In 2010, three-month-old Sa-rang Kim starved to death while her parents raised a virtual child in the computer game “Prius.” It was the first ever case of Internet addiction as a psychological defense. Ironically, Sa-rang means love in Korean—hence the title of Love Child, the documentary about the case that premiered Monday night on HBO.
Originally released in Korea and featured at Sundance, Love Child is far from the paragon of documentary filmmaking and succeeds mostly on the fascination factor of the story it tells. With little visual material to go on besides interviews, filmmaker Valerie Veatch backed up long stretches of commentary with shots of Seoul architecture that linger too long, or with cheap psychedelic color gradients over moving silhouettes, which look like amateur music videos from 1993. But the story it tells shed light on tech addiction at its darkest.
Arcades are the New Bars
The Kims met inside the world of “Prius Online,” which they played at the gaming center PC Bang. Since it’s too expensive to have high speed Internet in every household there, gamers who rely on a fast connection flock to gaming centers for hours at a time. The Kims came to PC Bang every evening after putting their baby to bed and stayed there all night, taking advantage of discount blocks of time like 10 hours for the price of 7. The manager didn’t even know Kim Yun-jeong was pregnant. “They were so happy, lost in this game together,” he said, as if he were talking about a drug.
Anyone who doubts that gaming can be a real addiction should try swapping the word “Prius” with “heroin” while watching the film. The Trainspotting parallels are obvious. Role-playing games (or RPGs for the non-nerds) can be particularly addictive because players get invested in their elaborate fantasy and sci-fi storylines—in this case, more invested in a digital child than the one they had created in the real world. Ironically, a central quest of “Prius” involves raising a fairy-like “anima,” whose personality and growth are shaped by the player’s choices. In one heavy-handed sequence, the film shows an anima sacrificing her own life to save the player’s. But the child returns in the form of a butterfly to announce that she can be revived when the player accumulates enough experience points. If only the same could have been done for Sa-rang.
Going Off the Physical Grid
Unlike most Koreans, the Kims lived disconnected from their families. Yun-jeong’s parents didn’t approve of her husband Jae-beom because he didn’t have a real job (perhaps due to his um, other priorities). Their only income came from currency they had racked up in the game universe and traded for legal tender. Just like a couple of junkie drifters, the film emphasizes, the Kims “had clearly fallen through the cracks of society.”
Every facet of their physical lives was secondary to their online lives. When cops accessed Yun-jeong’s medical records they discovered she’d never once set foot in a hospital for shots or scans until it was time to give birth. Neglected even before she was born, Sa-rang entered the world underweight at 2.9 kilos. Yet when she died three months later she weighed just 2.5. The Kims had no idea how to care for a child and had never consulted anyone about the pregnancy.
Gaming Addicts, Sociopaths or Both?
The funeral director noted that the couple showed no emotion over the loss of their baby, which indicated some psychological factors were in play. Their court-appointed lawyer felt sympathy for them and urged them to undergo psych testing to see if they qualified as addicted (shocker—they did). In Korea, crimes committed under the psychological duress of drug addiction earn more lenient punishments, and he hoped that as addicts the Kims could lighten their sentences.
Gaming is serious business in South Korea, where it’s treated like a “real sport” and professional players sign billion-dollar contracts. Virtual money earned in gameplay can be exchanged legally for regular currency. One in three Koreans are gamers and approximately 2 million suffer from addiction. The film all-too briefly touches on some of these other cases. At another PC Bang, a woman gave birth in the toilet stall. A teenage boy died after playing Starcraft for 50 straight hours. “It’s worse than drinking,” one gamer said, “because with drinking you can go to sleep afterwards.”
The New 12-Step Group: Gamers Anonymous
The filmmakers visited an Internet addiction treatment center, where clinicians use aversion therapy juxtaposing unpleasant videos with game footage. One clinician confessed that she’d once tried to get addicted on purpose to better understand what her patients’ experience.
But is gaming addiction really on par with drugs or alcohol? The judge ruled that in this case it was. Despite charges of involuntary manslaughter, Jae-beom spent a year in jail and Yun-jeong didn’t serve any time at all. Not everyone was satisfied with the outcome. The detective who had interviewed them was angry that the couple’s crime would be “treated” like a medical issue instead of—as he saw it—a clear breach of parental duty and human decency. His outrage echoes past attitudes that saw drug addiction as a moral failing.
Efforts to Unplug
Game makers fear the hype around the addictive power of online gaming will tarnish their industry. Korea has tried to impose safety regulations like banning children under 16 from gaming centers between the hours of midnight and 6 am (which seems almost laughably lenient). Love Child doesn’t point fingers, choosing only to spark a discussion around the ethics of designing addictive games rather than choosing sides. Kim Yun-jeong was pregnant once again at the time the documentary was filmed, and their child is still alive. She and Jae-beom vowed to never play games again.
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