A porter hoists their purchases onto a wooden A-frame, which he straps to his back. With a cane to keep his balance and a shrill voice to warn shoppers out of the way, he leads us back to the Russians’ hotel. I follow Morozova and Lavrentieva on several more buying forays, until dawn reddens the craggy mountain peaks on Seoul’s outskirts. As plaintive Korean ballads blare from unseen disc players, we hover around street food stands for a breakfast of skewered meats, fried minnows, vegetable omelettes, kimchi (garlicky, scorchingly spicy pickled cabbage) and pungent, chewy bundegi, or silkworm larvae, which are definitely an acquired taste.
Sirens begin to wail throughout the city, signaling the monthly civil defense drill against a possible North Korean surprise attack. Residents are supposed to head to the nearest shelter and await the all-clear signal 20 minutes later. I happen to be underground in COEX, one of the largest subterranean malls. I’m exploring the world of PC bangs—computer-game rooms. There are more than 25,000 PC bangs in the city, some with hundreds of candy-colored computer terminals, at which youths spend hours besieging fortresses, playing virtual basketball against anonymous opponents, and flirting on-line with strangers.
According to Oh Yong Tae, a producer for a television network that specializes in on-line games, PC bangs (bang means “room”) have flourished because open space is so hard to find. “There’s not enough space for everybody to play soccer or basketball or just hang out,” says Oh. “So we developed a ‘bang culture’—karaoke bangs to get together and sing, DVD bangs to watch videos with friends, and PC bangs to play games.” To accommodate demand, South Korea has built a high-speed, broadband Internet system that is unparalleled in the world. More than half of the country’s households have broadband connections, compared with 16 percent in the United States.
With 400 computer terminals, Megawebstation, located deep in the COEX mall, is one of the largest PC bangs. It is also the site of tournament matches for Starcraft, an on-line game. Oh’s cable station broadcasts the matches to a nationwide audience of millions. Why in the world, I wonder, would so many people watch televised games they could play themselves? “For the same reason people watch championship golf,” says Oh. “They want to see the best athletes and maybe pick up techniques to improve their own game.”
The premier players are objects of adulation (and endorsement contracts). Kang Do-kyung, a top-ranked Starcraft player, is surrounded by teenage fans pleading for an autograph shortly before a televised match at Megawebstation. “When I was young, I played video games at the arcades five or six hours a day,” says Kang, 20. “I could see I was blessed with a special talent.” His parents didn’t think so. But by 17, Kang was accomplished enough at Starcraft to play in lucrative (prize money can amount to $100,000 annually) national tournaments. His parents stopped objecting.