For weeks, I negotiate through trusted emissaries to meet with the shadowy leader of the Han Empire Blood Clan. When he finally appears at our rendezvous point in a seamy red-light district of Seoul, I'm caught off guard. Wearing droopy trousers and a gray sweatshirt emblazoned with the words phat farm, a pudgy young man with a hesitant smile and a sniffle approaches me and bows. Surrounding him are his "fighters," a crew of shy and gangly youths, all with pale skin, unfashionable haircuts and rumpled clothing. In the real world, these guys don't get much respect. "When people meet me online they think I'm sharp, but when they meet me off-line, they advise me to lose weight," says guild master and leader Choi Jae Sum. "Online, I feel handsome and brave, with a sense of justice."
At 27, Choi doesn't exactly fit the mold of the South Korean salaryman; he walks with a shuffle instead of toeing the line, and he failed the university entrance exams seen as key to a professional career. Then there's his offbeat hobby: building ant farms. But he's definitely got his own way of getting things done. Choi has managed to parlay a knack for computers honed by a stint in a technical school into a job as a systems administrator at Unitel Ltd. And he has become his family's main breadwinner since his father's restaurant shut down.
Choi is renowned in the Lineage world for his gaming style. A hack-n-slash game, Lineage isn't for the faint of heart. But Choi is that rare bird who promotes a "mannered" style of online fighting. Only one clan member, a rogue with a taste for blood, is allowed to engage in the "player killings" that are routine in the game. And then only when it's necessary to avenge the clan's honor, explains a member as the gang munches on greasy sausage pizza at the fast food joint below their favorite PC café.
But it's not until the ragtag group ambles upstairs and Choi sits down at the computer that I come to see him as a leader. His high-pitched voice deepens and his shoulders square as he enters the Lineage game and becomes Soldier Ant Prince, a name that draws upon his other hobby. "Since I am a prince and a guild master, many people believe in me and trust me, so I don't want to let them down," Choi says, as his virtual alter ego strides across a heath and comes to a stop outside an enemy castle. Soldiers patrol the ramparts, bristling with weapons. The steel doors are firmly bolted against outsiders. In a nearby village, knights are slaughtering monsters while a wizard battles an elf; each death is accompanied by a gooey splat. Choi's fingers dance on the keyboard as he sends an instant message to the guild master of the fortified castle explaining that he is with a journalist. The news prompts a brief moment of détente between these adversaries. First an enemy elf emerges. Then the guild master, a princess played by a 28-year-old man, ushers the Soldier Ant Prince inside. The two shake hands. For the blood-stained rivals, it's a dignified moment, filled with portent. "I was here once before," Choi whispers. "I was killed right there." His clan gathers round the computer, mouths agape in astonishment at their leader's bravery. "His life could be at stake," mutters one. Reveling in the brief truce, the Soldier Ant Prince poses online with the princess and her guards in an interior chamber of the castle for a historic screen save. It will go in the clan's online photo album along with other celebrated events in its family history. "If you are a man, you want to lead people," says Choi, as he preserves another image to embellish his reputation as the gamer's gamer.