Dongwon Jo

Dongwon Jo is a researcher (Ph.D. in cultural studies) at the Cheonggyecheon Technological Culture Lab in Seoul, and is a research professor at the Center for Science, Policy and Society at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.

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"Bursting Circuit Boards": Infrastructures and Technical Practices of Copying in Early Korean Video Game Industry

by Dongwon Jo


This article investigates a foundational element of the early video game industry, focusing on technical practices of arcade video game machine-copying and its history in late-1970s Korea. I examine the Cheonggyecheon electronics market in Seoul as a pirate infrastructure undergirding the early video game industry and analyze the market technicians’ copying practices. First, I examine the construction of the pirate infrastructure by tracing how the electronics market formed and developed: how the integrated circuits (ICs) as an essential component first became available there, and where the technicians who worked with them came from. Second, I explore the emergence of arcade video game manufacturing focusing on the technicians’ improvisational practices of copying, which involved informal standardizations of customized ICs and modifications to hardware and software. Lastly, I examine how the copied video game machines were distributed, maintained, repaired, and exported overseas. This study puts forward a history where the reproduction and distribution of video game machines at the Cheonggyecheon market significantly contributed to building the foundations of Korea’s early game industry.

Keywords: Korean video game industry; electronics market; pirate infrastructure; technical practice; copying; improvisation; modification



Gaming culture in South Korea (hereafter Korea) boomed in tandem with the global emergence of the video game industry and culture spearheaded by the United States and Japan. Early video games such as Pong (Atari, 1972), Breakout (Atari, 1976) and Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) were simultaneously played by Koreans, and were commonly referred to as Jeonja Orak. Yet, these were not the same video games as in the United States and Japan, but cloned and modified versions by small companies located around the Cheonggyecheon electronics market in Seoul. Bootlegging made cutting-edge Japanese video games far cheaper and almost immediately available in dedicated installation facilities called Jeonja Orak Sil (electronic entertainment rooms) -- an equivalent to the United States’ video arcades and Japan’s game centers. These rooms became key spaces for the early formation of gaming culture in Korea in the late 1970’s.


Figure 1. A Jeonja Orak Sil (electronic entertainment room) in 1983 (source: The Kyunghyang Shinmun, October 20, 1983 from Naver Newslibrary)


However, most scholars of Korean game history only mention this early foundational development as a prehistory -- or “the dawn” -- of the Korean game industry, mostly because the market at the time centered game copying rather than game development. Instead, the online game industry is usually the focus of Korea’s local game history because of its success (for example, Chung, 2015; Jin, 2010; Yun et al. 2012). These widely accepted narratives that underpin a local historiography lead me to ask: before game development, in Korea was there truly no game industry? Does the material history of game copying not warrant exploration in its own right?

A growing number of scholars criticize the centrality of the United States and Japan in historical narratives and explore local video game histories and industries (see for example Hjorth and Chan, 2009; Liao 2016; Švelch 2018; Swalwell 2012; Wai-Ming Ng 2009; Wasiak 2014). Yet dedicated research on the hardware manufacturing of arcade video games is still minimal (Nolan, 2019; Swalwell and Davidson, 2015). While scholars like Consalvo (2016, p.2-4) remind us that the plural historical studies of game industries need to consider their diverse strands -- developers, platforms, players, and markets (to which I also suggest adding bootleggers, distributors, and repairers) -- the main approach of focusing on developers, programmers, and major firms still prevails.

To extend the historical conception of the video game industry and its actors, this study explores the technical practices of game copying in late 1970s Korea. I argue that the infrastructural center of copying game machines, the Cheonggyecheon electronics market, laid the material foundations of the Korean game industry. At the market, the main copiers were formally uneducated and institutionally unaffiliated, but they were proficient vocational technicians that served as functional intermediaries between game developers and many players. Outside (and even within) the West and Japan, copying was the primary means through which video games were introduced to the public. This was not simply accomplished by ingenious tinkerers or tech-savvy “pirates” in a black market but required an industrial organization. For this, it is useful to borrow Larkin’s (2008, p.78) conception of pirate infrastructures: “piracy is […] the default infrastructure through which nearly all foreign media flow [in many non-Western cities where] the array of global media is only available through the mechanism of piracy.” Investigating the activities of unauthorized copying in Nigeria as a technical infrastructure, Larkin (2008, p.77) coins this notion of a pirate infrastructure that focuses on a “technical mode rather than a legal one,” or “the form of piracy rather than its content.”

