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G-Star 2012 - When Game Cultures Collide

General Article By Neilie Johnson on November 23, 2012

An American Game Journalist at G-Star, South Korea

For most of us, November heralds the start of the holiday season and for the video game industry, it heralds the cut-throat competition for consumers' gift-giving dollars. For me personally, November means scads of game reviews, previews and holiday gift guides. This year however, the holiday season also signified an unforeseen and eye-opening introduction to Eastern video game culture. It all began with a simple instant message...

MMORPG.com: Hey, how's your passport?

Me: Fine. Why?

MMORPG.com: How'd you like to cover G-Star?

Me: What's that?

MMORPG.com: A video game conference in Busan, South Korea.

Me: Well...sure!

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Yeah, not exactly the chat heard around the world, but it was the start of my trek to a city I hadn't known I'd see, and a video game culture both highly similar to and distinctly different from that of my North American home. 

The week before leaving, I was excited about the trip but also a touch intimidated. Having done my online part to ensure South Korean pop star Psy's “Gangnam Style” YouTube fame, I was thrilled at the thought of visiting the country that inspired such a phenomenon. Then again, the idea of flying half way around the world to a place where I could neither read the signs (I thought) nor understand the language was anxiety-inducing. In retrospect, my misgivings were absurd. Even had South Korea not been gracious enough to provide English translations for more or less everything, I should have realized; gamers, no matter where they come from, speak each other's language.

After a fourteen hour flight, I arrived in Busan. Though the night time cab ride to the hotel was something of a blur, the view from my room the next day was impressive. Gray skies roiled over an equally gray sea and made a dramatic backdrop for the glittering high-rises of Haeundae. Haeundae is the most Western (culturally speaking) part of the city of Busan, the place where foreign tourists tend to vacation and live. Development there is booming. The sight of towering cranes, block-long scaffolding and and fast-rising skyscrapers is common, as are cafes, restaurants and fancy hotels. Though most of us think of Seoul when we think of South Korea, Busan is quickly becoming as busy and urbane as its northerly neighbor and seemed like the perfect place to host South Korea's premier game-industry event.

To BEXCO or Bust

G-Star is a very big deal in South Korea, though Western gamers may never have heard of it. Held at BEXCO, Busan's main convention center, and organized by the Korean Association of Game Industry (KAOGI) and the Busan IT Industry Promotion Industry (BIPA), G-Star began in 2008 and has grown every year since. This year marked a particular milestone for the show, as more than 50% of its exhibitors hailed from outside of South Korea. Apparently, foreign companies are catching on that South Korea is fast becoming a nation of tech-savvy, enthusiastic gamers and if there was still any doubt, the block-long, ten-gamer-wide lines outside the convention center would readily have removed it.

Being a long time E3 veteran, I'm not easily impressed by game-promotional hoopla. Still, standing outside BEXCO with thousands of excited tweens, teens and twenty-somethings, it was hard not to be. G-Star is open to the public, and lines of people stretched from the door to the street for most of the first day. I overheard one of the few English-speaking G-Star veterans commenting that last year they'd had to shut the lines down by noon since wait times at the demo booths far exceeded exhibition hours. The opening day crowds made that easy to believe.

As a member of the press, I was allowed to bypass the Disney-land-like lines and head inside for the opening day ceremonies. Busan's mayor turned out for the show's commencement, as did various game industry dignitaries. Wearing matching blue G-Star windbreakers, the group made its way down an elevator and across a red carpet to stand in front of a barrier and a series of lecterns topped with digital tablets. Journalists elbowed each other aside as announcers introduced the 2012 show's motto which translated into English is, “Game, Touching the World” (meaning I gather, that games bring people together). After the speeches, the VIPs posed in front of the lecterns and on the count of three, dramatically laid their hands on the digital tablets, thus moving the barrier behind them and opening the show.

Dignitaries and press were then treated to a pre-throng peek at the exhibit floor. Speakers mounted the presentation stages of the biggest Asian publishers and in the vast, echoing hall, the English translations were more or less inaudible. Having plenty of experience with corporate speeches however, I imagine the comments revolved around the bright future of Korean game development and the inevitable dominance of South Korean game publishers. Throughout the tour, cameras rolled and clicked as beautiful women in short shorts, satin shifts and character costumes lined the booths' perimeters in groups of demure, improbable perfection.

