By Yvette Wohn
We tend to think of gamers as those who play in solitude at home; a Caucasian male wielding a curved piece of plastic and hunched in front of a screen. The truth, however, is that outside of the United States, most game players do not own game consoles at all- they play with standard PC computers or mobile phones. Although mobile game users are rapidly increasing, the capacity of a mobile phone has yet to catch up with the PC or game console when it comes to graphics.
The PC room gamer is at the center of an interesting gaming culture that is particularly prevalent in many Asian countries such as South Korea, Vietnam, and China. A PC room is a room full of desktop personal computers (PCs) that are connected with each other and also have access to the Internet. Different cultures have different names for this type of facilities. In the West, the closest equivalent would be an Internet cafe (despite the fact that the term “cafe” is not used in this context as we think of in the sense of a cafe being a place with empty tables and chairs where people can eat or drink between meals). PC rooms are easily found in places with high Asian populations, however, are very different from Western Internet cafes because the computers are equipped with hardware and software for an optimal gaming environment. Thus, when I talk about PC room in this article, I am not referring to Internet cafes. The PC room is more often referred to as a “PC bang,” which is what it is called in South Korea, where the culture is prevalent. In Korean “bang” means “room.”
(Although PC rooms are not widespread in Western countries, interestingly, I’ve seen PC rooms in areas with a strong immigrant community. For instance, the district near the Arab Institut in Paris has PC rooms equipped with games; that is something one cannot easily find in other areas of Paris that have a strong Caucasian presence. I am curious to find out why this is so; is it because immigrant communities are less likely to afford high-performance computers and fast Internet access?)
Characteristics of PC rooms
Since it is unfair to generalize about PC rooms in all countries, I’ll focus on the PC room scene in South Korea. One of the characteristics of PC rooms is that the computers are all installed with the gaming software of most popular network games. Although more recent games allow free downloads of the game client, most games– even those that are played online– require users to purchase gaming software or pay a membership fee. However, most PC rooms have separate contracts with game distributors, thus users do not need to pay any membership fee. For instance, users who play World of Warcraft at home would have to buy the CD for the game and pay the membership fee, but if they went to a PC room, they would not have to pay any of those costs. Thus setting up a PC room requires quite a lot of initial investment in hardware and software.
PC rooms are usually located in the basement or upper floors of a commercial building. Very rarely is a PC room located on the first floor, due to the high price of rent, although in extremely rural areas, they are sometimes on the first floor. (Yes, PC rooms are even found in the countryside!!) The chairs at PC rooms also tend to be pricey office chairs that are comfortable enough for hours of game play.
Playing at PC rooms does not require a lot of money compared to other types of media entertainment (such as going to see a movie). In South Korea, hourly fees range from 500 to 2400 won (roughly 40 cents to 2 dollars), mainly depending on the competition.
Who plays at PC rooms?
Throughout the day, the demographics of the PC room change. Most PC rooms are open 24 hours, so it is interesting to look at the cycle of people. In the mornings, the primary type of user is an adult male, between 30 and 50. Many are
unemployed or between jobs, and are dressed business casual. Many engage in online day trading or online card games and in-between games occasionally surf recruiting websites. When afternoon comes, a trickle of very young boys (younger than 12 years) and the occasional girl start pouring in between 1 and 3pm, usually in groups. They are extremely noisy because they continuously talk to each other while they play and usually play racing games or first-person shooters. In some sense, in the afternoon, the PC room becomes similar to what coin arcade rooms were like in the past. Of note, PC rooms don’t aggressively monitor which games the children play; technically, they can play all of the games that are installed on the computer so they usually play network games among themselves without going online. This is because if they try to go online, they will most likely not have access.
Around dinner time, teenagers come in, wearing their school uniforms and are followed by young adults. Many women come in in the evening, they usually play online card, arcade, or MMORPG games. Competitive Tetris is a popular game that young women play. The “hardcore” game players (ages 18 and up) start coming in at 8pm and usually stay for several hours or all night. World of Warcraft, Counterstrike, and Starcraft are the most popular games for late-night players. Although PC rooms have non-smoking sections, this is in theory only; if you go at night, expect to be drenched in smoke.
Catering to people who stay for long hours, PC rooms are usually equipped with drinks and snacks (that are bought separately). Popular snacks include cup noodles (ramen), coffee in cans, and various chips. Players, however, can also order food from local restaurants– usually Chinese.