In this sense, I frame the Cheonggyecheon electronics market as a pirate infrastructure that supported and realized the initial development of the Korean game industry. This approach benefits research not only on technical cultures of vernacular actors such as amateur programmers and bootleggers, but also on their larger industrial and cultural connections that led to extensive influence on gaming’s global history. For instance, Nicoll (2019) analyzes the Zemmix, a Korean home video game console released by Daewoo in 1985, as a pirate platform, which he argues “rearticulate[s] the dialogue between formality and informality in videogame history,” and “the connections between copying, creative programming, and Korea’s postcolonial consciousness in the 1980s” (p.69-70). If the concrete contexts of Korea at the time should be further considered to verify his critical arguments, this study may offer historical context; namely how a particular pirate infrastructure was established, upon which a pirate platform or “decolonial platform” (Nicoll, 2019, p.86) was later built.

I begin by examining the pirate infrastructure found at the urban market and manufacturing site around Cheonggyecheon where integrated circuits (ICs) were first circulated and handled by TV repairers. Next, I investigate the process and practices that were used to manufacture video game machines in this context. Lastly, I explore the distribution, maintenance, repair, and overseas export of the copied machines.

The above analysis is primarily based on the ethnographic method of field research. I have visited the market, on average, once a week for over three years since December 2016, and have met more than forty insiders -- including a few bootleggers from that era. I met some somewhat spontaneously by asking around the Cheonggyecheon market, and others through predetermined calls to key bootleggers’ offices based on recommendations from acquaintances. I have also referred to journalistic reports and other historical documents to verify their first-hand experiences and involvement with copying game machines [1].

Electronics Market as a Pirate Infrastructure

In the late 1970s, the Korean game industry was neither supported by the government nor driven by conglomerates. Unlike the other sectors of the contemporary electronics industry, the manufacturing and distribution of game machines in Korea was initiated by small companies in urban manufacturing and distribution that were mostly housed in the Cheonggyecheon electronics market. As an insider acknowledges, by the late 1970s an infrastructure was established that made the reproduction of game machines feasible:

We had a kind of infrastructure set up for making game machines independently. It’s like, now I deal with IC supply only, while you focus on printed circuit boards production. I mean each manufacturing process was linked up. That made game-copying prevalent. (Lee, personal communication, January 11, 2017)

The cited technician uses the term “infrastructure” in a similar way to how some scholars use it to describe human organization beyond the common conception of fixed artifacts and installations (roads, transport, electricity, communication networks, etc.) (Star, 1999, p.380). In this sense, the flow of copied media through the Cheonggyecheon electronics market functioned as a pirate infrastructure that set the stage for the initial development of the Korean game industry.


Figure 2. The 3rd floor of Sewoon Sangga in 1983 (source: The Dong-A Ilbo, November 29, 1983 from Naver Newslibrary)


The Cheonggyecheon electronics market spontaneously formed and organized an urban market-manufacturing complex, serving as a center for manufacturers, distributors, retailers, repairers, and hobbyists for over seventy years (Jo, 2017).

With the market’s emergence in the 1940s, the Cheonggyecheon neighborhood of Seoul quickly became a center that proliferated second-hand or smuggled devices; such as wireless sets and radio receivers from abandoned Japanese factories and United States army camps (Jo, 2017, p.45-7; Song, 2009, p.88). By the late 1950s, shops arose dedicated to repairing, assembling, or trading various video-audio technologies -- radios, phonographs, black-and-white television monitors, etc. -- establishing the Cheonggyecheon as the primary market for electric and electronic components and machines (50-year Electronics Industrial History Editing Committee, 2009, p.48). The residential-commercial complex called Sewoon Sangga was built in 1967 at the center of this area, where modern electronics shops began to open (Seo, 1997, p.211). Nevertheless, the overall neighborhood of the Cheonggyecheon was densely populated with a diverse range of small-scale companies that distributed electronic parts and products, offered repair services, and developed prototypes as ordered. They cooperated with nearby businesses, such as the surrounding ironworks trade and manufacturing companies, local molding and plating workshops, and several street shops that sold components, materials, and accompanying tools.

