For Westerners under the age of 20, the idea of a PC room is somewhat alien. After all, most people buy their own devices and set up in their own homes, or pile into a friend’s house who has the latest console and games. But those slightly older may remember a time when Internet Café’s or LAN Gaming Centres were (relatively) commonplace, and they may even have memories of playing some cutting-edge games in such places.
Those with an interest in Asian culture are likely aware that such places are still commonplace. Be it in the metropolises of South Korea, China or Taiwan public venues where individuals can pay by the hour to get their hands on powerful gaming devices are still commonplace.
The real question is: why? Why do gaming spaces continue to thrive in Asia while they have fallen into obscurity in the West? There are a few key reasons:
Space and Venues
It’s no secret that many Asian cities are incredibly densely populated due to their efficient use of tower blocks, apartments and town planning. While this is great for connectivity, it often means that large families quickly outgrow their cramped urban residences. This leaves the youth (in particular) searching for personal and social spaces where they can be themselves.
While there are plenty of venues for adults to blow off steam—bars, clubs, cafes, libraries, parks and more—for young people many of these activities become contrived by age restrictions and their place in public. As such, PC rooms offer a way for the young to hang out and relax, either alone or with friends, while engaging in something.
In contrast, many Westerners often find themselves growing up amid sprawling suburbs in comparatively larger homes (due to city construction preferences). This sees both a greater amount of personal space, a larger preference for at-home entertainment and wider dispersion of the population.
Gaming spaces require a large, local population to really thrive—benefitting heavily from regulars. Thus, in many locations where the population is more dispersed, it is simply unfeasible to turn a profit from such a space.
Cost: Internet and Labour
While Internet Cafes and LAN gaming centres were once a norm in many parts of the US and Europe, as more and more individuals got their hands on their own machines—be it consoles, PCs or even gaming laptops—they slowly became less and less attractive to gamers. And as customers dwindle, costs begin to rack up.
Compared to many East Asian countries, labour and internet costs are generally higher in Western countries. This leads to a problem where gaming centres are forced to push prices up. However, as prices go up so too does the realisation that you could instead save the money to purchase a machine for yourself.
Take for example Wanyoo Esports which operates in the UK. Gaming there in the cheapest spaces will set you back £5 ($7) an hour (for members) and £6 ($8) for walk-ins. Compare this to South Korean PC Bangs which often weigh in at 1000 Korean Won ($0.88) per hour, and you can easily see why you might opt out of going to a gaming centre in the west.
Pair this with the game spaces in the west often being located in areas with fewer local residents, and it becomes clear why the business model simply may not be applicable in the west.
Different countries prefer different games and different ways of playing games. Western countries, with their large home spaces is a country which loves console gaming. While South Korea, with limited apartment space, is geared more towards PC gaming.
This leads to a few key factors. More Americans are likely to own their own console or have a close friend with one than Koreans are to own a high-end gaming PC. This is both down to home space and the fact that gaming PCs usually outprice consoles dollar for dollar.
It’s also no secret that gaming spaces are usually best geared towards competitive online play—a style of play, which is incredibly popular worldwide, but perhaps even more popular in Asia due to gaming spaces thriving off social interaction.
Thus, the question for many Westerners becomes “why bother?” If they already have a console and game at their disposal, why not just use that instead of searching out an overpriced social space elsewhere?
Will They Return?
With the rise of VR, many urbanites will notice VR gaming spaces cropping up all over the world (there may even be one near you) however as VR becomes more and more affordable and accessible to users, chances are it will head down the same avenue as gaming centres.
While this can leave many westerners pining after the joys of playing games in a public space where it’s easy to meet others, play with friends and feel totally immersed, it’s fair to say that due to a wealth of cultural and institutional differences this is going to remain a pipe dream.
But, as we have discussed, the existence or disappearance of gaming spaces shines a light on much larger, and more fundamental, cultural differences.
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