Games are like an “electronic fungus” that spreads around South Korea, posing problems for the education of children. Games are so addictive that they hinder the healthy formation of character and even increase youth crime. In short, gaming is a “hotbed for the derailment of youth”.
Those are just a few of the supposedly harmful effects of gaming on children, as described by a local newspaper in 1980. The deeply negative perception about games and their impact on youth hasn’t changed much, especially among conservative South Korean parents, who want their kids to focus only on their studies and to get admitted to prestigious universities.
One symbolic – and infamous – government policy that reflects the deep-rooted hostility toward gaming is the controversial “shutdown law”. This unique regulation under the Youth Protection Act mandates that game developers automatically bar access to youth aged 16 and under so that they cannot play online PC games between midnight and 6am.
The shutdown law, enacted in 2011, was hailed as a victory by many Korean parents, who were keen to protect their underage children from wasting away their time playing online games. But the law from its very inception faced much criticism as it was deemed fundamentally flawed and ineffective.
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, in charge of the shutdown law, has long argued that the regulation is effective in preventing gaming addiction and ensuring youths get at least six hours of sleep.
First, there is no proof whatsoever that the government-led nightly curfew is effective against gaming addiction. Real game addicts can play whenever possible during their free time and also get enough sleep during the curfew hours. If any curfew is to be realistically effective, it must be enforced much longer than six hours per day.
Another flaw is that the shutdown law applies only to online PC games, a sector that has been shrinking rapidly in the past decade as gamers young and old migrate to more convenient mobile games on smartphones and tablet computers.
When it comes to sleep deprivation, the regulation should have targeted not gaming, but the seemingly mandatory after-school education that is imposed on countless youngsters. Elementary and middle school students – the primary target of the shutdown law – often study until 9pm at private cram schools as a result of hypercompetition in education. When they come home, they have only a couple of hours at most before they go to bed. It is hard to imagine that Korean parents generously allow their kids to turn on their desktop PCs and play online games past midnight instead of doing homework.
The Korean government finally admitted the limitations of the shutdown law and announced last week that it would abolish the regulation.
The sudden move came as a shock to many observers. The Gender Ministry had not changed its ultraconservative, anti-gaming position in the face of countless protests from game developers and a myriad of critical articles by local media outlets. Why change its stance now?
The timing of this decision illustrates the problem plaguing the way that regulations are crafted, enforced and lifted. The demerits of the shutdown law were widely discussed and voices for its abolishment were strong. But the government did not listen, instead repeating the same empty, groundless claims that it was effective, citing not-so-convincing survey results.
The momentum for change only came recently, when the shutdown law became the subject of ridicule around the world in connection with the popular kid-centered online game Minecraft. Instead of setting up a Korea-only automatic shutdown system to block access to underage players at certain hours, Microsoft, which runs Minecraft, simply changed the account system so that only adults could access the game. As a result, Minecraft has become a de facto “R-rated” game here, sparking a wave of criticism at home and abroad.
The government may not admit it, but given recent developments it is clear that the decision to kill the shutdown system had to do with the “international shame” that came pouring in after numerous reports concerning the R-rated Minecraft controversy.
It is regrettable that the government is belatedly moving to shut down the shutdown law mindful of the negative national image. Equally worrisome is that there is no sign of an improved perception about gaming itself, suggesting that gamers might face a truly creative government restriction in the future.
Yang Sung-jin / THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK