[Audiobook] Your Mom’s the Better Player
- onMarch 25, 2021
- Vol.51 Spring 2021
- byPark Seolyeon
- Jaeum & Moeum (Autumn, 2020)
Tr. Kari Schenk 2020
“Im not going back to school.”
The child throws his book bag on the sofa the moment he gets in. You went to meet him, surprised, after hearing him stomping outside. Now you pick up his bag and follow him, holding your heart, which is sinking again at this announcement.
“What happened? Tell me what was it this time, hmm?”
“I already told you, you can’t just come into my room whenever you want!”
“Jiseung, I’m not in yet. Look.”
You carefully withdraw your foot from the threshold. The child stands erect again after flopping down on his bed, and he is staring at you, framed by the doorway, breathing hard in uncontrolled rage.
“I don’t need my bag. I’m not going to school anymore.”
“What are you talking about? Everyone has to go to school. What’s the matter with you?”
He’s not yet grown, so his shoulders are narrow, and they go up and down in time with his breathing. With every expansion and contraction of the boy’s chest, you shrink a little. He has the bad habit of screaming he’ll quit whenever things don’t go his way. Come on, he’s only in fifth grade, what could be so hard? No, you’re an understanding mother. You don’t think like this. Whenever you feel yourself starting to resent the child, you turn the blame on yourself for not giving enough. Many of the things in his world didn’t exist when you were eleven, and most of them are more important than the things you knew about. You’re proud of yourself for being a mom who understands this.
“The kids say they’re not going to play with me.”
He already went through this in third grade. It was because he was fat. You were giving him traditional herbal medicine. He had a history of being picky about food, and of course he didn’t like the smelly pellets, but he took them without a word twice daily for a month and a half for a total of ninety-nine pellets, holding his father to his promise to get him a smartwatch in return. Although his appetite gradually increased, and he even came to eat the crab sticks, green onion, broccoli and other things he’d rejected, there was a problem. He grew fatter but not taller. It’s all right. When you’re this little, the weight you put on all goes to make you taller. This was what your in-laws, husband, and friends all said, and you didn’t doubt it. But the boy’s friends had no interest in his future height. They focused on the fact that your child, the child before them, was a pig.
You went to the school and met with the parents of the instigator. You enjoined the teacher to educate the kids on human rights, regardless of their age. You got some medicine to speed the metabolism from the same traditional medicine clinic that prescribed the growth supplements. You used reduced-calorie ingredients for the homemade gluten-free snacks that you fed your child, and you registered him in a kids’ fitness program. Nothing was easy. The bully’s parents resisted admitting their child was at fault even as they noted Jiseung was quite a mound of a boy, wasn’t he? The homeroom teacher didn’t take any measures until you filled a new wallet with department store gift notes and gave it as a present. The child kicked up a fuss screaming and crying, not wanting to go to school or to fitness class.
After all of these efforts, you received an apology from the bully’s parents, and you managed to get the other students to stop making life hell for your child, but you couldn’t make any friends for him. Rather, after the apology, it seemed like he was on to season two: being an outcast. Other children used to talk to him, if only to tease him, but now they pretended not to see him, as if he were invisible. The more you complained to the school, the worse the situation became. The child was unusually depressed for his age, and he so hated going to school. It was a battle for you to get him ready every morning. His appetite was good and it was so nice that he did not balk at certain foods anymore, but at the same time, this aggravated your sense of why others were excluding him.
Friendship is everything at that age, and if he didn’t learn how to get along, then think how hard it will be for him in the future.
You were so upset about this that you considered having a second child—even then it wouldn’t be too late—and spoke earnestly with your husband about it. This went beyond talks to physical attempts, but nothing materialized. It took your child over a year to befriend someone and take him home for a visit. Over this time period, he grew over 20 centimeters and gained only 4 kilograms.
It seemed that his problems were solved by the effects of the medicine finally kicking in, so that he could no longer be teased for being a pig. You always feel contrite, as this did not come about through your own efforts. It was your fault that he was bullied, but he was saved by his own strength. You have to repay him somehow.
“What is it this time? Should I go and have a word with them?”
The boy kicks his heel against the bottom of the bedframe, looking down, tears filling his eyes.
“They say I suck at the game. They won’t play with me.”
You are struck dumb. You should scold him. “You were at the PC bang again?” But somehow the mood is wrong. You should ask him where he picked up a word like “suck,” but that too has to be put off for the time being. The hardest thing to grasp is that he can be excluded, not for being a poor student or a poor athlete, but for being a poor gamer.
“Well, so what if you do? That’s okay. It’s not the only game in the world, right? You can play many games well. Ask them to play something you’re good at. Let’s invite them over and you can all play together in the living room. I’ll serve up something good to eat, too.”
