Gaming across the pacific Rim
After the videogame crash of the early nineteen-eighties, gaming's second wave took different forms in different places: In the United States is was primarily home computing, while Japan began producing home entertainment consoles (which were later sold in the United States), but the post-crash gaming development in South Korean was driven by cultural seclusion. It wasn't until the late Nineties that South Koreans could purchase anything from Japan that was deemed a cultural import, which of course included video games.
For decades, the South Korean Government maintained bans on Japanese cultural imports - ranging from films to pop music. But soon after taking office in 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung took steps to improve ties with Tokyo.
Because of the complete absence of the wildly popular Japanese gaming consoles, South Koreans turned to another form of gaming entertainment: The personal computer. They had no problem playing games from America that had been designed by American developers for use on home computers. But personal computers, as we've discussed, were developed originally as business machines. While they weren't much more powerful than the consoles in terms of raw computing power, they did compute in a different manner. These weren't purpose-built machines for making flashy, colorful, fast-moving graphics. But because the same hobbyists were still active, with more advanced hardware and software at their finger-tips, it wasn't long before the strictly business home computers were able to create a new type of game that the consoles of the time just couldn't match: the simulation. PC gaming spawned the FPS genre with the release of id Software's Instead of guiding Mario along a horizontal plane from the 3rd person, Catacombs 3d put you inside the game, looking through the eyes of the main character. Games much more grandiose in scale were now possible, where previously the console hardware had been the limiting factor.
The most notable gaming obsession to grow out of personal computing is the South Korean favorite, Starcraft[/url], developed by Blizzard Entertainment, based in the United States, for Windows and MacOS-based personal computers. Starcraft is what's known as a real-time strategy game, or RTS, in which players control large an entire army in a battle Simulation. These games became so popular that they became to South Korean cultural force in their own right, with PC gaming centers springing up almost overnight, and eventually the development of a national gaming league.
That snowball has now reached the bottom of the hill. Starcraft is not just a game in South Korea, it is a national sport, what football was in America in the 1970s. Five million people - equivalent to 30 million in the US - play. And three cable stations broadcast competitive gaming full-time to a TV audience.
Of course, with the advent of the Internet, and especially broadband access, new and unique avenues of cross-cultural communication were been opened. And with that communication, new gaming opponents can now be found easier than ever, which lead to the huge popularity of games like Starcraft. In nations like the United States and South Korea, this meant that computer gaming had found a niche that consoles can't match, at least for the moment: Multiplayer network gaming. Japan, however, with its limited broadband access and the ongoing popularity of arcades and consoles has been left out of the race to create the most immersive online environments. And as a result of this ease of communication, post-broadband boom South Korea has seen a sharp increase in the number of locally-produced massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, like NCSoft's and built upon the infrastructure provided by the Internet. In this case, South Korea's gaming culture was imported, in part, from the United States thanks to ubiquitous Internet connectivity.
Koreans spend an average of 16 hours a week on the Internet -- compared to 10 hours for Americans and four hours for the British -- with housewives who shop, trade shares, take classes and get information online generating some 45 percent of all Internet traffic, Son said. Korea also has over 20,000 Internet cafes, which the Koreans call 'PC baangs' (literally, 'PC rooms').
Taken as a whole, gaming culture, with its high level of technical sophistication in the form of personal computers, purpose-built home gaming machines, and public arcades has become a part of many different cultures across the globe, and in particular those that are a part of the Pacific Rim. Gaming culture isn't homogeneous by any means. Specific games, and in fact entire genres that are popular in one area may be virtually unknown in another. And again, it must be noted that due to the popularity of the internet, especially as a distribution method for PC games, we can assume that a wide array gaming
information is available virtually everywhere that videogames are played. Of course this can be confounded by the fact that not all platforms are available in all areas (as we've seen with South Koreas former ban of Japanese games), however it's getting rarer every day, as established consoles push into new markets.