The presence of booth babes (at G-Star they're called “booth companions”) here deserves comment. In recent years, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3)--the American game industry's main event—has undergone some significant changes. More women play and make games in the U.S., and as those numbers have risen, E3's booth babe population has dropped. By contrast, the number of G-Star booth babes seemed to hearken back to an E3 of nearly a decade ago. This made a certain kind of sense though, since the crowd outside clearly indicated that South Korean interest in video game expos is yet almost exclusively male. The show floor confirmed this impression as the few females not working the show appeared to be there to accompany brothers, boyfriends and sons. In fact, were you to guess the South Korean gamer demographic by the G-Star crowd, you'd likely conclude that it's overwhelmingly male. Fortunately, that conclusion is becoming increasingly wrong.

Tomorrow, we’ll profile the South Korean Gamer, the show itself, and final thoughts. Thanks for reading!

For more of Neilie’s work and tales, be sure to check her blog.

BREAK FOR DAY ONE

Profile of a South Korean Gamer

Contrary to what the overwhelmingly male-centric G-Star turnout might indicate, South Korean girls do play games. There are lots of cars in Busan (which makes traversing the narrow, sidewalk-less streets a bit like Death Race 2000) but as in any large, crowded city, people also ride buses and trains. Long train rides demand some kind of diversion, and from what I saw in Busan, the diversion of choice for South Korean young people of both genders, is gaming. On the short ride from Haeundae to BEXCO in Centum City for instance, I sat next to a young man wearing headphones, frantically pounding away on a Guitar Hero-ish rhythm game. And riding back that evening, I watched a teen girl across from me intently working at something cute and colorful that looked a lot like Hello Kitty Cafe. Wherever I went, and throughout my four day stay, I saw people of all walks of life staring raptly at their cell phone screens, and a surprising number of them were playing games. 

Of course, as in the U.S., this brand of gamer was likely born from South Korea's (admittedly late-blooming) near-universal addiction to mobile phones. Smart phones were comparatively slow to take hold in South Korea, but both gamers and game makers are determined to make up for lost time. Publisher WeMade, a main sponsor of G-Star, is banking on this enthusiasm and its mega-booth took up a significant chunk of show floor real estate. WeMade presented an impressive 16 mobile titles, among them Korean Game Award-winner Viking Island, and their offerings were bolstered by those from publishers like Gamevil, Sunday Toz (makers of Anipang) and Com2Us.

While mobile might be catching up to the PC platform in South Korea, G-Star made it plain that mobile's got a ways to go yet before being able to surpass it. The majority of attendees mobbed the MMO/RTS/RPG booths, waiting in long lines to play games like Neowiz's Bless and Wargaming.net's World of Tanks. Without question, PC gamers remain the cornerstone of South Korean gaming and these gamers are competitive. No, make that competitive. These are the people who invented televised Starcraft tournaments, for pete's sake. (Incidentally, they also televise Baduk, a South Korean form of Go, which I found to be a great cure for insomnia.)

In addition to proving their competitiveness via brutal online game tournaments, South Korean gamers –specifically those at G-Star—jump at the chance to get on stage in front of hundreds of strangers and do goofy things to earn things like leaf headbands and fluffy game-logo pillows. Just like last year's E3 attendees who stood in line for hours to obtain Disney's must-have Oswald ears, G-Star attendees were willing to do anything to collect a bit of exclusive show swag. One of my favorite show moments entailed watching as a petite female announcer urged five introverted young men to out-gyrate and out-gallop one another as Psy's “Gangnam Style” boomed in the background. Ohhhhhhhhh, sexy lady!

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition. So long as it stays healthy, anyway. South Korean gamers take their game tournaments seriously, so seriously in fact, that in the interest of preventing video game addiction, the government's set gaming curfews for underage gamers. This extreme measure may or may not be effective, especially since the prospect among young people; of becoming a highly paid pro-gamer could basically nullify it. Pro-gamers, AKA "E-Sports Masters," in South Korea earn as much as six figures and enjoy worldwide fame. This makes them understandably cocky—as I found out at a World of Tanks party when a tipsy Warcraft III champion tried to get a bit too friendly, if you know what I mean.

