Korea's PC 'bangs' are the new place to socialize

Yoon Sung Ho surveys his room full of customers, each lost in the intoxicating glow of an oversized computer monitor, and knows he has a dream job.

For signing in Internet users and selling them snacks, the 19-year-old earns unlimited surfing, plus a paycheck. Mr. Yoon works at the Deep Blue PC Bang on the south side of Seoul. In Korea, Internet cafes are called PC bangs (rooms). For $2 an hour, this is where many join the mellow intensity of the dotcoms.

The bangs have been a major force in popularizing the Internet in Korea since they emerged in 1998. Nearly 15,000 have have sprung up nationwide. The bangs are now as ubiquitous as the corner grocery or bus stop. In a way they are a combination of both - a destination and a jumping off point, providing 24-hour, high-speed access to all the delicacies of the virtual world.

PC bangs are part of the reason that young Koreans have embraced the Internet with the same gusto expressed by the previous generation while industrializing the nation. Among Asian countries, South Korea has experienced the fastest and most enthusiastic explosion in Internet growth. Although they earn less than half of Japan's per capita income, Koreans spend more than their richer neighbor shopping online. Cybertrading accounts for half of the exchanges on Korea's stock market. By year-end, nearly a third of Korea's 45 million people may be online.

Government officials gush about the potential of the PC bang. In the future, "we think PC bangs will enable more e-commerce, and [things like] distance education programs," says Song Jae Sung, an official at the Ministry of Communication and Information.

In Korea, you will find the usual mixed uses of any cafe, with folks coming to chat online, "burn CDs" (make a copy of music or a program on a compact disc via an Internet download), and read the news. But most come for a "Starcraft" fix. About 60 percent of PC bang customers here are glued to their monitors playing a hugely popular network video game. Plopped on comfy chairs, moving nothing but their eyeballs and a mouse, up to eight players nurture civilizations with which to annihilate one another. The real-time network game involves managing resources in an ugly futuristic world of silver drones, gooey hatcheries, and steaming volcanoes. Since it requires high-speed access, most people still can't play at home.

Pro-players win thousands of dollars per tournament, and are offered movie roles and product endorsements. Tournaments are on live TV, complete with announcers giving a running commentary.

Each game lasts only 10 to 20 minutes. But gamers commonly play for 10 hours non-stop. One customer here at the Deep Blue PC bang played for 28 hours straight, says owner Na Hoon Tae. The mother of a high school student once harangued Mr. Na with curses and threats to call the police. "It's not my responsibility," he says. But the government has made it illegal for minors to visit PC bangs after 10 p.m.

A police officer flatters nearby Seo Ggotneem, a 26- year-old, with an ID check. "Why did you have to say she looks young?" her younger brother asks. "Now I'll never hear the end of it!" She says that he's the one who ought to go home. "My brother and his girlfriend skip class to play Starcraft! They even played on Christmas Eve!" she says in a distraught voice.

Korea's conformist culture is particularly susceptible to such fads. The bangs provide a social escape for Koreans who typically lived in cramped spaces. Previous "bang manias" - for singing rooms (karaoke), and then video rooms (where one watches a movie in private) - have sucked in the country as quickly. The Internet craze here "is very typical of Korean culture," says Na.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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