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Piracy in Korea: R4 Triumphant

Game piracy may be somewhat stymied in the West, but not so worldwide - in this case study, Seoul-based Rumas examines the cultural and practical issues behind Nintendo DS piracy in Korea.

June 19, 2008

9 Min Read

Author: by Nick Rumas

[Game piracy may be somewhat stymied in the West, but in this case study, Seoul-based writer Rumas looks at the Nintendo DS piracy problem in Korea, discussing the cultural and practical problems of game copying.]

Korea has long had the reputation of being an epicenter of piracy in the games industry, but the greater-than-expected domestic success of Nintendo's DS has thrust things further out into the open than ever before. While no reliable figures exist at this point in time, all it takes is a pair of eyes to see just how widespread the practice is.

The recent report claiming ninety-percent R4 (or other DS storage device) ownership among DS users in North America was proven to be a misattribution, of course, but the statement would be more applicable - if still not completely true - in Korea. Over here, piracy is nothing if not absolutely and completely normal.

Not Limited to the Hardcore

To get an idea of what things are like, consider some random personal experiences I've had in the last few weeks. Anecdotal, to be sure, but very much representative of the situation that exists throughout the country at present.

I recently met up with a friend. His son came along, a game-obsessed third-grader who, unlike any other Korean kid I've ever known, insists on speaking only English with me, despite the fact that he knows very little of the language.

Aware that I'm a gamer, he proudly proclaimed to me that he was the owner of a brand new R4 card for his DS. Just to mess with him, I faked a scold and told him that the R4 was bad. He emphatically replied to me the following, complete with gestures to try and pull the words out of his mouth:

"I... R4... bad think is NO!"

The 'NO' was accompanied by an X-shaped cross of the hands. Laughing, I asked him how he got a hold of it. His uncle bought it for him, he said.

A week before that, my wife and I were at the local Lotte Mart one night doing some shopping. A middle-aged woman was there with her twenty-something daughter, and they were examining the DS section, debating what games to buy for a younger sibling along with a new DS Lite.

Price was obviously an issue, and though it was clear that they both possessed an extremely minimal knowledge of the subject at hand, the decision they came to in the end was very revealing: just buy the DS, and then get one of those special cards that have all the games on them already. Money saved, problem solved.

There are countless similar stories I could share, but these two illustrate the situation well enough. In Korea, piracy of video games isn't limited to the hardcore crowd; it's everywhere, prevalent in every age group and economic class that exists.

And beyond being a matter of money - of not wanting to spend money, that is - piracy for Koreans is, perhaps even foremost, a matter of convenience.

As illustrated above, R4 owners aren't necessarily tech-savvy. In fact, a decent number of those who venture to Seoul's Yongsan Electronics Market seeking to buy one aren't even aware that they can pick and choose the games that they want to download from the comfort of their own computer at home.

Rather, the vendor shows them a list of games, transferring the titles they select to the flash card.

The going rate at present is around 90,000 Korean Won, or about $87 USD, for the whole shebang. It should also be noted that the vast majority of those you see consulting Yongsan vendors about the R4 with hushed voices are parents and young women.

On any given day, I see countless DS Lites on the Seoul subway - most carried by women, significantly - and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that at least three out of every five units flaunt the R4 with its not-so-inconspicuous Micro SD card slot.

Nowadays, in fact, I sometimes find myself surprised to discover someone playing a real game.

Just the other day, I was sitting next to a young, impeccably dressed twenty-something office worker on the morning commute. She was immersed in a session of Animal Crossing, giving her fruit trees the old shakedown to try and earn some extra bells.

I looked at her and thought to myself, "Okay, here's a girl who buys real games." From a Western point of view, she didn't look like the type with either the personality or the know-how to pirate.

I kept watch on her until she got ready to get off the train, and as she put her DS away, I saw that I'd been fooled. She was playing from an R4. Oh shucks.

