whiskey and beer together into a glass and had it every night. It was the only way I could fall asleep. It took another few years to overcome this habit.
Though my addictive personality didn't cut too badly into my productivity as a writer, it caused me to waste time, and I was always ashamed of it.
Attitudes toward addiction are complex in South Korea. Though laws governing drugs are very strict, they tend to be lax when concerning alcohol and cigarettes. Alcohol, regardless of its proof, can be found and drunk year-round, 24 hours a day, at nearly any restaurant or bar. According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of alcohol-use disorders among South Korean men stands at 13.1 percent, more than double the 5.5 percent figure for the United States.
Our smoking rate is also high. A 2012 report found that South Korea's cigarette prices -- 2,500 won, or about $2.35, a pack -- were the lowest among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to the W.H.O., 44.7 percent of South Korean men smoke daily, compared with 16.4 percent of American men. When a smoking ban in large restaurants and bars was put into effect last year, smokers loudly protested. Many bars are choosing to overlook smoking, as it has long been a part of drinking culture.
But among teenagers, Internet games are perceived as a serious addiction. Given the extreme competition surrounding university admissions, parents regard enjoyment of video games with great displeasure. The conflict between parents and their kids, who see the games as a form of escape, has even been known to lead to violence.
Recently, the governing Saenuri Party introduced an addiction law that would treat online video games like drugs, alcohol and gambling and also online video games. The proposal has pitted parents, conservative religious leaders and the medical industry against game developers, progressive intellectuals and gamers. Shin Eui-jin, a medical doctor who sponsored the bill, sees addiction as a disease; others view it as a form of evil.
Defenders of gaming are fighting back. Moon Gyu-hak, chief executive of Softbank Ventures Korea, a venture capital fund that invests in technology companies, wrote bitingly on Twitter, "Since we're being treated as if we are drug dealers, it's a good time to move operations overseas and have our board members immigrate somewhere like Singapore." Opponents of the legislation, which includes a game curfew for juveniles, note that the experts behind the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of American psychiatry, held off on listing "Internet gaming disorder" as a formal disorder, calling it a "condition warranting more clinical research."
Would a law providing for treatment of Internet gaming addiction actually help players to recover?
I didn't put the controller down in my Brooklyn apartment because of a law. One day my wife approached me as I sat back exhausted from shooting the toy gun.
"You still having fun?" she asked.
I thought about it, and shook my head: "No."
"Then let's go out."
The hurricane had passed, and the L subway line was running. We went to Central Park and walked through the fallen leaves. The clear autumn sky passed over our heads. Branches as thick as human torsos were strewn about. I suddenly realized that I had been depressed playing the game, and hadn't enjoyed it for a single moment. I told my wife that I wouldn't retreat again into that gloomy purgatory. We got some Vietnamese food and returned to Brooklyn. For awhile, each time I closed my eyes, I still saw scenes from "Killzone," and I had to fight the temptation to return to that world. We left New York and returned to Seoul, almost exactly a year ago.
I feel ashamed thinking back on my time in Brooklyn, when I was addicted to games and isolated from the world. But like a physical scar that is part of one's body, that time is part of my history.
What would have happened if my wife had sent me to a treatment center? Without access to the Internet, I probably would have recovered -- but I would have lost confidence in my ability to overcome the addiction on my own.
Young-ha Kim is a novelist and short-story writer. This article was translated by Krys Lee from the Korean.