One day in March 2010, news began to surface that police in South Korea had arrested a couple for the death of their daughter Sarang, the Korean word for "love." She was only three months old. By the time her parents called local authorities to report her death, she was severely underweight—dropping from her birth weight of 6.4 pounds to 5.5. An autopsy revealed that she died of malnutrition.
Her death attracted international attention once police revealed its cause: Sarang had slowly starved due to negligence. Her parents, both unemployed and living in relative poverty, would leave her alone for six to twelve hours at a time while they visited local PC cafes to play Prius, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing game that was popular in the country at the time.
The tragic irony of Sarang's death is that her parents neglected proper attention and care because they were playing a game that allowed its players to foster virtual children known as "Anima." Massively, an MMO-focused gaming site, described the Anima as "the raison d'etre for Prius" in a 2011 story about a presentation discussing the game at that year's Game Developers Conference.
"A large part of Prius' gameplay revolves around getting to know your Anima's personality as well as gauging her moods and persuading her to help you with your game goals and various quests," Massively wrote. The virtual child was a central feature of many different aspects of the game's combat and leveling system. Getting to know the Anima's particular personality and backstory was considered an integral part of the game's story. gPotato, the company that supported the game's online services, hailed the Anima as "a quantum leap when it comes to MMORPG pet design, as she not only requires character progression of her own apart from your main avatar but also serves as a gateway to the game's crafting implementation."
Sarang's parents weren't able to support their real child. But their devotion to Prius suggested that the concept of genuinely successful parenting wasn't foreign to them, either. So why did the couple fail in their real-world responsibilities when they were enthralled by like-minded virtual ones?
The criminal investigation and ensuing trial ultimately concluded that it was because both of them were suffering from a crippling addiction to the video game. The court judging Sarang's parents ultimately gave them a lenient sentence that involved no prison time. The father, awash with guilt, ended up volunteering himself for incarceration as an act of profound contrition.
The story of Sarang and her parents is at the center of Love Child, a new documentary directed by Valerie Veatch that will first air on HBO tonight at 9pm Eastern. I would recommend the movie for anyone unfamiliar with the story or the many nuances of South Korea's game industry and culture more generally. It's a comprehensive and refreshingly diplomatic approach to an issue that's often so fraught with cultural panic that just trying to talk about it in a reasonable way can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.
Whether or not you think that Sarang's parents deserve any of the sympathy that the authorities showed them, Love Child makes a strong case for the cultural and political significance of their story. The fact that they weren't viewed as criminals through and through has some intriguing implications in particular. Andrew Salmon, one of the first journalists who covered the story for an international audience and a central character in Love Child, explains early on in the film that the criminal sentencing established "a far-reaching legal precedent" to treat video game addiction "as a mitigating factor in crimes" similar to "psychological problems, drug addiction, and drunkenness."
Love Child shows how this "legal precedent" has already started to work its way into many aspects of South Korean gaming culture in the four years since Sarang's tragic story first came to light. Many popular video games now contain time-lock features that block players (particularly young ones) from playing for too long or during certain times of the day. Legislation has been drawn up to address compulsive game-related behavior in similar ways to other kinds of addiction or mental illness. Rehabilitation centers and treatment programs have popped up across the country to help struggling gamers address damaging or compulsive behavior.
One rehab center that is detailed in the movie shows a young man rigged up to an intricate series of screens and monitors and administered a sort of aversion therapy that looked sort of like a less scary, dystopian version of the notorious movie theater scene from Clockwork Orange. The patient is shown a series of nature-themed videos set to soothing music. Afterwards, they're shown footage of a video game while harsh, discordant music is played alongside the video.
Love Child is at its best when it sticks to these specific examples detailing the intricacies of the Korean video game industry and the elements that have sprung up to respond to its excesses. But this is not a perfect movie. Veatch spends remarkably little time with the family at the heart of her documentary, and we never hear from the parents directly. For a story that's moving because of its tragic, human details, the absence of the actual people who were most closely involved is unfortunate.
When I asked Veatch about this, she told me that she didn't include the parents partly out of respect for their privacy. But she also said she just didn't think they were "very good characters."
Why make a movie about them, then? Obviously the drama of Sarang's tragic death is a major pull for an investigation into an overarching issue that affects both gamers and the people close to them. When it came to actually speaking to her parents, however, Veatch said that she ran into hurdles communicating with them effectively. She told me that throughout the 8 weeks she gave to reporting and filming in Korea, she spent one afternoon actually talking to the couple face-to-face. She was more interested in focusing on the broader cultural questions at play in the story, she reasoned.
This is troubling for no other reason than that it seems to blur the line, intentionally or not, between a personal story and a societal one. Veatch consults with experienced lawyers, doctors, and psychologists in her movie. But addiction is something that is only ever truly experienced on a personal level. Understanding it in a way that would allow us to truly empathize with the people who are genuinely suffering would require getting at least some access to their inner life.
Since it doesn't provide much of a window into the lives of Sarang's parents, Love Child carries an unresolved tension throughout its story. The movie presents two different views of video game addiction: a genuine malady, and an unwieldy concept that causes unnecessary controversy and ultimately distracts us from the real issue—whatever that may be. After raising both as compelling possibilities, it never settles on one over the other.
Veatch, meanwhile, makes some disturbing implications in her film. A passage on the economic importance of South Korea's game industry suggests that the country didn't respond to Sarang's death as decisively as it should have for questionable reasons. Throughout the movie, there's a lingering insinuation that game developers feel a financial impetus to keep players hooked into their games despite legitimate concerns about the health and well-being of their audience. Love Child stops short of making any strong statements about any of these intimations, however.
Speaking to Veatch, it sounded like she was more interested in raising big questions than trying to answer all of them. She told me that she's not even sure that "addiction" is the proper term to use when discussing video games, for instance. It's a "flawed paradigm" that invites misinterpretation and unnecessary panic, she argued.
Leaving fruitful questions open for further discussion isn't a bad thing, necessarily. But it's become too easy to leave any inquiry into the addictive power of video games to the "expert" class of lawyers and doctors like the ones Veatch consults in her film. It's time that we start proposing clear answers—artistic and ethical ones. Because if we don't, I'm scared what the future of video games might look like.
As for the story of Sarang's parents? Prius was shut down in 2013 after years of waning popularity. The two of them have another child now. The father has a real job, outside of any MMO, and the mother stays at home tending to her child. A lawyer for the family says that the couple has sworn off video games for good.
Love Child airs on HBO tonight at 9pm Eastern. You can learn more about the film on its website.
Images courtesy of Love Child/HBO