Veli-Matti Karhulahti: Bang! Evolving Cultures of Gaming in Korea

Veli-Matti Karhulahti has been doing fieldwork in Korea since September. He is a visiting researcher at Yonsei University.

Most of those who are interested in esports, global gaming, or just modern Asian culture in general are likely familiar with the PC bang that has been fundamental for the development of Korean ludic identity in particular. Roughly speaking, PC bangs remind one of internet cafés where customers (instead of buying coffee) rent a computer spot, typically for the purpose of playing online videogames. While the visit to a PC bang is usually measured by hours, the spaces tend to be open around the clock and overnight gaming marathons are not uncommon either.

By today, the PC bang is a relatively aged topic of study. Already over 15 years ago Kym Stewart and Hyewon Park Choi (2003) observed the emerging popularity of the phenomenon and speculated whether possible future trends such as increased home computer use would soon displace the PC bang. Now, a decade and a half later, it is easy to say that the PC bang is still alive and thriving. Nevertheless, the recent changes in the transnational gaming industries have had an effect on the PC bang culture too – perhaps reflecting not only the evolution of Korean gaming habits but also the emergence of more general ludic developments.

A PC Bang in Korea.Whereas the PC bang concept is somewhat well-known also outside Korea, few are aware of its lineages deriving from other commercial bangs (“rooms”, 방) that have provided Koreans with diverse non-computerized services for a long while. For example, since the beginning of the 1990s, jjimjilbangs (찜질방) have functioned as rentable spaces with modern spa features, whereas manhwabangs (만화방) have offered local comics (graphic novel) readers major book collections with private reading rooms for their consumption.Manhwabang (a place to read books/manga) in Korea.As jjimjilbangs, manhwabangs, and many of their adaptations (café bangs, multibangs, etc.) still maintain their respective identities, the effects of ludic mobile cultures are strongly visible in their use. While jjimjilbang visitors surely enter the rooms primarily for their unique services, the coziness of the public-private space design combined with stable Wi-Fi connections also invites individuals to add mobile gaming sessions to their “bang cocktails” (often enhanced with drinks, foods, and other hedonistic stimuli). Likewise, where the manhwabang remains first and foremost as a space for consuming physical (printed) literature, the most popular current titles are adaptations or derivatives of readable/playable webtoons that the individuals access also via their smartphones.

The hype (and slow progress) of the latest generation virtual reality technology is real, and the Korean bang culture makes a fine mirror of that: next to PC bangs, the local streets are nowadays enriched also by VR bangs. As the high requirements of apparatus investment, computing power, and physical space keep home VR play as a luxury activity for the few, this also makes it a perfect bang machine even to a degree that many Western cities (that never had prominent internet cafés similar to Korea) are nowadays enriched by such enterprises.VR Bang in Korea

It is too early to make fruitful generalizations about the idiosyncratic development of the VR bang in Korea (contra other regional sectors), yet a couple of pointers hint at some future directions. Firstly, the Korean VR bang tends to be designed not only to give a test ride of what some already have at home, but goes beyond that by using enhanced technology. Full-body capsules, shooting rooms, and alike instances that demand (even) higher financial and spatial requirements provide visitors experiences that are hard to access elsewhere. Secondly, the Korean VR bang is often designed with various social elements in mind and many of the provided experiences are based on simultaneous multiplayer features. It is not uncommon for the bang staff to join the activity too – which further enhances the feeling of mutual presence and may also add to the sociality of the activity.

One of the ongoing trends in the gaming industry is the reinvention (and modification) of analog play. This can be seen in the substantial blooming of board/card games, role-playing, and toys, all of which are currently experimenting with analog-digital hybridization. Evidently, the bang space provides a natural environment for such ludic (re)developments as well.

In the aforementioned study by Steward and Choi (2003), the two argue that PC bangs came to replace analog play spaces like billiard rooms in the late 1990s. While billiard rooms still exist, new types of analog bangs have appeared over the years; a present popular example being the strike bang, which comes close to the classic arcade with the caveat that digital gaming machines have been replaced by various mechanical playthings and especially “claw cranes.” Here the claw crane has a special role as an interaction medium for couples: inviting players of all genders to enter bang spaces with winnable plush toys as advertisement both inside and outside the machine. The naivety, nostalgia, and the traditional aesthetic of this machine-toy coheres well with the soft representations of the Korean Wave – the growing international popularity of Korean TV dramas and music – that is yet to break through within mainstream gaming cultures, hence possibly foreseeing one future in the erratically shifting worldwide ludic trends.A strike bang in Korea.