By the late 1970s the Cheonggyecheon market developed into an organized infrastructure for producing electronics-related products (Jo, 2017, p.49-50; Dong-A Ilbo, November 29, 1983). Not only did the market accelerate the exchange of required materials between manufacturers, but it also socially fostered the exchange of information and relationships. As one of my personal communications with a market technician demonstrated, it was crucial to build up personal connections and gather information through them to obtain needed materials and copying techniques:

If you want to do business like television repair at the market, the most important thing is to know which shops sell what parts. For that, you need to get around all over Cheonggyecheon. In doing so, I got to acquaint myself thoroughly with as many people at the market as I could, which ended up helping a lot. When first meeting the shop owners I greet them and tell them about myself. Once I knew the market, things went much easier, since I became well informed of where the parts I need were. (Lee, personal communication, January 11, 2017)

These face-to-face interactions and connections among traders and technicians at the market gave life to the material and physical aspects of the infrastructure. These connections were crucial when technicians needed to know where to find integrated circuits that had yet to disseminate throughout the market -- a necessary component for game manufacturing.

By the late 1970s, most game machines manufactured in the United States and Japan adopted the use of integrated circuits (ICs) and large-scale integration (LSI) (Bogost and Montfort, 2009, p.10-1, 22; Kent, 2001, p.64). However, ICs were not yet circulated and publicly used in Korea. Thus, the enterprise of manufacturing video game machines critically depended on whether the local small companies could obtain these cutting-edge components. The bootleggers managed to procure them in two ways: leaking from subcontracted semiconductor factories, and informally trading with Japan.

Semiconductor manufacturing factories were built in Korea as a joint company or subcontract with United States’ corporations like Komy (1965), Sygnetics (1966), Motorola, Fairchild (1967), and Japan’s Toshiba and Sanyo (1969). All the necessary materials and production equipment needed to manufacture semiconductors were imported from the United States and Japan, while a source of low-wage labor was provided domestically (Electronic Times Editorial Bureau [ETEB], 1995, p.112; Seo, 1997, p.39). While choice items were shipped, faulty items (whether scratched, unsized, or un-numbered) should have been locally disposed of. However, some defected semiconductors happened to leak into the Cheonggyecheon market; marking one of the first times that ICs were introduced into the Korean public market. An older technician at the Cheonggyecheon tells an anecdote of his first encounter with ICs in the mid-1970s:

When I managed an electric shop, I knew a technician who had worked for IC-assembling at the subcontracted workshop that exported processed ICs to Motorola in the United States. He sneaked some semiconductors with him and showed me, so I got to know what’s out there, even before the electronic games boomed here. But what could I do when nobody sold them here in this market? We only could buy transistors, not ICs yet. (Kim, personal communication, January 24, 2017)

Faulty products, or what they called B-jja, informally leaked to the Cheonggyecheon market and began to be reused for the purpose of copying video game machines. At first, B-jja literally referred to defective products due to poor manufacturing systems. However, as the demand for ICs at the Cheonggyecheon gradually increased along with the popularity of arcade video games, the meaning of B-jja was extended to include materials deliberately picked-out at the last stage of the IC-manufacturing process that were otherwise fully functional. These functional ICs went unnumbered, grouping them in with faulty components that made their way into the Cheonggyecheon supply; thereby granting the market easier access to functional ICs.

Another way of obtaining ICs was through informal import from Japan. The practices of contraband trade for a variety of goods had long existed since Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonization in 1945 (Cha, 2010). It was crucial for small manufacturers at the market to import Japanese electronic parts and products. For example, when the portable transistor radio was popular as part of the rise of leisure culture in the late-1960s Korea, there was a huge demand for p-type carbon film resistors as well as transistors. The resistors were particularly hard to procure -- only one trade shop at the Cheonggyecheon market was able to import defective and discarded resistors from Japan. The shop checked the value of the components and repaired them to supply most small manufacturers of trendy radio receivers at a lower price (ETEB, 1995, p.452-3).

As for electric and electronic parts and devices, we heavily depended on Japan. Radio, record players, television and all that stuff came mainly from Japan. Among those who often flew back and forth to Japan were many who had an electronics career and imported electronic parts. So it’s in a flash that the news was spread about the electronic game boom out there. (Joo, personal communication, February 21, 2017)

A technician who had already become accustomed to ICs through B-jja remembers how he began in the bootleg business.

