Victory, Even in Defeat

1 03 2010

Something started last week that I am sure went unnoticed by a vast majority of the U.S. population, but in some circles was an event long-awaited.

A lucky few thousand received in their e-mails code keys allowing them to participate in the closed beta for what one could arguably call the most anticipated video game of all time, Starcraft 2.

Now, for those who have no interest in this form of electronic entertainment, bear with me for a few paragraphs and I promise to reach a more accessible topic.

“Starcraft 2” is a sequel to a game released 10 years ago, which in the video game industry is an eternity between titles. More so because “Starcraft” belongs to the real-time strategy genre and is widely considered the best such game ever made, often compared to chess due to the intricate balance between the game’s units.

As popular as it is here, in South Korea its popularity transcends into mass appeal with pro leagues whose stars are held up as heroes and land major endorsements. In fact, there is an entire channel (No. 74 as I recall) devoted to broadcasting replays of matches 24-7. Literally, you are watching a close-up of a computer monitor on a television screen along with excitable Korean announcers narrating the action.

The skill of Koreans at this particular game is legend among gamers here stateside. So, when I arrived for my year tenure as an English teacher in Busan, South Korea, I began looking for opportunities to see this vaunted talent first-hand.

I was not disappointed. Almost every single one of my male students, no matter the age, not only played the game but could tell you which of the game’s three different armies he preferred to field.

A few months in, I brought up “Starcraft” with a trio of young students, maybe 10 or 11 years old, who all promised to rain down terrible destruction on me in the field of battle. Lured by the promise of me paying the couple of bucks for the use of a few computers at a nearby Internet gaming cafe, date was set for that Saturday.

Briefly, a word on such cafes, called “PC rooms,” in Korea. These businesses are basically Internet cafes with high-speed connections and computers loaded with games. While nearly all Koreans have computers at their homes, they also have their parents, who expect them to be doing something productive, such asstudying English, if they are using a PC.

Harsh lighting overhead, ash trays on every desk and an ad for "Lineage II" as the monitor background, welcome to a Korean PC Room.

So, to avoid the watchful gaze of authority and influenced by the general doing-everything-together vibe of Asian cultures, students of all ages flock to these establishments for their gaming fix. In turn, the Korean resedential landscape is replete with such operations.

I always found Korean children hard to gauge (that whole language barrier thing), so I went out for the usual weekend evening’s carousing only half-expecting to see them the next day.

We had arranged to meet at the PC room in my apartment’s building after establishing its location through a discussion of local landmarks. However, my resourceful students actually went one step further and two of the three knocked on my door early that Saturday morning.

A bit groggy and very surprised at their discovery of my specific residence, I nonetheless roused myself and promised to meet them at the PC room in half an hour.

My students were seasoned foes, and they dispatched me with a quickness in the first round. I’ve been playing video games with friends for years and learned to gracefully accept defeat, but it’s slightly tougher when an 11-year-old kid not capable of speaking much English obliterates you with little-to-no effort.

The second match they allowed to mercifully let me last a little longer, instead beating up on each other until just two of us remained. I took up defensive positions, dug my forces in and managed to last for a further five minutes before being steamrolled by the second-grader’s large, organized and well-led army.

Demoralized and demolished though I was, I still view the experience as one of the highlights of my teaching career.

For the first six months I taught in Korea, I struggled to adapt to the rigors of ESL instruction without any formal training. It was often a disheartening battle and there were many days when I arrived back to my tiny apartment feeling like I had done a pretty lousy job.

Apart from the actual instruction, it just seemed so difficult to get any reaction other than sullen indifference from the middle school students and boisterous defiance from the elementary kids.

So, even though my forces in the field suffered a defeat, I still felt a little thrill of victory as I purchased toast-and-egg sandwiches for my pint-sized conquerors. We had crossed barriers of language, culture and age to form a common connection around a computer game 10 years old.

Up until that point, it had been hard for me to understand the draw of being an educator. Yet, as the three of us stood on a busy Busan street corner eating our toast and discussing the finer points of my tactical mistakes, I realized I knew exactly the kind of moments that make teaching worth its occasional frustrations.

For the record people, the plan is to post my weekly newspaper column here Monday, which the above is (it ran in the Feb. 24 edition of The Kentucky Standard), and then write something original Wednesday. Hope that’s cool with all you dudes.

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