In September 2009, a Seoul man called the police to tell them that his three-month-old baby, a girl named Sarang ("love," in Korean), had died. When a team arrived at his house, the scene was "terrible," as one detective later recalled. The baby lay straight on her back, extremely underweight, covered by a heavy blanket. A bottle of spoiled milk stood nearby. Her parents, it later emerged, were spending 12-hour stretches playing an online video game at a nearby Internet cafe, and Sarang slowly starved to death. The case shook South Korea, though the parents only spent a combined total of one year in jail as a result—their lawyer successfully argued, for the first time ever, that Internet gaming addiction constituted a valid excuse for involuntary manslaughter.
Sarang's case is the subject of Love Child, a new documentary by director Valerie Veatch that debuts on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. ET. Rather than a straightforward investigation of a crime and its aftermath, the impressionistic documentary forms a meditation on what it means that the virtual realities we have created, like video games and the Internet, can be more compelling than actual reality, to the extent that a mother abandons her child. Love Child presents a question: If Internet addiction is as much of a disease as alcoholism or mental illness, then who is responsible for its consequences?
Veatch, who previously directed a film on viral YouTube star Chris Crocker, first came across the case in 2010 while watching the BBC, where journalist Andrew Salmon, who features heavily in Love Child, was reporting passionately on the trial. "When the ruling came out it seemed like this moment where what happens in the virtual world affects the real world," Veatch says. "It's an extension of habeus corpus into virtual space."
Hi. My name is Kyle Chayka, and I was once an Internet gaming addict. I've been clean for over a decade.
The director later traveled to Korea and interviewed the cast of characters surrounding the trial: South Korean policemen, psychologists, game designers, young gamers, and the manager of the Internet cafe (or "PC bang," in Korean slang) where the couple played Prius Online, the fantastical online role-playing game that they became addicted to. What emerges through the interviews and Veatch's searching shots of Seoul is a portrait of an entire culture that exists somewhere between real and virtual.
Love Child's central couple, the 41-year-old father Kim Jae-beom and 25-year-old mother Kim Yun-jeong, actually met in Prius Online. There, they found an instant community that may have been lacking in their real lives—they were separated from their respective families, who disapproved of their relationship. At the PC bang, "they're not just sitting there," Veatch says. "In this virtual space everyone can be together." The game also provided the couple's only source of income. They snuck away from their apartment while the baby was sleeping, playing Prius Online to earn in-game currency then selling that digital income for real money, a small-scale version of gold farming.
When police confirmed through an autopsy that the child died from malnutrition, the couple fled before they could be arrested. Authorities later found them in the hills outside of Seoul, far from any Internet connection. During the trial, they confessed to involuntary manslaughter, but their lawyer argued that they were "incapable of distinguishing virtual and real," as he argues in the film. The plea of Internet addiction as mental illness resulted in the couple receiving two-year sentences for negligent homicide. The mother's sentence was suspended, and Kim Jae-beom went on to serve a single year, largely, the film suggests, out of personal guilt rather than legal obligation.
Veatch's major theme is not parental negligence. Rather, Love Child investigates how virtual worlds encourage their participants to erase this boundary between digital and real no matter the consequences, particularly in the case of video games. "Everyone is half aware about how technology is using us—it feels like my phone is using me," Veatch says. "That's where this whole project came from."
Like cigarette manufacturers fine-tuning tobacco products, game developers have a motivation to make players spend as much time (and money) in their games as possible. The job of a game designer is to "make users happy by reflecting their desires in games," as one Korean designer argues in the film.
This attitude may have played a cruelly ironic part in spurring the death of the Kims' daughter. A central part of playing Prius Online was raising a virtual child called an "Anima," a process depicted in the film by vibrant, surreal sequences taken from inside the game. Perhaps the Kims eventually mistook their digital daughter for their real one or conflated the two, at least until they were forced to reckon with the fact that caring for pixels on a screen doesn't replace nurturing an actual human being.
SOUTH KOREA ISN'T ALONE in playing host to a tragicomedy of this sort. In 2013, an American couple obsessed with their careers as DJs in the online video game Second Life were arrested for neglecting their two-year-old, nearly starving her to death. The girl was unable to walk and had little vocal ability, according to a detective. Perhaps video games shouldn't give us quite as much of what we want?