Running an electric shop in 1975, I often biked to visit here [the market] to buy parts. Some years later, Space Invaders was released, and someone asked me to make it. The trader had already brought in game circuit boards and all those ICs. So I started to make it. (Kim, personal communication, January 24, 2017)

As ICs were first supplied in ways by leaking or importing faulty products, technicians at the market reused those B-jja ICs to start a business of bootlegging game machines.

By the early 1980s arcade video games became widely popular, sharply increasing demand for ICs. The mass-distribution of semiconductors to Korea first grew in a way that established formal import routes from the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Space Invaders was one of the first games that used microprocessors such as the Intel 8080 central processing unit (CPU) (Kent, 2001, p.64); accordingly, cloning Space Invaders in Korea was critical for building commercial market demand for CPUs, read only memory (ROM), and random access memory (RAM). Many have noted that the business of game machine-copying at the market greatly contributed to the early development of the semiconductor industry in Korea (Seo, 1997, p.209-15; T. Park, 2012, p.24-5; Oh, 2017, p.229). One of the interviewees points out:

Korea’s electronic components industry evolved much in line with the boom of electronic games, since manufacturing games triggered a high demand of new components that were not traded before. It fed lots of mouths. But most eyes from society only looked at the copying and its legal question. (Shin, personal communication, January 4, 2017)

How did the first bootleggers of video games acquire the technical skills to do so? Prior to moving to the game business, most market technicians had the necessary experience and skills to repair radios, audio systems, and televisions. When the repairers who had already gathered at the market began carving out a new career in game manufacturing in the late 1970s, they took technical and industrial advantages that made their shift relatively easy.

First, the early arcade video games were developed based on television technology. As Lowood (2009) observes, Atari’s Computer Space (1971) and Pong (1972) were the first commercialized arcade video games made with television technology. Game machines were manufactured with hard-wired circuitries used for television monitors rather than programmed codes to satisfy the necessity for efficient and cost-effective design (before microchips became sophisticated and low-priced). In Japan, several major video game firms came from electronics giants manufacturing television and other consumer electronics such as Toshiba, Sharp, and Matsushita/Panasonic (Picard, 2013). This technological continuity between television and early video game machines persisted in the process of bootlegging in Korea. The market technicians who had repaired radios and televisions for years were familiar with the inner parts of arcade video games from the United States and Japan. As such, these experts were suitably prepared to step in and tinker with these new artifacts.

Second, in its infancy, the barrier of entry to the video game industry was quite low and smaller companies could start up business relatively easily. Unlike most other Korean industries, the government had not planned to promote this emerging industry because it was deemed unlikely to produce exportable goods. As such, larger corporations were slower to develop in this area without the government’s support. The below commentary suggests how even small-scale businessmen and technicians were able to enter the game industry with ease during this initial phase of its growth:

There came a chance for me thanks to the electronic game. With electronic entertainment machines burgeoning, technicians were badly needed. If I had continued to work in the field of radio and television, I might have ended up a salaryman because their system had been already set. But the manufacturing of electronic games was a newly emerging industry, so it’s like a free-for-all. It was possible to launch my own business. […] I started assembling and repairing game machines. (Lee, personal communication, January 24, 2017)

Figure 3. Repairing an arcade video game machine in 1983 (source: The Maeil Gyeongjae, November 29, 1983 from Naver Newslibrary)


An additional noteworthy factor that encouraged the repairmen at the market to join the industry is that the Cheonggyecheon electronics market performed on-the-job training as an infrastructure to raise specialized technicians who could meet the technical demands of the time.

I have learned by myself. At first, there was no one teaching me. But books did, and the market was so helpful. In practically doing things at the market, I built up my own know-how and techniques. Lots of answers came from experiences and experienced colleagues at the market. (Lee, personal communication, January 24, 2017)

The nature of the technicians’ career development suggests that the early formation of the local game industry had a close relationship with preexisting electronics industries like those of semiconductors, radios and televisions as a historical foundation.

