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How a South Korean video game developer is pushing Korean culture in its games

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Many of us have danced along to K-pop...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTER")

BTS: (Singing) Smooth like butter, like criminal undercover...

CHANG: ...Or been glued to Korean dramas, which are streaming now more than ever...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SQUID GAME")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing in Korean).

CHANG: ...All while Korean filmmakers are bringing home Academy Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANE FONDA: And the Oscar goes to "Parasite."

(CHEERING)

CHANG: But South Korea is also a global force in esports and home to an ever-growing video game industry, bringing new, imaginary worlds to consoles and computers all around the world. We wanted to take a moment now to mark the end of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with Jeonghee JJ Jin, CEO of Pearl Abyss America, which is a subsidiary of the South Korean video game developer Pearl Abyss. Welcome.

JEONGHEE JJ JIN: Hi.

CHANG: Hi.

JIN: Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you all.

CHANG: Nice to meet you. So I understand that you used to go to arcades every day after school growing up in Korea, is that right?

JIN: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

JIN: It was a long time ago. But when I was in a college from mid-to-late '90s - and back then, not everyone actually had a good computer at home. Even when they had one, it was more popular just to go to PC cafes, where, you know, 30 or 40 or even, like, hundreds of computers were there. And kids are, you know, playing games there. But sometimes they just want to chat online with their friends or even write a report. So there were just, you know, a bunch of, you know, stuff actually you did there.

CHANG: Well, one of your company's best-known games is called Black Desert Online.

JIN: Yes.

CHANG: First, can you just describe what sort of world you were creating in that game and what sort of things players are seeing on-screen just so people can visualize?

JIN: Yeah, so Black Desert is our flagship MMORPG, meaning massively multiplayer online role-playing game. So you are somebody in this medieval European fantasy world, so fighting with monsters, also collaborating with other players to do something.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "BLACK DESERT ONLINE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Giath, king of the goblins, grows craftier by the day. Take a look beneath the bridge if you want to see what I mean.

JIN: You also do a lot of different things like, you know, breeding horses. You even have pets. You can also, you know, build houses. You can go fishing.

CHANG: Wow.

JIN: So there's a bunch of things you can do.

CHANG: That's cool.

JIN: So this is - yeah, this is literally - it is very similar to other Western titles...

CHANG: Yeah.

JIN: ...Because most games are set in, like - in a very European fantasy world.

CHANG: Right. I mean, you were talking about how Black Desert Online, it's like a typical medieval fantasy world. And I understand that you're going to be bringing in elements of Korean folk tales and Korean culture to the game, is that right?

JIN: Yes. Yes. Black Desert is a fantasy MMORPG setting. The medieval European fantasy world, if you go into the game, it doesn't resemble Korea at all. And that's how, you know, Korean companies previously created a content that can go global, creating something that's not like Korea - just resembles the Western more. But now we believe actually our audience is also ready to embrace more cultural, you know, diversity. So we are now trying to create this new region in Black Desert that's all from Korea. So Korean landscape, Korean culture, Korean housing and all dresses and everything...

CHANG: Awesome.

JIN: ...Is from Joseon Dynasty - very famous, you know, kingdom in old Korea - and also a lot of Korean folk tales.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, let me ask you because, as you were saying, traditionally, even video games developed in Korea would adhere to more, like, Eurocentric medieval world. So do you think bringing in some of this Korean culture - does it make you at all concerned that it might hurt the popularity of the video game over time? Or do you think it would only enhance the popularity?

JIN: Oh, definitely only enhance. I think it's really similar to other content business - so, like, you know, K-pop, K-drama, K-movies. I think not only K-dramas. I think there are probably more, you know, nationalities in content business. I really love, you know, seeing that trend. And nowadays, I think actually young generation is really interested in experience something unique and little different from what they already know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: JJ Jin, CEO of Pearl Abyss America, thank you so much.

JIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.