Your husband works at a Korean branch of a Japanese gaming company. The other kids would give their right arms to have the game consoles and software you have in plenty at your house. After surveying these and going home, they’ll resent their parents. And as much as they resent their parents, they’ll envy your child, perhaps even more.
But the boy bursts out crying before you’re even done speaking.
“They played a match, and no one wanted me on the team. Gyeongheon’s good, so they wanted him.”
Uncertain if you understand what he’s saying through his tears, you feel like crying yourself.
“You don’t understand, Mom. You’ll never understand.”
You rush over and take him in your arms.
“I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’ll see what I can do, okay?”
The child has already caught up to you in size. He cries audibly in your embrace, and you are thankful he looks to you even if it is only in times of sadness. You wonder when he will calm down enough to get washed up and sit at his desk for the English tutor who will soon be over. All the while, you murmur, “I know what to do” over and over again.
You did all you could. In the future, also, you will do all you can. If it is worth it, you will even try things that you can’t do. You have this kind of mindset about your child.
Your child is special. This isn’t a joke or an exaggeration. Little by little, he has shown talent in a variety of domains, and he can persevere longer than other kids. Only, his ability to get along with others is
a little weak. In your judgment, however, this isn’t a failing. It’s because he can’t relate to his peers. He’s innocent like a child, but he’s mature for his age in other ways. Should you homeschool him? Should you get his father to apply to a foreign post, or tell him to stay, like a “goose dad” while you take the boy abroad to study? At the height of the bullying last time you had these questions, and you still haven’t made a decision. And after a year of being ostracized, he made friends, and his new friends liked him although they said he was “out there.” That’s it, he has to master the art of making friends. And it’s true, he should make many Korean friends even if we plan to go abroad. Emotional intelligence is intelligence, too. There’s a time for everything. Our child will do well.
The child has everything. You can’t give as much as the so-called “helicopter moms” in Gangnam do, but you do well for your neighborhood. The child learns two instruments and attends classes at an art studio even though you don’t intend for him to major in the arts. And as for his studies, since tutors seem superior to afternoon cram schools, you get him tutors in Math and English. Thanks to this, he is among the top students at his school. He’s no slouch at sports, either. When you granted his wish to attend classes at a K-Pop dance studio for a couple of months, he learned so quickly that they said he could join the teen class. He sings well like his father, and he’s good-looking like his mother. Neither parent is very tall and that used to be cause for concern, but he’s now the second tallest in his class. He grew so fast in two years that you rather thought that might be a problem, but the growth clinic says that it will be okay as long as you look after him.
One afternoon your child announces, “Today in class, one of the kids cried. Someone called their mom a pig.”
The next day you begin attending the skin clinic again. You can’t just do nothing if the kids are evaluating their mothers on appearance. Up till high school, you’d hoped to major in Korean traditional dance, and you still have a straight, upright frame that you’ve managed to keep trim. Your hair, however, is a little on the thin side, and you have visible spots from a flare-up of atopic dermatitis. “I like you because you’re different from the women who get married and then just let themselves go.” Thinking that your husband’s appraisal and your child’s report that day complemented each other perfectly, you order the entire line of organic black bean hair loss prevention products that the salon owner recommended. This isn’t to prevent balding, but to protect your son from being teased about you until he cries.
To be honest, sometimes you’d like to be your child.
No one in his class lives in an apartment finer than his. None of the fathers drives a car as nice. Your mom never stood up for you through all of the things you had to endure. And as for your father, you don’t want to think about him, and you can’t come up with a single memory of him. Therefore, everything you do for your child is at the same time more than that: it’s something you do for yourself. Not for the person you are now, raising an eleven-year-old child, but for your inner child, who cannot receive compensation from anyone. You love your child even as you are fully conscious of this. This is why even as you do everything you can, at the same time, you believe that there’s nothing you can’t do.
But all of the sudden, games? How can I solve this kind of a problem?
Your child has just blurted out a story that confronts you, for almost the first time, with a problem you can’t solve through your own efforts. But you felt the same way when he confessed to being bullied the first time around. You have already faced a challenge like this. Last time, the problem was not solved entirely to your liking, but this time things will be different. Prevention is key. You won’t let him be bullied again.
“Get a tutor.”
You usher the English tutor into the child’s room and find the answer in a chat you are having with a friend on messenger. There it is, right under your nose! And because it hits you as your child is having a lesson, it seems all the more obvious. Why didn’t you think of it? You are living in an era when you can get tutoring in pet grooming, why not gaming too?
“But will he really need tutoring? If these guys say they’re going to shun him for playing badly, then doesn’t it just reflect badly on them? Don’t you think it’ll pass?”
