Game companies livid over Cinderella rules
By Kim Tong-hyung
Caught between promoting gaming and restraining its use, the government finds itself in an uncomfortable position where it can’t please anybody any of the time.
The country’s games companies are blasting the decision by policymakers to impose limits on how much time youngsters can spend playing their favorite online computer games. The online gaming curbs, denounced by gaming industry people as the ``Cinderella rules,’’ prevent gamers under the age of 16 from playing between midnight and 6 a.m. to combat addiction.
The measures, which are subject to approval by lawmakers, are results of a difficult agreement reached by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which have feuded for months over which gets more say in games-related regulations and policies.
Eventually, Cheong Wa Dae had to step in to referee the conflict, and the arrangement appears to have the Family Ministry gaining oversight of games rated for users 16 years or younger, while the Culture Ministry maintains control over more mature content.
The Culture Ministry, in representing the concerns of the gaming industry, had originally claimed that the playing time limits should be imposed only on gamers 14 years or younger. However, the Family Ministry had insisted the ``shutdown’’ be imposed to all underage users below 19, and the ministries settled for the middle ground of 16 years old or younger.
``It’s true that there has been an agreement reached on the employment of the shutdown system on the gaming playing time of young users. We expect the draft bill to be approved by the National Assembly through its current session that continues through Dec. 9,’’ said an official from the Culture Ministry’s games content industry division.
``The games approved for users 16 or younger will be regulated by the country’s juvenile protection law, of which the Family Ministry has oversight. More mature games will be controlled by the gaming law as they always have been.’’
Culture Ministry officials admit that a compromise was inevitable on their part, as the bill for the revised gaming law not only included the playing time limits, but also the renewed regulations for games played on smartphones like the Apple iPhone and devices powered by Google’s Android mobile operating system.
The country’s existing rules require all game content to be screened by government reviewers before reaching customers, and critics have been questioning whether such rules are relevant in an era when more games are played online than through CDs or game cartridges.
Apple and Google have been forced to prevent its Korean customers from accessing the game categories on their content platform, as Korean censorship officials have no prayer of reviewing and approving the flood of games released by Apple’s massive network of developers every day. This has also prevented Korean games developers from marketing their products to local customers.
``We have to admit that there was pressure to conclude our conflict with the Family Ministry quickly as the complaints have been increasing among smartphone users and mobile games developers,’’ said the Culture Ministry official.
Apparently, online games companies, which rely predominately on games played on personal computers, aren’t too happy about the Culture Ministry caving in on the issue of gaming hours. It remains to be seen whether the new rules would change the way the companies develop products, as they have been designing most of their main products targeting the 15 or older rating.
It’s hard to deny that the country needs sterner measures to curb compulsive gaming and addiction. A government report last year found around 938,000 of the country’s youth in their mid-to-late teens, or 14 percent of them, to be game addicts.
A slew of shocking cases, including murder and child neglect, have raised the public’s awareness over whether the devotion to games among young Internet users has reached dangerously extreme levels.
Just last month, a middle-school boy in Busan killed himself shortly after choking his mother to death after she nagged him about his excessive gaming hours.
Another 22-year-old man was indicted earlier this year for killing his mother over a similar argument. A three-month old baby was found dead in Seoul due to malnutrition in March after her parents were spending 12 hours a day at online gaming cafes. And then there are the repetitive reports of gamers dying from exhaustion after spending days glued in front of the monitor.
``If we were able to employ the shutdown system earlier, as in April when the idea first came up, that mother in Busan wouldn’t have died,’’ said Family Minister Baek Hee-young in a recent television interview.
There are also concerns that the stricter restrictions on gaming habits could sap some of the vibrancy from the online gaming industry. Online games have also grown as a lucrative industry, which is about to become as distinctive a Korean export item as cars, semiconductors and kimchi, and for the government, fostering the industry while suppressing compulsive gaming is proving to be a delicate dance.
Online games companies complain about being singled out in regulations. They question whether the restriction on gaming hours could be effective when the government can only control the playing hours of games provided on servers, and not the ones played on consoles or smartphones.
``The Internet has no boundaries, and the new regulations have no grasp of the reality. Young users can easily log-in to a foreign online game service after we stop providing them after midnight,’’ said an official from one of the firms.