It's not all piracy, though. I can tell you that in many similar cases I would have been right. There are a sizeable number of DS-loving women (along with a few men) in Korea who prefer the real thing to piracy.

For some it's because of affinity for the product, while for others it's an issue of ethics. For the majority of gamers over here, however, neither seems to be much of an issue.

A Matter of Money and Convenience

The role of economics in all of this cannot be overstated. While minimum wage in Korea is still far less than it is in North America or Japan, cost of living is extremely high and fast on the rise.

As a result, people look to save while still having as much fun as they can, and in the world of games, this means piracy. It's a means to an end.

Another vital thing that must be understood is the general Korean attitude toward the downloading of copyrighted materials from the internet.

When I first arrived here nearly seven years ago, I was astounded not only at the sheer penetration of broadband internet - virtually every home I went into, regardless of economic class, had a lightning fast connection - but at the complete acceptance of file sharing and illegal downloading among everyone I met, from tech-savvy youth to accomplished adults in responsible positions.

Simply put, when it comes to the downloading of music, movies, software, and games, there is no stigma that exists here whereby those who participate are made to feel as if they're doing something wrong.

Rather, ever since the practice first originated, it has very much been considered the normal and reasonable thing to do - the next logical step, so to speak, or an inevitable progression in a connected world.

The government is officially against it, but regardless of what measures are undertaken, no real dent ever seems to be made.

All Platforms Affected

DS may be the current hotspot for piracy in the world of games in Korea, but that certainly doesn't mean the practice is limited to Nintendo's handheld. As is true around the globe, all platforms that can be exploited are.

In line with this, PSP has its fair share of action, as does the Wii. Getting the little white box chipped in Yongsan generally runs the owner about 50,000 Won (just under $50 USD), and the going price for pirated games is 10,000 Won per disc.

It should be noted that the majority of those who pay for these copied discs are a very inexperienced and casual crowd of foreigners from the West - English teachers, soldiers, and students, mostly - who are unaware of the fact that they can download them from the net and burn them at home (or don't want to bother with doing so), which is exactly what the vendors are doing. For obvious reasons, said vendors don't share this information with customers.

Beyond this small group of foreigners, however, piracy on platforms other than DS is rather limited to the hardcore. This is likely a result of the fact that DS is the first platform in Korea, either home console or handheld, that has attracted a diverse audience made up largely of individuals who were never interested in games before.

PSP succeeded in breaking a bit of the ice, but DS really blew things wide open, and piracy quickly followed, spreading to all areas of the user base.

Nintendo Fights Back

Nintendo, however, has shown itself determined to fight piracy the whole world over, and perhaps nowhere more fervently than in Korea. As widely publicized, NOK teamed up with the Korean government some time back to combat the R4 onslaught, and though a measure of success has reportedly been seen, the view from the street tells a different story.

Yongsan has been the company's main target in the real world, and as a result, shopkeepers are constantly on the lookout for undercover reps posing as customers.

Many shops have been busted in this way, but retailers have quickly banded together and adapted their tactics so as to avoid getting caught. A little caution evidently goes a long way, because the R4 is still available from virtually any game retailer in the entire district.

On the internet, popular Korean sites for DS downloading are constantly in the crosshairs, and a number have been successfully shut down. As is the way of things in this day and age, though, they tend to pop up again elsewhere in no time flat, resulting in a situation where little real progress, if any, is ever made.

In Korea and all over the world, the real results of Nintendo's efforts remain to be seen. However, in light of the company's efforts to halt piracy here, and with the aforementioned attitude of the Korean public in mind, an interesting question presents itself:

If Nintendo somehow succeeds in stamping out piracy on its platforms to any meaningful extent, will Korean gamers simply flock to other systems on which the practice is more feasible, or will they fork over the cash to stick with the Big N?

With the current situation in mind, it seems unlikely that such a day will ever come. If and when it does, however, we may be able to see just how much Nintendo's products actually mean to gamers in Korea.

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