“If you haven’t raised a child, you don’t know. You’d think they’d forget, but children at this age never let things go. Jiseung, too. He’ll remember it if I don’t do something, and he’ll keep bringing it up.”
You think back to something your child said. Wasn’t Gyeongheon supposed to play well? Gyeongheon is in fierce competition with your child in a number of areas. Although his family circumstances are not as good as your son’s, they are good enough, and he’s the tallest in the class. He is the third tallest in the school, and the tallest in fifth grade. He’s a point above or below your son in each individual subject, and he’s so popular that he’s been through three girlfriends so far this year. Your son adores him, but he’s also jealous. He’s often reported on Gyeongheon’s activities, especially going into detail about the new girlfriends. You think this is something very cute about your child. He has no experience of love games and pretends to think it’s silly or repulsive, but at his age he doesn’t yet know how to hide it when he’s drooling over grapes dangling above just out of reach. When he was little, he told you that you were the most beautiful and that he’d marry you, and it would be a lie to say you don’t think back on this, but still, you are more or less happy to confirm his naturally occurring interest in the opposite sex. You’ve always been disgusted by the phenomenon of overprotected city kids becoming abnormally attached to their mothers—relationships like your husband’s with your mother-in-law. It’s too bad. Just as you can’t artificially create a friend for your child, you can’t choose his love interest.
Your first thought after hearing the words “gaming lesson” is to coax Gyeongheon into teaching your son. But with a shake of your head, you dismiss that idea almost as soon as it occurs to you. Your son is already taking middle school second-year English. There’s no reason for him to allot time to learning something from Gyeongheon. They say that if you set out to draw a tiger you will at least draw a cat, but if you try to draw a cat, you might not draw anything at all. You have no idea how well Gyeongheon plays, but it’ll still be better to learn from an expert.
You download the app for locating private tutors that you used a few years ago when you were learning French cross stitching. Under what category will you find teachers for the game your child mentioned? IT, Other, Novelty, Hobbies? In the upper half of the subcategory list under “hobbies,” you find “games.” It’s really here, and I’m not the first person to hire a private tutor in gaming, either. You make a big fuss telling your friend.
“Of course it’s there. Didn’t you know there are even private academies for pro-gamers nowadays?”
“So there are.”
You pride yourself on being part of the younger generation, so you feel awkwardly ashamed for not having regarded this as professional work. You thought jobs in this field only existed in games distribution or game creation, your husband’s line of work. Let’s see. League of Legends, Overwatch, Battleground. The game your son mentioned is listed directly above “Other.” You merely have to enter his age bracket, location, preferred time and day, and press “Register.”
You peel some fruit for a snack and bring it into the boy’s room. You come back and check your phone to find you already have three tutors offering services. Detailed background information is available for each. Oh my. Even students at prestigious S University and K University tutor in gaming. Granted, nowadays a good gamer has to be smart, too. This somewhat allays your worry that the venture will somehow affect your son badly.
A total of seven tutors have made an offer by the time the English lesson has finished. You check over their credentials and look up “Challenge League” on the internet. You find that players are ranked Challenger, Diamond, Platinum, and Gold according to their percentage of wins. You choose a tutor and send a message.
Jiseung, you’re lucky. You have someone like me as a mother.
The boy sits down and turns on the game as soon as the teacher has been sent off. Watching him from behind, you smile in satisfaction. There’s nothing to worry about. I’m your mom, and I’ll see to it that you get good at that game.
“So, does your son want to be a pro-gamer?”
The tutor you chose is a K University student with a Challenge League ID. He also has a winning record in the University League.
Your son won’t be done with class for a while, but you call the tutor in early for an interview and to warn him about some things when dealing with the child. You choose your language carefully, hoping to give an accurate description of the problem without insulting the child’s dignity.
“It’s not that. He’s unpopular at school because of his poor gaming ability, I guess.”
The K University student looks sympathetic.
“These days, boys lose status among their peers if they can’t play games. You know that status is important to boys, right? But now they don’t fight with their fists. Their ranking is decided by their gaming ability. To be honest, the reason Faker’s up there in popularity with elite entertainers is not because he’s good-looking like they are. But, I mean, guys in their teens and twenties worship him. And the reason is simple. It’s because he’s a good gamer. That’s it. He makes money, and girls really like him, too. In the performance itself, there’s a charm that’s kind of hard to explain. He’s like an athlete in that regard. They don’t call it esports for nothing.”