Assembling, Copying, and Modifying

Copying arcade video game machines required more than technical tinkering, but also entailed a variety of infrastructural factors: the existence of a parts market, urban manufacturing sites, affordable access to ICs and other components, as well as connection to traders, technicians, and their networks. These factors combined to operate as a pirate infrastructure that facilitated the copying of circuit boards, assembling of game machines, and modifying of arcade hardware and software.

When the radio and television repairers at the market assembled the machines, they cobbled together their own variant designs out of preexisting audio and television parts and products. For instance,

It was a time that electronic games like Table tennis and Block games suddenly became popular. There was a car racing game, too. In those days, manufacturers assembled the car racing game by modifying the audio system’s volume-adjusting board that was connected with a used car’s wheels, and inserting a simple sound IC. (T. Park, 2012, p.23)

They also reused broken black-and-white television monitors in place of screens and arcade game cabinets, assembled in a similar way how the first prototypical Pong machine was made (Lowood, 2009, p.9).

The market technicians’ improvisational ways included the repurposing of electronic components dismantled from Japanese home consoles.

It was all done at Sewoon Sangga to open the machines from Japan. […] Inside, there were many parts we hadn’t imagined. We reutilized home game consoles for the business at the electronic entertainment rooms. (Shim, personal communication, December 23, 2016)

Some market technicians even placed a whole console inside the arcade video game cabinet to run the game at entertainment rooms. While arcade video games were widely popular throughout the 1980s, the market for home game consoles in Korea had still not matured by the mid-80s. Given that the home console circuit boards were much cheaper, some manufacturers pursued cost reductions by modifying home console boards to work on much more demanding arcade machines.

As the number of video arcades increased, so did the copying of game circuit boards. The process of the market technicians’ reproducing circuit boards was set. It began by playing the game that trade agents had acquired and evaluating its popular marketability. The next step was to disassemble the circuit boards to analyze how it was made. This was followed by asking the artwork shop of printed circuit boards (PCB) to film the circuit diagram depicting the layout of wiring traces and the components they were connected to. The film was then sent to the PCB factory where a duplicate PCB using the original layout was fabricated. After technicians tested procured ICs and other components to see if they were usable -- and checked if it was possible to use the same or similar components in the same slots as the original -- they finally tested the bootlegged circuit boards to see if all of these cobbled components worked together.

As such, the process of copying can be understood not so much as an attempt to precisely imitate an original design, but instead as a set of improvisational practices that included the creation of alternate artifacts composed of materials available at hand. This was well-exemplified by reverse engineering customized ICs: a difficult step in the copying process. As the representations and compositions of game content became more complex, the number of necessary ICs increased -- along with the cost. Game development firms were inclined to customize ICs and enhance the efficiency of circuit boards to make more cost-effective use of materials. Namco often used a few custom chips for video and sound; for example, Galaga (Namco, 1981) used two sound-dedicated custom chips in addition to three Zilog Z80 CPUs, which created “such smooth graphical effects, amazing sound, and precise gameplay when compared to its predecessor, Galaxian (which only had discrete sound generation and one Zilog Z80 to control everything)” (Lee, personal communication, July 13, 2018; Eckert, personal communication, August 7, 2018; Eckert, n.d.).

Hence, copying custom IC-inserted circuit boards involved an additional step of reverse engineering. Since bootleggers were not usually able to procure the same custom chips as the original, they instead attempted to replace customized components with standard ones available at the market, such as transistor-transistor logic (TTL) ICs [2]. Even when there were certain custom chips that could not be easily duplicated using standard components, some bootleggers looked into ROMs to modify game programs in order to let the main boards perform the same operation without custom ICs. The resulting extra code was executed with extra standard ICs (Eckert, personal communication, August 9, 2018).

Thus, copying can be understood as a process of informal standardization of customized parts, products, and manufacturing processes. This technical practice may have implications for collective and anonymous forms of creation and collaborative making at the market. Despite its unsanctioned status and possible poorer quality workmanship, such practice would potentially enable anyone to make a working machine with affordable and available components such as standard ICs that were now imported and circulated at the market. While it was not their direct intention, most bootleggers had to do so within the historical and technical limitation of resources available to them. Their practices eventually took significant effects to open the black-box by standardizing circuit boards customized by specific corporations. This also contributed to the robust composition of their pirate infrastructure. Furthermore, once informally standardized and massively reproduced, video game machines could become distributed at a much lower price, resulting in quicker availability. Partly thanks to this, the bootlegged circuit boards of Japanese games were copied and cheaply distributed in Korea and even exported overseas, as discussed in the next section.

