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The Free Zone: Questionable Government Intervention

Columns By Richard Aihoshi on April 25, 2011

Questionable Government Intervention

It hasn’t received much attention in the western game media, but for some time  now, the Korean government has been working on legislation aimed at cutting back the number of hours the country’s young gamers can spend playing online games.  As I understand it, the stated aim is to protect children from becoming addicted.  There was some outcry around a year ago when this intended direction came to light, but I hadn’t seen much more on the issue for months… until last week.


On Wednesday, the National Assembly’s legislation and judiciary committee voted to implement what’s apparently being called a “shutdown system”.  When implemented, it will ban anyone under the age of 15 from playing online games during the period from midnight until 6 a.m.  Since this was a committee vote, I assume the legislation still has to go through a few more steps before becoming law.  However, since reports say the tally was unanimous, it’s hard to imagine that any major hurdles actually remain.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The entire matter seems like so much political nonsense.  For one thing, if online game addiction is important enough to warrant government intervention, how big is it?  How many kids are they talking about?  And how do they manifest the issue?  By skipping school?  If so, how much?  Robbing banks to pay for their virtual fix?  If so, once again, how much?  And what else?  I can’t help but wonder if the government has sufficient information to demonstrate clearly that a serious problem actually exists.  Or is it trying to make itself look good by pulling off some political smoke and mirrors?

What’s more, if we grant that this is a significant concern, the question immediately arises as to how well the shutdown system will actually address it.  Passing a law is one thing, but how do you actually prevent every single kid under 15 in an entire nation from breaking it?  How many play during the wee hours anyway?  And how much?

Taking this another step, let’s say the impossible happens, and the law is followed to the letter.  With only 18 hours per day in which they can play, how many young Koreans will be miraculously saved from becoming addicted?  How many who already are will this measure push onto the path toward rehabilitation?  Does the number zero come to mind?

There’s also the huge issue of where the line should be between parental responsibility and governmental intervention.  Having no children myself, I won’t get into my views here except to say that I generally lean in the direction of people being responsible for themselves and their families (I am married), especially with respect to actions and decisions that don’t impact anyone else.

If the thought has crossed your mind that nothing like this could ever happen in the land of the free, you might be right.  But then again… let’s just say the US government has never given me any indication that it’s ahead of or even keeping up with the curve in terms of understanding and adapting to the online space.  The latest example to the contrary took place around 10 days ago.

It happened in the quasi-MMO area that is online poker.  The Department of Justice, acting through the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, seized the websites of four leading US-based operators (all of which had their servers in other jurusdictions), and issued indictments against their respective co-founders, a total of 11 people, apparently for violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.  Notably, this is a politically expedient piece of legislation that was never voted on for its own merits; it was a last-second attachment to a completely unrelated homeland defence bill that was certain to pass.  What’s more, it didn’t even explicitly make online poker illegal.

Nonetheless, the main result, so far at least, is that the four sites have stopped allowing US players.  They can no longer engage in an activity they enjoy, and that is not illegal (although it’s not explicitly legal either), even though the vast majority participate responsibly, playing as much or more for the challenge and the enjoyment as for the money.  Since I’m Canadian, I can still go risk my $1, $2 or $5 on the sites in question.  However, my American friends no longer have that right.

Yes, I recognize that these two situations are not the same.  What niggles at me, however, is that they may not be as different as someone wearing the proverbial rose-colored glasses might think, especially when viewed within the context of online gaming defined broadly.  In North America last year, the value of the MMOG segment alone was something over $2 billion.  Add in poker, casinos, sports betting et al, and I can only guess the even larger figure we might be looking at.  How confident are you that the US government (and others) will differentiate appropriately among them all as they continue to grow in value, and as the legislators increasingly feel the itch to get more and more involved?

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on every Monday.
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