I seem to have chosen well. Proud of yourself, you nod and agree throughout the speech. You don’t know if Faker is the name of a person or what exactly, but if your child follows the lead of this student you feel certain he can develop some charisma. You smile as you glance back and forth between your teacup and the tutor’s K University student ID on the tea table in front of you. Your husband also graduated from K University. The tutor is my husband’s fellow alumnus, and therefore a safe bet. He could also somehow inspire my son to advance to a Korean Ivy League school. Hope springs from this feeble premise. The child will find someone closer to him in age to be more of an inspiration than his father. The fantasy becomes more gratifying as it goes on. Your child, gaming champion, going on to a famous university like his father. Being good at games can mean you’re also good at other things; it can be an asset. But you don’t need to get carried away. Even if getting tutored by a top university student doesn’t mean he will go on to such a university himself, Jiseung could certainly do with learning self-confidence. You believe that self-confidence is the most important thing that money can buy.
“Have you tried it, Ma’am?”
“Me? Why should I?”
You wave your hand to brush him off, and the student looks a little ruffled.
“You shouldn’t be dismissive of something so important to your child. What if your child were to ask you about an English word? Would you say that you don’t know English? It’s the same thing.”
He hits the bull’s eye. You want to be the kind of mother who makes the effort to learn the answers to her child’s questions. You’ve kept pace with your son as he’s studied English, and you’ve also looked down on mothers who dither when their children ask them something. And although your child hasn’t asked you for the answers to any English questions so far, your studies haven’t been in vain. You imagine taking him on a trip to Europe or America around the time he enters high school or university, and this has kept you motivated.
“What good is gaming to an ajumma like myself?”
“Ajumma? What are you talking about? I don’t think there’s much of an age difference between us.”
The K University student exposes all of his teeth in a gaping laugh, as if he hadn’t just now been frowning. Feeling out of your element, you take him into the child’s room and turn on the computer. It’s password protected, but you know the code. The child doesn’t know that you know.
“Let’s start off by creating an account.”
You input your email address and phone number and go through the identity verification process. A message appears. You already have an account. Would you like to make a new one? You are a little taken aback. You realize for the first time that your child has used your personal information to create his account.
“It’s okay. You can make several accounts.”
Your right hand is on the mouse, and the K University student enfolds it in his. He easily finishes up the account registration and leads you on to the tutorial.
“There aren’t many champions you can choose for the tutorial. Try any of them. Just to get the feel of it.”
The K University student sits flush against you for the tutorial, and moves your hand to guide the mouse.
“Move with a right click, right click, right click, yes, you’ve got it.”
You can’t bring yourself to shake his hand off, even though you feel awkward. His left hand stretches around your back onto the keyboard. It’s as if he’s embracing you from behind. While you advance through the tutorial, you wonder, suspiciously, whether you are getting things wrong or if this is just how gaming is taught. Your heads are so close, you worry that the tip of your nose will brush against him if you look at him for some reason.
“You’ll get text neck sitting like that. Draw your stomach in.”
When he bends his left arm in from the keyboard and places it on your stomach, you bolt up from your seat.
“Why did you do that?”
It is he who is asking you this, laughing cunningly. As if you are acting strangely, and not the reverse. You can’t think of the right words to confront him on the spot, so you sit down again.
The K University student stretches out the left arm that had encircled your back and shoulders, and places his hand on the keyboard. Just as the second stage of the tutorial is about to start, he jogs his elbow unnaturally, brushing it against your chest.
“What, what are you, what do you think you’re doing?” you ask, your voice quaking.
The K University student raises his hands and shrugs, smiling. Athletes wear this expression when contesting a foul. His face is hateful. You can read right through him. You think the world will bend to your will. Every time you’ve made that face and claimed to be innocent, people have believed you and deemed the girl in question to be a bad sort. So you thought you could have your way with a housewife who appears to know nothing of the world. But you’re much older than him. You’re too mature to be afraid of him or get caught up in this.
“I need you to leave now.”
“Pardon? But I have so much more to teach you.”
The K University student keeps grinning stupidly, unable to read the mood.
“I have nothing to learn from you. I said, get out.”
Again, he adopts the stance of an athlete claiming no foul, hands held high. But finally, his smile fades and he withdraws.
If you were a teenager getting tutored instead of the mother of a child getting tutoring, you’d have been tricked very badly. You wouldn’t have known what to do or how to react, and you’d have tried to convince yourself nothing more would happen, only to regret it. You have already been through this growing up. You know this isn’t a delusion or misjudgment on your part; this is the other party’s misconduct. You’re able to tell someone to stop. You have proof in that you just did so. Perhaps you were lucky. You are now a married woman with lots of experience, and the offending party is in his early twenties. He’s diminutive in size, and unpopular from the looks of him; an Ivy League student with a lot to lose. This doesn’t change the fact that you succeeded in blocking him, but on the other hand, a single victory doesn’t mean you have come out the winner in everything you’ve experienced in your lifetime.
An hour after the tutor leaves, the child again comes home almost in tears. You’ve been squatting on the floor of his room until then, but you calm and comfort him, even though you lack energy. He asks for a snack, and going out into the living room, you spy the K University student’s ID card still on the tea table. You put it in the trash like you’re throwing down a winning card hand.
