Firms scramble to adjust to online gaming curbs
Government opts to prevent youngsters’ addiction
By Kim Tong-hyung
Games companies here are scrambling to adjust to the new online gaming restrictions soon to be imposed on young hardcore gamers. And it appears that many of them are putting more focus on games played on mobile phones to compensate for the expected loss in revenue from their personal computer (PC) products.
Despite fierce resistance from the games industry, the government has been moving to introduce strict limits on how much time youngsters can spend playing their favorite online computer games to combat addiction.
The measures, which are subject to approval by lawmakers, are the results of difficult negotiations between the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which have feuded for months over which one gets to wield a bigger hammer over the games industry.
The new rules, included in a draft of a renewed Juvenile Protection Law, prevent gamers under the age of 16 from playing between midnight and 6 a.m. Games providers will also be required to block underage users above 16 after midnight upon request by their parents.
Government officials expect the bill, along with a draft version on a renewed law on gaming, to be approved within the current session of the National Assembly, although the ongoing budget issue feud between lawmakers is blurring the deadlines.
``We do fear that the shutdowns will have a negative impact on our efforts to expand the publishing of our online games. However, the eliminating of pre-release screenings of games played on mobile phones will certainly open up new opportunities,’’ said an official of CJ Internet, which is expecting to introduce its first games for smartphone users in the earlier part of next year.
Although it’s hard to deny that compulsive gaming is an increasing social problem here, online games companies are livid about the so-called ``Cinderella rules,’’ which they claim target them unfairly and are unlikely to have a meaningful effect on improving gaming habits.
The government can only control the playing time of games played on computers, not the ones played on consoles or mobile phones, and young users can easily switch to games provided on foreign servers after the Korean companies cut them off after midnight.
The companies had already been pressed to introduce a number of technical measures to discourage excessive game play, including fatigue systems that have game characters becoming less and less effective after a certain length of playing time.
The compulsory midnight shutdowns, the companies say, are clearly overkill and arguably make Korea the most restrictive gaming nation in the free world.
Thailand became the first nation to dabble with a game-playing time limit in 2003 when it suggested online games companies block underage users between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. However, the measure wasn’t mandatory and was discarded just two years later. China introduced fatigue systems for online games in 2007 but hasn’t considered blocking gamers from servers.
Companies like Nexon, which relies heavily on casual games like the Kart Rider multi-player racing game, are expected to be hit harder by the cap on playing hours. Nexon’s rival, NC Soft, which backs big-budget, violent role-playing games like the ``Lineage’’ and ``Aion’’ series, which are rated for 15 years and above, could be less effected by the new rules.
``The popularity of our games like `Dungeon Fighter,’ which doesn’t get much late-night traffic, would not be hit significantly, but we have to expect a hit for our all-age content,’’ said a Nexon official.
Will smartphones provide cushion?
Unlike their fuming PC brethren mobile games companies are finding it hard to hide their delight that the two ministries are finally finding a middle ground.
The Family Ministry had asserted that it wouldn’t endorse the Culture Ministry’s renewed version of the Games Industry Promotion Law without an agreement over the rewriting of the Juvenile Protection Law. And the Culture Ministry’s tweaking of the Games Law is focused on lifting the restrictions on games played on smartphones, including the Apple iPhones and the variety of 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, which have been quickly becoming irrelevant in an era when more games are played online than through CDs or game cartridges.
Apple and Google have been forced to block their Korean customers from accessing the game categories on their content platforms, as Korean censorship officials have no prayer of reviewing and approving the flood of global releases. This has also crippled the business of Korean mobile games companies in their own backyard.
The warring government agencies reaching a settlement, with the Family Ministry gaining oversight of games rated for users 16 and younger and Culture Ministry maintaining control over more mature content, encourages mobile games firms like Com2us (www.com2us.com) and Game Vil (www.gamevil.com), that are eager for the renewed Games Law to go through.
``We have been garnering a lot of foreign users for our baseball games and other content, and the renewed Games Law will help us expand our popularity among Korean users,’’ said an official from Game Vil.
In the past decade, a vibrant online games industry has been a significant economic catalyst for Korea, and this had the government actively encouraging domestic gaming to foster its next-great export item.
With concerns mounting over compulsive gaming, the government is now attempting a delicate dance of regulating online gamers without hurting the profit of the games companies significantly.
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 dangerous 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 to 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.