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The Free Zone: Is F2P Ruining Korea’s Youth?

Column By Richard Aihoshi on February 14, 2012

It would be a definite stretch to answer the question above in the affirmative.  However, the past couple of weeks have brought news that the Korean government is continuing to increase its efforts to restrict the amount of time its young people can spend playing online video games.  Accordingly, it seems clear that the popularity of online games is perceived not just as a problem, but as one serious enough to warrant considerable attention and some serious regulations.  There can be no real argument that free to play has contributed significantly to the growth of the market.  So, it’s not much of a leap to think the powers that be may see it as a causal factor, albeit certainly not the sole one.

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With respect to the perceived magnitude of the problem, according to a report earlier this month on This Is Game, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST) apparently believes 470,000 minors are addicted to games.  To put this number in perspective, it’s said to represent around 6.5% of the total elementary, middle and high school student population, or around on in 16.  Unfortunately, there’s no indication as to how this total was arrived at or how addiction was defined; without such information, it’s impossible to gauge the level of credibility we can assign to the announced figure.

As for how the MCST intends to address this situation, it seems the first step will be to start monitoring the policies enacted last year by other ministries.  After that, we can probably expect enactment of a system that will require parental consent when minors sign up for games, and that tells parents how much their kids are playing.

In addition, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MEST) is reportedly moving to limit the number of hours by introducing a cool-down system.  This would boot young players out of games after two hours.  Re-entry would not be possible for 10 minutes, and there would be a maximum of two sessions per day.  My first thought is to wonder how much thought (or how little) has gone into how such regulations can actually be implemented and enforced.  Does the government have a plan of some sort, or will it simply tell the game industry to figure out how to do it regardless of practical issues or cost?

What’s more, the MEST appears to be justifying its actions by saying that games are a cause of violence in schools.  This is, of course, highly arguable.  Sadly, it’s not exactly unknown for governments to advance their agendas based on disputable assertions.  It was probably inevitable that as the industry’s prominence and visibility in Korea continued to grow, it would fall under ever-greater scrutiny, eventually becoming a political football.  That time may have come.

And that’s not all.  Whether it has the government’s support is unclear, but a member and some people from the MEST have submitted a bill that would exclude minors from taking part in betas.  Here again, I can’t help but wonder “What are they thinking?”  How are the Korean developers of kid- and youth-oriented games supposed to test them if their target audiences are barred from participating?

Furthermore, the bill is said to cover “real-time internet games”, which presumably goes beyond the previous focus, which was basically on the PC sector, to include mobile and consoles.  So no matter what happens to this particular piece of legislation, it’s hard not to see broader regulation on the horizon.

At this point you may be thinking that what’s happening on the other side of the world doesn’t really matter here.  Personally, I’m not comfortable assuming it’s okay to look at this situation through rose-colored glasses.  The question of game violence influencing real-life behavior isn’t new in this hemisphere either, and as we’ve already seen, it’s very easy for someone with a personal agenda to proclaim causality even without any solid evidence.

All it would take for draconian regulations to happen here is for someone with enough power to have such an agenda.  And is it hard to imagine a western politician using the aforementioned Korean statement as the basis for saying 6.5% of young people in this hemisphere are addicted to games too?

As to how this all relates to F2P any more than my earlier mention, it strikes me that the Korean government’s approach do the matter is primarily focused on restricting young users’ access.  Not having to pay is obvious contrary to this direction in that it removes an up-front barrier to entry.  Consequently, it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility to think something may be done to serve as a replacement barrier.  I won’t go so far as to predict major changes will be forced upon the F2P model in Korea, but neither will I be shocked if it does happen.  Or if there are ripple effects felt here. 

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The Free Zone
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 MMORPG.com every Monday.
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