Drive Deserted Streets in North Korea's Super-Depressing New Video Game

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 20 2012 6:31 PM

Drive Deserted Streets in North Korea's Super-Depressing New Video Game

NK racer image1
One of North Korea's famous traffic ladies make a cameo in Pyongyang Racer.

Still from Pyongyang Racer © Koryo Group.

North Korea has made its first video game! Well, kinda.

The browser-based Pyongyang Racer is too old-school to appeal to gaming aficionados, but it’s not exactly supposed to compete with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Made by a North Korea-based IT company and a British-owned travel agency that arranges tours of the country, the game is a marketing stunt, plain and simple.* It hasn’t made me want to visit North Korea any time soon, but the Internet is going gaga for the virtual racer, perhaps because this is the closest most will get to driving through the nearly empty streets of North Korea.

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Web-based video games as marketing gimmicks are nothing new. Sometimes they work: Old Spice's “Dikembe Mutombo's 4 1/2 Weeks to Save the World,” a browser-based game in which you save the world from the Mayan apocalypse, is actually fun to play.

In contrast, Pyongyang Racer is just depressing. One of the very few objectives is to collect barrels of petrol—so your car can keep running. Given the poverty rate in North Korea and the horrific prison camps in which as many as 200,000 languish, I experienced some Western tourist guilt while cruising for fuel. Moreover, there are absolutely no people to be seen in the game, neither on the street nor in occasional car you have to swerve around. (The cars are stranded in the middle of the road, perhaps because they ran out of petrol.) Combined with the computerized, propaganda-sounding music, the game is at best eerie.  The occasional sighting of a North Korean traffic lady does brighten the mood a bit, though.  

All weirdness aside, Internet denizens—who are obsessed with North Korea because of its isolation and peculiarities— can't seem to get enough of the game. The site has had trouble staying up, even going down in the middle of my gaming. I have yet to complete a full drive through virtual Pyongyang, and somehow, that seems apt. 

*Clarification, Dec. 20, 9 p.m.: This sentence was updated to make it clear who created the game.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Fruzsina Eördögh is a freelance writer covering digital culture and technology. Follow her on Twitter.

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