With the use of custom ICs, and the gradual change of copying methods, the market technicians continually developed knowledge. Procuring and testing the ICs for soldering into bootlegged circuit boards was an essential step in the process of copying that required skillful technicians. Once they were supplied with B-jja -- such as those components that did not have a label or number indicating their individual characteristics -- the “main” technicians undertook the task of testing to identify each IC’s primary function. When Lee (personal communication, July 13, 2018) developed his craft by copying Gallag, a clone of Galaga (Namco, 1981), his work included memorizing all the TTL ICs’ signal patterns:

The IC characteristics manufactured by different firms turned out different. We needed to adjust those subtle distinctions and make the most of a specific IC’s characteristics. That’s a responsibility the “main” technician had to take. […] I had to see whether specific waveforms were operative or not, using the oscilloscope. So I tried to memorize the whole manual book about IC data and all the signal waveforms generated from Gallag to tell which is which very quickly. I was young then, and it worked.

The last -- though not the least -- task they undertook was to verify the finished bootleg circuit boards. They called this operation test “bursting [circuit boards]” as slang.

If the image [on the screen] was broken [distorted], what they had to do was to find out which part of circuitry was broken. Either some TTL ICs were reversely inserted, or some other legs of components were bent. We called it bursting circuit boards. […] Competent technicians whose job was to do this bursting made sure the circuit boards were operative by using an oscilloscope. Back then, oscilloscopes were not available like today, so it’s handled only by senior technicians (Yoo, personal communication, December 15, 2016)

“Bursting circuit boards” then signified that both the bootlegged circuit boards and the over-arching pirate infrastructure were practically working. Given the historical context of poor quality of components and several flaws in manual assembling, this final step was critically important at the time. It was only when a variety of ICs, PCBs, and other components were available at the market -- in addition to technicians who could read oscilloscopes and had a good working knowledge of ICs -- that it was possible for vernacular technicians and small companies to succeed in manufacturing game machines. In other words, “bursting circuit boards” meant that the necessary materials, knowledge, and facilities were established as an infrastructure for the game manufacturing industry to take off on its own. If one investigates the individual results from these practices, copying appears to produce a mere imitation or derivative product. What deserves one’s attention, however, is that doing so takes an infrastructure.

Copying was often accompanied by modifications in accordance to local situations. At the market, there were game modifications (mod or modding) of hardware and software alike. The hardware modifications were already illustrated in the diverse practices of copying that this article has explored thus far: repurposing preexisting devices, recycling home consoles for arcade machines, and reverse-engineering and replacing the custom ICs.

Software modifications also emerged. Many game content modifications were motivated by increased profit, but also by recreational hacking. Several textual and verbal testimonies of modified versions of Gallag were found and heard from interviewees thanks to its huge popularity -- though who initially developed these mods, and where in the world they originated is unclear in some cases. Gallag mods were mainly created to replace characters and modify power-ups to the starfighter spaceship. For example, so-called E.T. Gallag (1982) replaced the chief of an enemy squadron with E.T., a Hollywood movie alien character popular at the time, and was modified by a late technician at the market (Lee, personal communication, August 9, 2018). Also, there was Son Goku Gallag (1983) in which the Son Goku character -- best known as the Monkey King, one of the main characters in the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West -- appeared in-game, and Victor (1984) which spurred several adaptions. In what was known as Elizar (1985), the player was able to control the starfighter, not just horizontally, but also vertically up to a third, lower part of the screen (“Galaga”, 2018). Although he is not sure if it was called Elizar, Lee (personal communication, August 9, 2018) insists that he created vertical movement and changed the gun barrel just for fun.

Suchman (2002, p.139) emphasizes that local improvisational activities are “not just a matter of receiving something already made and incorporating it into a new site of use,” but are also “the generative practices out of which new technologies are made.” In this context, such generative practices may be fully discussed after considering that more than a few “main” technicians began developing their own games in the years that followed -- though these years in the history of the Cheonggyecheon market are beyond the scope of this article. During this time of copying hard-wired circuitries, generative practices began emerging with such modifications of hardware and software.