This time, I’ll try a female teacher.
Unable to share the day’s events with your husband or your child, you download the app for locating private tutors once more. When you think about what happened, you’d like to abandon the idea of games and tutors altogether, but your child came home crying again and you really can’t bear to see it. And what’s more, you want him to run for school president in the fall election. It doesn’t really matter if an ordinary child lacks friends, but because Jiseung could be president, he should manage his popularity. You are doubly concerned because his secret rival/idol, Gyeongheon, also seems to want to run. If your child intends to win against Gyeongheon, he could really lay the grounds for this by beating him at gaming, a field where he is confident.
A woman will be better, even if she has less ability.
You recall that of the seven tutors who contacted you yesterday, two were women. Even if they did not have the vaunted Challenge League status, they seemed like they had more than enough ability to teach anyone.
You turn on the app and find that continuing on from yesterday, a total of ten tutors have offered their services. You also see the K University student’s post-teaching review, and recoil in fury. It reads, “Don’t teach here; the lady treated me like a sex offender when I accidentally brushed her.” You can barely hold back from cursing as you report this to customer service.
The new female tutor is a Diamond League player enrolled at S University. Her academic standing is better than that of the miscreant who came yesterday, but her gaming ability is slightly lower than his. You meet her at the door at the same time as the last tutor, and grade her on her bowed shoulders, blemished skin, and dark under-eye shadows. You think, “She could never be my child’s first crush,” but rather, this is for the good. What puts you at rest more than anything, of course, is that she doesn’t have a penis. That is what caused problems yesterday.
You quickly explain that your son is being excluded, and you start to tell her about him when she interrupts you.
“Seonsaengnim, I was under the impression I was here to teach you.”
“Teach me? Why would I learn gaming?”
The woman is as uncooperative as she looks. Looking back and forth from the tutor to her student card on the tea table, you still don’t feel inspired to trust her.
“If you think gaming is for kids, then why are you hiring an adult tutor?”
“Well, I don’t need to learn it. My son does,” you say, making an effort to smile, but the tutor will not bend.
“I know full well what you’re saying. But, Seonsaengnim, I also think you’ll have to understand gaming in order for you to understand your son. If you want your son to learn gaming, it would be best for you to learn from me and then teach your son what you know. If a child becomes better at games his parents don’t know, it can lead to them growing apart.”
“I have no talent for games, either,” you say, waving your hand and thinking it odd that the person here to teach you gaming is calling you “Seonsaengnim.” She must have some experience teaching games at her clients’ homes, though, as she’s discussing gaming ability and its effects on parent-child relationships, so you’re inclined to follow her advice.
“First, give it a try. Today is the interview and trial lesson, so I won’t ask to be paid. If you really don’t like it, then I’ll just teach your child from next time.”
Although she isn’t entirely convincing, you can’t refute what she says, either, so you turn on the computer in the child’s room. She locates the designated tutor’s chair in a flash, brings it alongside you and sits down. After finishing the tutorial, you win the first of the regular matches you play. You follow the tutor’s directions as to where to go, whom to attack, and what to buy.
In a daze, you ask, “That’s how you do it?”
“Yes, and to be honest, you’re doing much better than I expected,” she replies, without overtly trying to be flattering.
You feel yourself blush. You haven’t heard words of praise in a long time. “Has your skin always been so nice? The pores are so tight, you really outshine most celebrities.” “You could be a hand model. Your fingers are pretty, and the nails are well-formed.” The difference between this compliment and the things you hear at the skin care clinic or the nail salon is that the tutor isn’t talking about your inert body, but something you’ve managed to do.
“This kind of game is known as a MOBA game. So, like League of Legends or DotA or Heroes.”
“What are those?”
The teacher looked at you as if you were perhaps a North Korean spy with a patchy knowledge of the culture of the South.
“I can understand Heroes and DotA. But you’re telling me you’ve never played LoL? The game has been number one in Korea from the early 2010s until last year.”
“My husband’s probably played.”
“It doesn’t matter if you haven’t tried it. It’s just an example I gave so you could understand more easily. Basically, for these games, you choose a character and join a team. You build experience and collect gold or jewels on a small map, strengthening your character, and then destroy the opposing team’s base in order to win. Now that you’ve played once, you’ve got the idea, right? You have good reflexes and good dynamic visual acuity, so I don’t have much to teach you. If you study the minimaps to learn the flow of the game, and memorize the item tree, then you’ll quickly get the feel for it.”
You heard you had good reflexes and vision when you studied dance, too. So, I’ve still got it. Your heart is pounding, and you’re trying to compose yourself.
