When I was a student in Canada and too poor to own both a properly working computer and pay for internet access, I often found myself in a mysterious 24-hour computer room, frantically typing essays. I soon learned it was a Canadian version of a Korean PC Bang (PC방) or PC Room, and it was occupied with gamers who stayed up all night, seated in black leather chairs. Now I live in country where PC Bang dot every street corner, filled night after night with vigilant gamers. Games and comics come to life at gaming and comic conventions when ordinary people turn themselves into imaginary heroes and villains, posing for photographers. Teens rule the arcades and you’ll even find business men rallied around a claw machine late at night trying to win a midnight snack or new hat. In Korea it seems that the motto must be “Game on”!
Game culture doesn’t get any bigger than in South Korea. Here two TV channels are dedicated entirely to the art of the computer game and weekly glossy magazines dissect the top players’ every move. Pro-gamers rise to super-stardom playing video and online games, earning sponsorships the same way top athletes do. Sound fun? Maybe, but professional gamers live and train with their team in front of their computers 12 hours a day, 6 days a week to keep in top form with only burning eyes and thumb blisters to distract them! If you can cut it, riches and cult fame await you. Even I know about Lim Yo Hwan, a gamer who rose to fame as the world’s top Starcraft player. Now retired at the tender age of 33, he married actress and media personality Kim Ga-Yeon, not too shabby for someone whose gaming profession would disparagingly classify him as a ‘computer nerd’ in Canada. If you’re feeling inspired by Lim Yo Hwan’s story and looking for a career change, head over to a PC Bang, put on your headset and gather your team. Don’t let those high-speed computers and comfy leather chairs deceive you – you’re in for a lot of work! Remember to stop for food, water, and sleep though! Man (and woman!) does not live on game alone.
If that sounds too intense for you, I’m sorry to tell you we ain’t through yet. Game conventions abound, with leggy and muscled models reenacting the finer scenes from favourite online games (even though everyone’s too busy clicking away to notice them!), but manhwa (만화) or comics and animation, have their share of fans too. Manhwa conventions are held in enormous rooms filled with booths selling hand-drawn prints and stacked with books, stickers and souvenirs.
Although those material goodies are appealing, it’s really the community and culture that really draws the fans. My friends and I love the comic conventions. I don’t care for manhwa personally, but WOW, do I love seeing fans of manhwa! Characters come alive through carefully constructed costumes. No detail is too small, no wig too outrageous and no platform shoe too high. These fans have mastered the fine art of working it for the cameras.
Spectators and photographers come out in droves to see the wild costumes that bridge fantasy and reality. Costumed characters carry autograph books and business cards, exchanging information to find their pictures later on. Teens in matching uniforms sit on a stage holding mini white-boards, frantically scribbling answers to quiz game questions and holding them over their heads, hoping to escape elimination and earn a prize. If you’re curious about Korea’s gaming and comic culture, there’s no better place to be than a on the floor at a comic convention!
The less dedicated gamers and comic fans among us settle for smart phone versions of both. Set foot in any subway here and you’ll see Koreans young and old tapping away at their smart phone games. Feeling low-tech? Head out to the arcades for games new and old or hit up the popular street games and claw machines that stand every few blocks and try to win a snack or stuffed toy.
Whatever kind of game you like, you’re sure to find it in Korea, where long nights are often lit up by the glow of the computer screen or neon lights in the arcade and by phone lights, reading comic books under the covers.