Can a Baby’s Death Tell Us Anything About Video Game Addiction?

Image from Love Child.

Most Americans don’t take video game addiction terribly seriously, but South Korea has been dealing with rising rates of gaming addiction for years now. And the new documentary Love Child, which aired on HBO Monday night, explores the cultural climate that produces the problem.

Love Child investigates the story of a 3-month-old baby, Sarang, who died of malnourishment in 2010 while her parents were out playing video games at a PC bang, or Internet cafe. The couple was poor, and they earned money by playing video games— they would spend time getting desirable objects and weapons and then sell them for real-world cash. Specifically, they were playing a game called Prius Online, in which you raise a virtual sidekick. Essentially they were nurturing a digital child, while their real baby starved at home alone.

They were charged with murder but ended up convicted only of involuntary manslaughter, because a judge ruled that their gaming habit was an addiction that prevented them from understanding the consequences of their actions. The father served one year in jail, while the mother didn’t serve any time. As it concludes, the documentary notes that the couple has now had another child.

The film is about the stunning irony of the baby’s death—though Sarang means “love” in Korean, she experienced none as her parents cared for a digital child instead. But more broadly the film attempts to explain how Korea’s advanced Internet infrastructure, strong video game industry, and cultural desire for communal activities (in real or digital space) have all played a role in the gaming addiction that now plagues the population. According to statistics cited by the film, 2 million South Koreans deal with some type of online addiction (that’s out of a population of about 50 million), and one-third of the country plays video games often enough to be classified as gamers. Video game addiction is such a problem that the Korean government groups it with alcohol, gambling, and drug addictions.

But the video game industry continues to deliver immersive, multiplayer online games, and the people keep consuming them. One video game developer said in the documentary, “Our goal is to make users happy by reflecting their desires in games. If a game developer fails to lead users to be immersed in games, then it’s a neglect of duty.”

Love Child tells the story of the Sarang case well, but it’s hard to know how broadly the larger narrative can be applied. In an interview with Yahoo Tech, director Valerie Veatch even says that she and her crew met with and interviewed the couple, but didn’t include the footage, which seems like it would be kind of important, in the documentary. “It was a real intentional artistic choice on my part,” she said. “My films are spaces for conversation to bounce around in.”

Still, the film raises important questions about how people react when presented with virtually unlimited high-speed Internet and immersive gaming worlds where they feel that they can shed their regular identity and become something else.