“Do you think I can outplay my child at this?” you ask.
“For this kind of game, the amount of time you play isn’t important. It’s the same with studying. Kids who sit at their desks for long periods don’t all go to famous universities. The important thing is how quick you are on the uptake. You’ll be the best in the neighborhood in no time.”
The first day the tutor comes, you order pizza for your child. For a long time, you forbade it because not only was he at the age when he could start getting acne, but the year before last he’d been obese. If he really demanded it, you’d make him some yourself, with gluten-free, whole-grain flour and high-calcium, low-calorie lactose-free cheese. He clears away a regular-sized pan by himself, licking his fingers. Now his face is oily, as if he used the whole surface of it to eat the pizza, and he leaves to go into his room. After you have confirmed that he has polished it off, you get around to your work.
You hear your husband coming in around midnight. You’ve installed the game on the computer in the study and you’ve been playing it until he comes home.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, I have some studying to do.”
You minimize the game screen and look at him, flushed. You aren’t doing anything wrong, yet you feel awkward. Without much more talk, he goes into the bedroom, washes up, and falls sleep. One more game and I’ll go lie down, you promise yourself. I’ll win a match and then go to sleep on a high. This is what you resolve, but you lose the match. Another player kept getting cornered by the opposing team, so it seems to be their fault and not yours, although you can’t be sure. You play two more matches before you win. It’s good that your team is lucky and you win easily, but you’re dissatisfied that the game takes only 15 minutes, short of the average playing time. So you play another match. You win this one too, but now you’re feeling thirsty for more.
Ultimately, the session ends when your eyes are so dry you can neither close them nor open them very well. A faint bluish light is coming in from the veranda. After feeding your husband and child and sending them off, you collapse on the bed and fall asleep.
“You’ve already finished building up your pre-competition experience. How many hours a day have you been playing?”
Back for your second lesson, the tutor is amazed to see your stats. That you’ve worked so hard at a game you originally declined to play is somewhat embarrassing, but you take the tutor’s words as praise and smile a little.
“I played for three to four hours while my son was at school and then for two more hours after he went to bed.”
“To already have this record playing just six hours a day means you must have won a lot. Oh, yes, your wins record is quite good.”
You feel elated, like a child being told she has done her homework well.
“Would you like to try a game with me today?”
“Pardon? How could I take you on?”
“We aren’t at the point where we’d play against each other, but we could form a team together.”
“Okay, then I’ll just go to the study.”
“No, then I won’t be able to give the orders well enough. Do you know where we can find a PC bang around here?”
Even though you’ve lived in this neighborhood since you got married, you don’t know where the PC bang is. The tutor locates the nearest one on an app. You follow her into the room sluggishly, blinking your eyes. The PC bang is in the basement of a private academy. Your senses are assailed by loud sound effects, a neon sign boasting of top-of-the-line equipment, and the smell of food—ramyeon broth, roasted squid, and cheap sausages. The smoking room is some distance from the entrance but still directly visible, and when some stocky men inside seem to be eyeing you, you bow your head and quickly follow the tutor to your seat. She signs into a beginner account created so that she can form a team with you in the lowest league.
The two of you are invincible. The tutor takes on a variety of characters to complement yours, and you play the characters she recommends in search of the one that best fits your playing style. The teacher is true to her role. She doesn’t miss a single prize in her lane, and she even checks the prizes available for you in your lane. Every time you have built up enough prize money to purchase something, she calls out the items that will best suit your champion, Dragon Girl—the one you ultimately go with. Together with the tutor, Dragon Girl wins five matches in succession. When the congratulatory message appears onscreen, the tutor wants a high five.
“Is it really the first time you’ve done this?” she asks, her hand clenched, lingering in mid-air.
You nod, never having felt more euphoric. The teacher looks sexy. While it isn’t something you want to think about, you recall the K University student holding forth ad nauseum on the topic of good gamers being charming. The dark shadows under your teacher’s eyes catch the peculiar light of the room, and the effect is mysterious and beautiful as the color changes from neon blue to neon pink, and from neon pink to neon green, reminding you of Dragon Girl.
“But who’s Hyeji?” you ask of a name that was texted during the game.
The teacher’s face was lit up by a rare smile, but now it stiffens again.
“It’s a bad word.”
“How can someone’s name be a bad word?”
You recall a friend from your middle school class called Lee Hyeji, and also nine-year-old Kim Hyeji, a neighbor’s kid who attended the same fitness class as your child. You’d think there’d be some players with the name, too. Perhaps the other players were just texting the name of someone they knew, but from the tone, it did sound like they were cursing.
“You know, if you drive badly, they call you “Mrs. Kim.” This is the same kind of expression. If you play the game badly, other players call you “Hyeji”, because it’s a common girl’s name. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy. You’re as bad as a girl if you can’t play. It’s kind of a double insult.”