The Show's the Thing

Online games continue to dominate in South Korea, as evidenced by the huge G-Star demo booths set up on the main exhibit floor for Starcraft II, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, Bless, Mabinogi II, Asta, and World of Tanks. In addition to these heavy-hitters, other booths contained a variety of  fare like WeMade's Pet Island, Com2Us's Tiny Farm, Gamevil's Air Penguin and Nintendo's Zelda: Ocarina of Time on 3DS.

In general, game titles at the show belonged to one of two categories: the cute or the cut-throat. (Or, in the case of Digimon Masters, straddled the two.) The cuter titles were easier to sample, having fewer people lined up in front of them; the language barrier however, did pose a challenge. That the game text was in Korean was no surprise. What was a bit of a shock however, was the dearth of English interpreters. Once I discovered I was unable to communicate with well, anyone, I hung back a bit, watching other people game. That approach only lasted as long as my five dollar cup of Starbucks coffee and then I—despite my linguistic limitations—jumped in and played some games. I tried RPGs, platformers, FPSs and mobile puzzle games, to the delight and amusement of the non-English-speaking presenters. They smiled and pointed and god love 'em, even clapped for me whenever I figured something out. It was good fun, and I saw a slew of titles I might otherwise never have seen. The only time I outright cursed my American-speaking tongue was upon trying a demo of the newest title in my favorite Capcom series—namely, Ace Attorney 5. Gah! I'm still dying to know what the hell I was objecting to.

As mentioned before, aside from the games, the show's biggest draw is the array of porcelain beauties hired to ornament the booths. G-Star attendees spent just as much time snapping pics of these lovely ladies, as they did demoing the games—something they have in common with North American game expo attendees. Aside from this obvious similarity however, the booth babe experience in South Korea differs from that in the U.S. in two significant ways.

First, the G-Star exhibitor manual indicates that “Booth personnel (ushers or professional narrators) and character models should not be dressed provocatively and offend the public morals.” That means, no bikini/underwear-type clothes, no clothes with cutouts below the pelvis and no over-exposure of an individual's back. Were those rules upheld at E3, there'd be a public outcry. Second, it appeared that South Korean gamers instinctively knew that when it came to the booth babes, the policy was strictly “hands off”. They snapped a ton of photos and stood there open-mouthed, but they always kept their distance. By comparison, at E3 gamers seem to think a cheap thrill is included in the price of admission. All the times I've seen the models at E3, their faces remind me of torture victims using self-hypnosis to endure an unbearable situation. There's no way they're paid enough to spend hours in platform heels, pretending to enjoy themselves as nerdy guys with poor hygiene leave fingerprints all over them.

Anyway, aside from the obvious fun of demoing new games, the best thing about G-Star for me was the people. As I said, the presenters were very polite and did their best to help me. This meant a lot, especially since most of the time our exchanges came to nothing more than a baffled smile and a shrug. The definite highlight of G-Star for me, (aside from absorbing the contagious energy exuded by the gamers and seeing the new Phoenix Wright game) was meeting so many friendly people. I was nervous to be the proverbial “stranger in a strange land” but the South Korean people were great.  From the cafe worker who gifted me an extra scoop of ice cream, to the charming young employee of South Korean game giant Neowiz who went out of her way to make a Westerner feel at home, I never felt so welcome. (By the way… thanks, Averlyn! If not for you, I would never have known how to properly eat samgyeopsal.)

Goodbye, G-Star

Before going to G-Star, I had no idea what it was all about. Like many American gamers, I'm fairly familiar with Japanese game culture, but had little insight into that of South Korea; attending the show was an eye-opening experience. I found that South Korean gamers are extremely passionate about their games, that they use games to relax, entertain, challenge and socialize. I found that the South Korean game industry is big, ambitious and becoming more diverse by the minute. I also found that despite dissimilarities in language, genre dominance and propriety, East and West game cultures agree nearly as much as they differ.

The most important thing I got from G-Star though, was the confirmation that world game culture is changing. Mobile and online games are steadily converging, gamers around the world are being drawn closer to together, and gamers both in and outside of South Korea are becoming more heterogeneous. G-Star's goal this year may have been to “touch the world”, but after attending the show and meeting so many South Korean gamers, it's clear to me it already has.

For more of Neilie’s work and tales, be sure to check her blog.

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