September 14, 2005
Asia Tackles Online Game Addiction
TOKYO -- Warning: online game playing can be hazardous to health.
So far, such a warning -- usually reserved for addictive products like cigarettes and liquor -- has yet to appear on the growing stable of online game titles rapidly gaining popularity in Asia.But that could soon change, as the industry's rapid growth gives rise to a new generation of addicts, like the South Korean man who died of heart failure after playing a game called "StarCraft" for 50 hours at an Internet cafe.
The 28-year-old Korean had quit his job to spend more time playing games, and left his seat only to go to the toilet and take brief naps, according to media reports.
Analysts estimate 1-2 percent of South Korea's online gamers suffer from addiction. The government has designed clinics to help cure addicts, and is talking with developers about creating advisory patches to alert gamers to the dangers of heavy play.
Hanbit Soft, operator of StarCraft, is also considering opening a "game camp" to educate people on the possible effects of too much play, a spokesman said.
"It has definitely bought some negative social impact," said Jun Fwu Chin, an analyst at data tracking firm IDC.
He said so-called hard-core online gamers -- people who play for 20 hours or more a month -- now make up about a third of the gaming community.
Game operators, whose titles feature names like "Legend of Mir" and "Ragnarok," say they are trying to be socially responsible by working with regulators and taking their own measures to curtail addictive behavior.
The jury is still largely out on the issue of harmful effects of online gaming.
Most industry players insist that the number of excessive players is still a very small proportion of the overall online gaming population.
Regulators are also treading lightly on the issue, voicing concerns but also being careful not to jeopardize the high growth industry.
The online game sector is growing explosively in Asia, worth an estimated $1.1 billion last year with annual growth set to average 19 percent through 2008, according to IDC.
South Korea is the region's biggest market, worth $397 million last year. But the booming China market is catching up fast, worth $298 million last year when it bypassed Taiwan to become the region's second-biggest.
In another highly publicized case involving addictive behavior, an avid gamer in Shanghai in June was sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing a competitor who borrowed and then sold his virtual "dragon saber."
Taiwanese media routinely report about robberies committed to support Internet cafe habits.
Like Korea, China is also in the midst of a campaign to address the issue of online addiction, working with game operators on systems to discourage compulsive behavior.
Analysts said the backlash -- and resulting countermeasures -- are still in relatively mild early phases, and thus the effects on major operators such as China's Shanda, South Korea's NCSoft, and Taiwan's Gamania, should be muted for now.
China's trial system, which discourages addictive behavior by limiting "experience points" a gamer earns the longer he plays, should have some effect in limiting the problem in that market, said JP Morgan analyst Dick Wei.
The system, reached after extensive consultation from the industry, is considered relatively light for Chinese regulators, who in the past have unilaterally imposed much more draconian measures on other high-growth new media sectors.
"That should stop some of the users from excessive play, but it is not going to stop all the problem," he said. "It could be there are different measures to address this issue."
Taipei has also issued rules forcing Internet cafes to keep their distance from schools.
The city government also requires children under 15 to be accompanied by adults and Internet cafes to post warnings advising players to rest their eyes and stretch their legs.
Many say the raft of new rules, while restricting, are not heavy-handed because governments are trying to avoid killing a potential golden goose.
Reflecting that balance, Singapore earlier this month allowed a man to postpone his military service so he could take part in a computer games competition, as the country tries to promote the industry, according to a media report.
Despite Japan's status as pioneer of the modern gaming industry, addiction is less of a problem there because people are less likely to look to the Web and more often play games on home-bound consoles like Sony's PlayStation, said Hirokazu Hamamura, president of Enterbrain, publisher of Japan's leading gaming magazine.
"There are fewer cases of addiction with console games because they are played differently than online games which progress in real time speed and take a long time to play," he said.
Still, he added, many Japanese companies such as Square Enix include messages in their games warning players not to over-indulge.
Square Enix Chief Executive Officer Yoichi Wada said the issue was one that not only individual companies, but the broader gaming community will have to face in the years ahead.
"In a networked society, this kind of thing always happens," he said at the Reuters Asia Technology and Telecoms Summit in Tokyo on Wednesday. "It cannot be solved by game companies alone. It must be addressed by the game society, the network society.
(Additional reporting by Yukari Iwatani, Michael Kramer and Kim Yoo-chul in Seoul)