And as new gaming markets are discovered, they essentially become new markets for memes as well. Because gaming is now so closely linked with the Internet as a communication method, and gamers themselves are closely linked by
virtue of Internet-enabled multiplayer games. In fact, some one of the more famous Internet memes came not only directly from game culture, but also from the interplay between to markets. The once-funny All your base is belong to uswas derived from bit of text that had been mistranslated in the English-language Sega Megadrive console port of the Japanese arcade shooter Zero Wing. Seemingly over night, the text appeared on countless web-pages as form of nonsensical Photoshop-enabled parody. And as memes tend to do, it spread far beyond the small number of fans the relatively obscure game had, and proceeded to infiltrate the mainstream of American culture, appearing in numerous mass media publications, including on oft-cited article by Eric Umansky in the online magazine Slate, entitled All Your Base Belong to U.S..
Comedic memes and Starcraft competitions on South Korean television are clearly the lighter-side of trans-national gaming culture, but evidence suggests that there's a more sinister side to the global trade in games. MMORPGs aren't just a hit in South Korea, but games like NCSoft's lineage have been running, uninterrupted for years. Widely considered a classic, Sony Online Entertainment's Everquest, has been providing a persistent, online world for over five years. Since the launch of Everquest, which brought Massively Multiplayer Gaming to the mainstream, a black market has developed sounding it and similar games. In a persistent environment, one of the goals is the accumulation of wealth and valuable items that remain with one's character (also known as an avatar or toon), even after the player logs out. Some enterprising players took it upon themselves to sell in-game currency for real dollars via services like eBay to gamers who either didn't have the skills or the time to gather it themselves. As MMORPGs grew in popularity, the market for their associated virtual currencies did as well. Gradually what had once been a niche market turned into an extremely profitable business venture, and larger and larger organizations moved in to fill the demand for virtual gold. One player, in an interview with Mike Musgrove of the Washington Post explained one method of gathering massive amounts of virtual currency:
We call them 'gold farmers'. Some people call them Chinese gold farmers because often it is people in China who play hours a day for very little pay to do this.
In effect, the result has been virtual sweatshops, though while the products aren't tangible, it's thought that the operations work very much like the traditional sweatshop, in which as many people as possible work in a small
space for long hours with very little pay in return. The market works, of course, because the sales of the virtual gold are usually in USD and workers are paid very little in Chinese Yuan. Exploiting the Chinese working poor works just as well for gold farming operations as it does for making t-shirt for Old Navy. At the time of writing, one site tracking the virtual currency exchange has [url=http://www.gameusd.com]Wow Gold[/url] trading at $.09 per Gold. The realization that video games have created a highly organized capitalist system within communist China is startling, and reinforces the fact that not gaming is a force that is difficult if not impossible to contain. The Gold Farmers also illustrate its power to bring with it extremely complex cultural ideas and the ability to transform the lives of thousands of people virtually overnight.
I haven't returned to Arcade Infinity in some time, now, but I'm confident that if I walked through the door tomorrow, there would be a fresh batch of imported games waiting for me that are just as mysterious as the ones that I played the first time. While nay-sayers have predicted the doom of video gaming for years, it's only grown stronger as a market force and cultural phenomenon, and has since become a more unified global phenomenon. More than that, though, it's become a cross-cultural force that helps drive the Pacific Rim.
But where will gaming take us as a global culture of players? Societies are becoming more sophisticated every day with respect to their ability to communicate with the rest of the world quickly and efficiently, especially through global networks like the Internet. I would imagine that in the near future we'll see game developers releasing their games on a wider variety of platforms (both home computer and consoles) as well as in multiple markets simultaneously. Gamers know what they want to play, and I can't imagine a company would continue to refuse to oblige them. We're already starting to see a
move toward this sort of unfettered distribution. There have been quite a few rumors that some or all of the next generation consoles will not have region-locks that prevent the direct importation of games from other markets, allowing gamers to have the games they want, when they want. Not only that, but we've seen lately, for example with Namco and Katamari Damacy, that companies are much more responsive to fan-pressures to translate and distribute a game globally than they once were. The danger with this model of global distribution is that it may produce a situation in which games lose their cultural significance. If we end up with truly a single, global market, games may be made with as little cultural significance as possible, in a homogenized effort to produce games that are the least unfamiliar for as many people as possible. I hope this won't be the case, and that gamers will continue to demand both the best games from home and abroad, without losing what makes each special, because I plan on discovering places like Arcade Infinity for a long time to come.Steven Golden is a researcher for many sites such ashttp://www.gameusd.com,http://www.world-of-warcraft-gold.us,http://www.bankofwow.com,http://www.bankofddo.com,etc.
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