Asia-Pacific News

Seoul Orders Curfew on Web Games for Under-18s

Christian Oliver, Financial Times
Young men play online games at an internet cafe in Beijing.
Liu Jin | AFP | Getty Images

South Korea has ordered the operators of the three most popular South Korean online games to block overnight access by users under the age of 18.

The curfew is a response to the case last month of a young couple who allowed their baby to starve to death while they raised a virtual child in an online game. The tragedy shocked the country and sparked calls for safeguards against web addiction.

Gaming is big business in Korea, with some 30 per cent of the population regularly playing online games from such industry leaders as NCSoft and Nexon, which together control nearly a quarter of the global market. The domestic market is estimated to be worth about $2.4bn, with exports valued at more than $1bn.

The country’s culture ministry on Tuesday ordered the operators of the MapleStory, Mabinogi and Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds games to block access by users under 18 between midnight and 8am by September. Other games would follow suit later.

“We fully accept the gaming industry’s potential as a growth engine for the economy, but reckon countermeasures to excessive exposure will be crucial to making the gaming industry sustainable,” the culture ministry said.

Much of the success of the crackdown depends on whether users, who by law must provide their social security numbers, can be effectively policed from stealing adult identities. The measures will not affect games based outside South Korea.

For the majority, computer games are played at home or in South Korea’s gloomy “PC rooms” that run 24 hours a day. Psychologists fear some 10 per cent of schoolchildren in Asia’s fourth biggest economy have shown some clinical signs of addiction, becoming disorientated, depressed or angry when denied the opportunity to play.

A few hundred young South Koreans have become professional gamers and have a cult following for their ability to blow up spaceships and slaughter dragons. Games tournaments draw crowds that scream themselves hoarse.

The culture ministry also wants companies to take voluntary measures to curb excessive gaming among adults.

South Korean companies have already experimented with the equivalent of a smoker’s patch, using software that helps addicts to regulate how much time they spend online.