The Emergence of PC Bangs in a Dedicated Gaming Place
The History of PC Bangs in Korea
To non-Koreans, the notion of the PC bang is often misinterpreted as some local version of an Internet cafe. However, for Koreans, the PC bang is a social space that traverses online and offline co-presence (Chee, 2005); a space that is associated with the phenomenon of online gaming and the online/offline communities it reproduces.
The first Internet connections in Korea were introduced 1994. Apart from the connectivity offered by universities or research laboratories, most individual users connected to the Internet via dial-up modems. At that time, uses for networks mainly consisted of text-based BBS service, not the Internet with graphical web browsers. As a matter of course, the Internet was limited to the concerns of enthusiasts.
In 1995 the first commercial examples of Internet caf´e, providing faster connection, began to emerge. A far cry from the 22,000 PC bangs that now grace most second level buildings in Korea’s capital, Seoul, these few earlier examples of the Internet caf´e tended to be located near universities to service the young students. These early Internet caf´es offered little more than a place for Internet connection and office related exercises such as document printing. The number of Internet caf´es stayed insignificant until 1998 when two critical events redefined the role of technology in Korean everyday life. In the wake of the 1997 economic crisis of the Asia-Pacific region that saw Korea being bailed out by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), 1998 saw not only the implementation of broadband policies by the Korean government, but also, the coming of Starcraft.
In 1997, the Government eliminated the longtime monopoly of Korea’s
only telecommunication company, Korea Telecom (KT). This saw the establishment of telecommunication competitors such as Hanaro Telecom that started its main business with broadband connection–asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL)–in 1997. For Hanaro this choice was strategic–they believed that broadband connection business would have more competitive advantages than the voice-call. Whereas the voice-call market was already saturated with KT already capturing more than 90% of voice-call users, broadband connection, however, represented an unexplored ocean in the world of telecommunication services at the time. The decision was obvious.
Concurrent to industry development, the government viewed broadband connection as a foundation for advancing in so-called information era. In ad dition to various kinds of national campaigns celebrating the possibilities of the Internet, the Korean government gave Hanaro a head start by prohibiting KT from entering into broadband market for the time being (Aizu, 2002). Later, this helped the sound competition between the two companies in broadband markets that contributed to the fast and wide spread of the Internet.
Without the desire for content such as online games, there would not have been any need for faster connection. Starcraft served as a catalyst for creating strong demands for broadband connection. While broadband connection was not necessary for playing the game, early Korean Internet users considered broadband connection indispensable when playing Starcraft. Moreover, the introduction of low monthly flat pricing policy of ISPs for broadband connection also encouraged online gaming to flourish. It was these events that led to opportunities both for Internet caf´es and game developers. One such example was the seminal MMORPG Lineage, by NCSoft, launched in February 1998. It was first generation of MMORPG online games that took advantage of high-speed Internet connection. The huge success of Lineage helped to forge a receptive environment for online gaming in general. Once the uncertainty about the business was lifted, a big rush to the MMORPG in Korea began around late 1999.
It should be noted that these events had gained their momentum through the pivotal role of the PC bang. The growth rate of PC bang businesses between 1998 and 1999 was remarkable. This growth was inevitably informed by the fact that in 1998 Internet cafes offered their visitors a more comfortable and conducive environments for gaming. At first, the ambience of the place altered from a quiet library style into an open, frenetic coin-op setting with most of them started selling snacks and beverages. Food delivery was also allowed for customers. The charging policy of PC bangs encouraged their visitors to play longer; the more you stayed at a PC bang, the lower the hourly charge became. It was not a coincidence that the Korean word “Game bang” became interchangeable with PC bang. Another clue to the cultural transformation of PC bang can be provided by its business trends after around 2000. An intriguing fact is that the number of PC bangs has remained high despite the fact of the high home broad band penetration. If the convenience of broadband had been the only or most significant motive for visiting PC bang, the business should have declined from 2000. However, as can be noted from Figure 1, the business of PC bang has changed little since wide spread of home broadband. This phenomenon suggests that what attracts players to the PC bang is not technological (i.e. broadband access). In short, the PC bang was far from just a site for broadband connectivity but an active part in fostering the social and cultural aspects of Korean online gaming that ensured its mainstream success.