Distribution, Maintenance and Repair

The Cheonggyecheon electronics market was publicly acknowledged as the central hub of the Korean ‘electronic entertainment industry’ by the early 1980s. At the Sewoon Sangga buildings, the development offices, reproduction workshops, selling floors and repair shops were all in close proximity. This site of convergence played a major role in manufacturing and distributing the latest United States’ and Japanese video games to the electronic entertainment rooms all around the country. In 1983, approximately 100 small companies grew, including about 10 dedicated workshops, which produced up to over one million game machines with around 120 copied game programs that were distributed to about 30,000 nationwide rooms (Kim, 1983, p.405; Maeil Gyeongjae, May 7, 1983, August 26, 1983; Seo, 1997, p.185). In that booming period, the manufacturers experienced exceedingly high order volumes:

Only two or four hours could I sleep, back then, due to too many orders and even being afflicted with so much prodding from customers. If we got an order of 500 boards of Gallag, it would take 10 days at the highest estimate in the case of making 50 per day. But even before finishing that, there was another order of 1,000 more. So a number of quarrels occurred. To make sure that their order must be done first, they stood guard at the gates of our workshop and exercised censorship on what we brought out with us. (Kim, personal communication, January 24, 2017)

In this manner, the electronics market came to be an infrastructure in both the distribution and the manufacturing of video games. It also worked as a center for maintenance and repair; offering services to fix circuit boards on older machines that failed from use while continuing to build new games (as the latest games would grow outdated sometimes within six months). There is, for example, a technician who has mainly repaired game machines for over three decades.

In the heyday, I worked to repair game boards, putting dozens of boxes into a pile that contained broken-down circuit boards that were mailed from all around the country. […] I was so busy so that I hardly had time even to eat. Then, I lost my health. Now, it’s not like that at all. (Son, personal communication, February 21, 2017)

Figure 4. A technician repairing a Super Famicom SF1 monitor on February 21, 2017 (source: author)


The early maintenance and repair of game circuit boards in Korea was not a merely domestic enterprise. Some companies at the market exported copied Japanese arcade video game boards overseas for reuse on out-of-season game machines. Technicians were also sent overseas for on-the-spot game machine maintenance. A daily newspaper reported in 1982 that Korean game exportation was up to 260,000 US dollars, compared to the Japanese annual game exports estimated at 40 billion US dollars (Maeil Gyeongjae, December 24, 1982). The quotation below also suggests that the export was not small scale.

Korea exceedingly exported game machines then. It was said there was an IC shortage crisis at the market. After some time, say, six months later, people got tired of playing one game. Instead of throwing away games of no interest now, we exported them. (Lee, personal communication, January 11, 2017)

I suggest that the Cheonggyecheon workers’ accounts collected in this article attest to how overseas exports of copied Japanese games contributed to globalization. Japanese video game firms mainly focused on the United States and Western European countries as their key markets (Picard, 2013); however, through unauthorized copying, Japanese games flowed out to countries in Southeast Asia and South America as well as North America and Europe at a much lower price, regardless of the intention of Japanese firms.

“Often in the ways media travel in the world,” as Larkin (2008, p.83) states, “pirate and legal media are so thoroughly intertwined that it is hard to separate one from the other.” Also, Sundaram (2001, p.97) suggests that “a number of complex, often unintended factors cohered in making the ‘contemporary’.” Indeed, it would be hard to separate the very early technical cultural practices of bootlegging and its pirate infrastructures from the whole of video game history, industry, and culture. The exporting of bootlegged machines from Korea particularly illustrates the international nature of how Japanese games were globally proliferated; a market history that subsequently requires in-depth, international, collaborative research.

To consider such “unintended travel” (Consalvo, 2013), many scholars focus on early game enthusiast game copying and developing projects, such as in Australia (Swalwell, 2012), China (Liao, 2016), Czechoslovakia (Švelch, 2018), Hong Kong (Wai-Ming Ng, 2009) and Poland (Wasiak, 2014). Yet, this phenomenon cannot be limited to cases of unofficial translations, fan-based game modifications, and amateur programmers’ ROM hacking activities. There were many more unacknowledged trajectories that this essay seeks to bring to light. For instance: informal transnational reproduction; the modification, redistribution, maintenance, and repairs of major games by bootleggers; distributors and repairers serving as infrastructural intermediaries between game developers and players; etc. Hence, this study emphasizes the significance of the specific intermediate venue of the Cheonggyecheon electronics market as an intersectional hub for media travel across various boundaries: global versus local, legal versus pirate, and technological versus cultural. Its significance came from pirate infrastructures and practices that worked as the foundation of the early local game industries, without which even the United States and Japan-centered global game history is incomplete.