You wonder if girls really play worse than boys. It’s true that your tutor belongs to a lower ranking league than the K University student.
“How much difference is there between the Challenge League and the Diamond League?”
You tread carefully, hoping she doesn’t find out you’re comparing her to someone. She changes the settings in your account to block comments from players you haven’t friended, and answers quite casually.
“There’s no big difference. You’re just lined up according to your wins. The players in the Diamond League are all ranked in the top 0.1 percent, and the top 500 of these are considered Challengers. If your win percentage is in the top .0001 percent, then you go back and forth from Challenge to Diamond. For example, I’m promoted and demoted a few times in a single day when I play solo in a competition.”
She clicks on the button to join the queue for the next match.
“Actually I’ve never met anyone who could outplay me at this game. Of course, if someone texts ‘Hyeji’ when we’re playing, I know the taunt isn’t aimed at me, but I get mad. What if I just randomly chose some guy’s name and taunted my opponent with it if he couldn’t play as well as me? Because I think it’s obvious that men can’t play at my level.”
In the next match, too, the teacher really kills it. And this time, without the name Hyeji or any curse words at all appearing in the chat window, you also engage as best you can.
You become a Gold League player the first time you play at the competition stage, meaning that your wins record is in the top 40 percent. Your score is high for someone who only recently started playing, and you’ve done unexpectedly well in your first placement. This can partly be chalked up to playing with the tutor, but she attributes it to your own talent and skill. You recall that your child is in in the Bronze League, and Gyeongheon, the child he so envies, is in the Gold, the same as you.
“How do you get to be a Diamond player like yourself?”
Your teacher grins. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
The Dragon Girl Item Tree: Novice Spell Book. Rose Flame Seal. Vampire Cloak. High Gnome Shoes. Sell Novice Spell Book, Get Strange Goblet. Chamma Sickle Sword.
Dragon Girl Intensive Attack Item Tree: Novice Spell Book. Cry of the Commander. Pay 200 gold pieces and upgrade to Intermediate Spell Book. Footprints of the Black Wizard. Uriah’s Wrath. Victory Report of Blood.
You memorize the item tree like you would a recipe. You also take preventative measures in case you miss out on your preferred lane, or your main, Dragon Girl, is taken by another player. You memorize alternate strategies to the point where you can wake up the next morning and recite them.
After a month, your skills become such that you can win games on your own strength even if your team is on the weak side. Your tutor says that a player who does this is called a “carry.” You can carry the team, and you want to tell your child. After coming three times a week for a total of ten visits, the tutor no longer accepts money playing games with you, and she appears on your buddy list under her nickname.
“I’m not running in the election.”
The child makes his explosive announcement towards the end of September, during the sign-up period for contenders. And as is his bad habit, he hurls his bag onto the living room floor.
“What is it this time?”
“I’m not going to win, so why would I run?”
“Why don’t you think you’ll win? I’d vote for you. You’re nice and sweet and you study well and dance well.”
“Gyeongheon is running, so why would the kids choose me? Gyeongheon can do everything I can. He can even do things I can’t. I’ve told you this so many times, why can’t you understand?”
“How do you know how it will go when you’ve never even tried? Just running in the election will be a good experience.”
You don’t know how to be a good mother at these times. Should you say, “All right, you don’t have to do it,” or push him not to give up? As far as you know, he has an interest in running. He knows what a big deal it would be for a former outcast to be elected president.
“Gyeongheon said not to run.”
“He did? Do you want me to call his mom?”
The child bursts into tears. “He said . . . let’s make a bet . . . Whoever wins the game will run . . . and I said no thanks.”
You steel yourself to not break out laughing in front of your crying child.
“He’ll win . . . anyway . . . just like he always does . . . It’s just not fair . . . Fuck it.”
You leave him be for a while. You should ask him where he learned his manners, swearing in front of his own mother. You should say, If Gyeongheon has made this bet, then it shows he’s afraid of losing the election to you. The child can’t stop crying for some time.
“Then how about I play the game in your place?”
The child looks at you blankly for a minute and then cries even harder.
“How can you beat him, Mom?”
“I’m good at that game. I’ll do better than him. Make the bet and I’ll win for you.”
You take your child to the PC bang. You’re uncomfortable bringing him here as it seems so decadent with the lighting, and the smoking room on top of that, but you know he comes here often with his friends, so he won’t be shocked.
“First of all, play a match with me.”
You friend your child, and you each pair up with AI players and fight a battle against one other. The boy loses, unable to even coordinate his hand movements. He stares at you for a while in surprise, but he won’t relent.
“Gyeongheon is still better than you.”