I have to admit that I have sympathy for the Kims and that pathetic American couple, though I'm slightly ashamed to admit it. It would be fair to say that I'm intimately familiar with the manipulations that online games have in store for people who feel isolated or alone as well as the kind of comfort they can offer. Here's my admission, like an Alcoholics Anonymous introduction: Hi. My name is Kyle Chayka, and I was once an Internet gaming addict. I've been clean for over a decade.
Prius Online. (Photo: Wasabii)
The drug came in the form, fittingly enough, of a South Korean game called Ragnarok Online. I grew up playing video games and exploring the Internet for as much screen-time as my parents would allow, and when I was a teenager those interests converged in the form of massive, multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs.
Like Prius Online or World of Warcraft, Ragnarok Online had players create characters for themselves that would act as avatars in an infinite-seeming virtual universe. Ragnarok Online, as its name suggests, took inspiration from Viking mythology: Its world was filled with priests, wizards, warriors, thieves, and merchants; monsters like dragons, zombies, demons, and animate mushrooms; and landscapes ranging from castles in the sky to fiery deserts and tree-dotted plains.
The game's graphics were nothing special, and the gameplay mostly consisted of clicking on monsters and attacking them using no more strategy than a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. But the social community was far more compelling. I didn't participate in sports; I wasn't in any after-school programs until later in my scholastic career. What I did do when my homework was finished was chat in online forums, discussing Ragnarok Online characters and tactics and planning guild (the social unit within the game) outings. I learned economics by playing as a merchant who could discount products to other players; I gained problem-solving skills by sketching out how my characters would grow and which abilities they would acquire. Interacting with people in the real world was easier after understanding how various personalities collided online.
In an effort to regulate game developers and prevent Internet gaming addiction, South Korea recently added online gaming to its official list of vices that merit state control.
Ragnarok Online's hold on my life lasted around two years, at which point the obsession tapered off in favor of other activities. If you had asked me at the time if I, like the Kims, was addicted to online gaming, I wouldn't have even understood the question. Addiction was a word I associated solely with cigarettes, narcotics, D.A.R.E. programs. Ragnarok Online was integrated into my life at a more fundamental level—I was obsessed with it, obsessed with gaining the incremental rewards the game held and communing with other players in our shared imaginaries. But looking back at the hundreds of hours I spent trying to obtain a particular kind of armor or learn a new spell—the years I could have had some more normal, or at least sociable, hobby (the specific memories I retain from the period, which I recall as a blank expanse of undifferentiated time, mostly occur within the game itself, combined with that peculiar non-corporeal sensation of sitting in a desk chair but existing mentally in a digital space)—I understand that I was certainly addicted.
Do I regret this addiction? In many ways, it made me who I am today—someone who is entirely comfortable online, writing stories like this, communicating with friends, and making new ones. The game was a creative outlet when I had few others, and it put me in touch with people I would never have had access to otherwise in my suburban hometown. So I don't regret the choice to play, but I can't help but feel slightly manipulated, pulled along by the game's engineers, sucked into a world that for whatever reason I was unable to resist. I didn't depend on Ragnarok Online for money, but I did depend on it far too much for a sense of feeling alive. That someone would ignore their own child or their own health—more than a handful of players, many Korean, have died while playing games for days straight—is not entirely surprising to me.
IN AN EFFORT TO regulate game developers and prevent Internet gaming addiction, South Korea recently added online gaming to its official list of vices that merit state control. Veatch shows doctors administering aversion therapy to one gaming addict, which consists of watching a video that alternates between trees waving in a breeze set to soothing music and a video-game-like virtual hallway full of creepy portraits with a soundtrack of loud screams and breaking glass. It certainly made me re-think booting up a PlayStation.
Yet just as my memories of Ragnarok Online aren't necessarily negative, Love Child is not a pejorative film. It doesn't castigate the parents, though viewers at its debut screening in New York City seemed to expect it to in the questions that followed. Nor does it make excuses for their actions. In the end, it's a portrait of how we as humans interact with technology and how the technology we create sometimes turns to ensnare us to a degree we never expected, a phenomenon I also discovered as a child.
We don't need a documentary to tell us that parents should take care of their children instead of playing video games, or that it's unhealthy for kids to spend days at a time online. The film's value is in forcing us to contemplate the role that online technology plays in our lives every time we open our laptops or unlock our smartphones. Love Child is about how we can "change technology to create an in-road to our humanity," Veatch says.
The Kims have sworn to never play video games again. The father now drives a taxi while the mother stays at home with Autumn, their second child. As a fellow former addict I congratulate the small family on their recovery and wish them all the best.