Figure 5. A front of Sewoon Sangga on November 24, 2014 (source: author)



Centering on the Cheonggyecheon electronics market infrastructures and focusing on its technicians’ practices of copying in the late 1970s, I have explored an origin and early history of the Korean video game industry. Korea was abreast of the global game industry and culture early on, and it was at the Cheonggyecheon electronics market where the foundation of the Korean game industry was first established.

A variety of copying practices played an essential part in the initial development of the game industry. To launch a business of copying, it required not just an original artifact to be imitated, but also markets, materials, traders, bootleggers, maintainers, and repairers -- all of which comprised the pirate infrastructure. Also, as explored, these practices included redesigning circuitries, rewiring with other (standard) components, and modifying hardware and software, along with maintenance and repairs. Here, copying was a set of improvisational technical practices that involved repairing and reusing preexisting or low-priced resources under specific conditions.

Substantial manufacturing processes became possible only once there emerged a chain of materials, technicians, shops and companies in charge of each specialized task; such as the informal and formal procurement of ICs, power supplies, monitors, controllers, PCB artwork, the insertion of components, their wiring and assembling, their distribution, their maintenance and repair -- that is to say, a pirate infrastructure. The Cheonggyecheon electronics market formed a unique urban site and enabled each step of production to be implemented through formal or mostly improvisational means. Here, the concept of infrastructure refers to complex foundational entities shaped through a variety of exchanges, relations and practices. As the market facilitated not just the actual circulation of parts and products, but also networks of information and relationships about them, it started working as an organically composed infrastructure on its own. From here, the Korean game industry was eventually able to take off.

Such technical practices as copying video games played a critical role in contributions to the various aspects of game industries and cultures. It shaped the earliest Korean video game culture, which had been centered on electronic entertainment rooms since the late 1970s and its features directly succeeded the PC Bang as a base for the online game industry and culture from the 1990s onward [3]. As has been argued, arcade video game manufacturing at the market directly contributed to the development of electronic components, semiconductors, and even personal computers. In the early 1980s, beginning with Apple II clones, personal computers were first distributed at a lower price to the public via the Cheonggyecheon market. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the market served as the manufacturing and distribution center for arcade video game machines, PCs, home game consoles, and copied game software. This site then played a pivotal role in raising enthusiastic early game players, including those who ended up becoming professional PC and online game developers and designers in the following decades (for more in detail, see Jo, 2014; in review; Nicoll, 2019, chap.2).

Ultimately, “bursting circuit boards” represented not only the critical moment where the market, bootlegged components, and specialized technicians successfully combined, but also confirmed that this unique infrastructure for the local video game industry and culture was now built. Furthermore, as bootlegged circuit boards of Japanese games were manufactured, cheaply distributed, and exported overseas, they also contributed to the globalization of the game industry, as well as to the growth of video gaming cultures from the beginning.



[1] The names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their anonymity, and I have translated all quotations into English from the interviews and literature that were originally in Korean.

[2] As noted, the earliest arcade circuit boards were built on discrete logic circuits (“Arcade system board”, 2018) as in television technology. TTL ICs became available at the market, as their demand increased mainly by the manufacturing business of arcade video game machines. The 7400 series by Texas Instruments was one poplar standard IC.

[3] PC Bang, appeared in the mid-1990s as a convenient space providing high-speed Internet connection and became well known as a dedicated place for online gaming that has led to the development of the e-sports industry (Huhh, 2009, p.113).



I am very grateful to the people who were interviewed as part of the research that led to this article. I also thank Jason Eckert, Melanie Swalwell, Helen Stuckey, Veli-Matti Karhulahti, Yoo Sangwoon, Oh Seung Hyun, the Cheonggyecheon Video Game Reading Group, and the two anonymous reviewers and editors for their encouragement, constructive input, critical comments, and intensive edits for revision. This work was supported by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2017S1A5B5A01024901).



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