You laugh a little at his stubbornness. He adores his friend as much as he hates him, so he cheers for him against his own mother. The child is at an age when he wants to one up his parents and become more deeply connected to his peers, so he’d feel Gyeongheon’s loss as his own. But even if the child can’t bring Gyeongheon down himself, he needs the experience of seeing him brought down. If you beat Gyeongheon, the child will realize that Gyeongheon isn’t on his side, you are.
“Okay. Well, tell him you’ll play a match. I’ll play under your ID. I’m curious, too, to find out who’ll win.”
The child sends Gyeongheon a message as you instructed, agreeing to the bet. The winner of the game will run for president. Soon a blue light appears next to Gyeongheon’s nickname, which is listed as a buddy on your child’s account. This means he’s logged in. You feel a growing sense of anger as you imagine his howls of delight. You don’t want a contest over grades, or a dance battle, but a fight where you have the upper hand. Somehow, you learned to be mean, and I’m going to teach you a lesson. You trade seats with your child.
You obliterate him, as you’d set out to do. In the first match, you use Dragon Girl, your main, and in the second, you use the Inspector from the High North, a character your tutor sometimes tried out. You tail Gyeongheon’s character, blocking him from getting any prizes, and then you destroy him, showing no mercy. You sense that Gyeongheon is not at all good at the game. He isn’t much different from your child, whom you just played. You can’t help but think that either he has been very lucky, or he has had help from someone to earn the points to put him at your level in the Gold League.
You’re happy that Jiseung takes your victory as his own, as you expected he would. When he asks you when you became so good at the game, you pat him on the back and tell him you practiced hard so that you could teach him. He’s so overjoyed that he throws his arms around your neck, as if he can’t wait to learn.
Gyeongheon has maintained a more or less sportsmanlike attitude for two matches, but when you invite him for a third, a message pops up in the chat window.
Hey Piggy-seung, did you get a ringer? LOL WTF
“The kids are still calling you Piggy-seung?” you ask in astonishment, and your child nods.
You think to yourself, This Gyeongheon, I thought he was a good kid, but he is nothing but a spoiled brat.
You type your reply leisurely into the chat window.
Does ringer mean someone that you pay to play your games for you?
I don’t take any money. LOL
Cause I’m Jiseung’s XXX.
What’s happening here? XXX.
You clearly wrote “mom,” but the word keeps getting erased in the onscreen dialog.
“Why is that?”
“Any swearing in the chat window gets X-ed out.” Your son replies, in irritation that you don’t know that, either.
“I know. But is ‘mom’ a swear word?”
“It’s used as a swear word, so it gets erased.”
You strike Gyeongheon’s champion one more time, enraged at finding this out so unexpectedly. You feel a little ashamed, aware that you’re taking out your feelings on a child your son’s age.
The character was only resurrected for a minute before he was killed again. Gyeongheon sends another text.
You are NOTHING but a Hyeji-seung
YerXXX is a bch YerXXX is a bch YerXXX is a bch YerXXX is a bch YerXXX is a bch YerXXX is a bch
You remember the taunts of “Hyeji” from your first day at the PC bang. Gyeongheon combines Jiseung’s name with Hyeji to mean he plays like a girl. Hyeji-seung. Then there is that detestable word, Piggy-seung. And the last item?
“What does this mean? YerXXX is a bch?”
The child hesitates a little and then tells you. “Your mom’s a bitch.” Gyeongheon is copying and pasting it in the chat window on and on ad infinitum.
“Do you guys really use the word ‘mom’ as a swear?”
Because your tutor had the all-chat function turned off, you had no way of knowing that a word bound up with your identity was a swear. “Hyeji” and “Piggy” were one thing, but “Mom,” too? Feeling deflated, you take your character safely to shelter and reopen the chat window.
If you can’t take it anymore, ask your XXX to play.
She can’t play, can she?
Your child gets a call on his phone, perhaps signaling that Gyeongheon has surrendered. He looks back and forth from you to the phone, paralyzed with fear. You keep entering “Mom” into the chat window. XXX, XXX, XXX, XXX. Your son grabs your wrist.
“Mom, stop that. If someone keeps swearing, their ID gets suspended.”
“What makes ‘mom’ a swear? I’m your mom, right?”
Your Dragon Girl goes out on the battlefield and blasts the last guardian stone. The words your child can barely muster are spinning around in your head. XXX, are you crying? XXX, are you okay? Although the victory message appears on the monitor, you don’t feel like the victor anymore.
Park Seolyeon debuted in 2015 in the journal Silcheon Munhak. She received the 2018 Hankyoreh Literary Award for her novel The Girl in the Air. She has authored the novels Martha’s Work, The Shirley Club, and the short-story collection My Hormones Made Me Do It. She runs the literature platform Dungeon (www.d5nz5n.com).