Kim Jae-beom told the police he wasn’t sure what killed his daughter, and that “she was a premature baby from the beginning.” But the cause of death determined by authorities was less vague: The baby had died of malnutrition as a result of her parents’ online gaming addiction.
So begins the tale of Kim and his wife, Kim Yun-jeong, a South Korean couple whose all-consuming video game habit led them to neglect their 3-month-old baby. When real life shockingly interrupted the gaming fantasy they’d been sucked into, the couple was actually caring for a virtual child in 6- to 12-hour online binges. She was a cooing and cherubic mini-avatar called Anima, which players earned after reaching a certain level in the game Prius.
South Korea’s gaming obsession threw shockwaves across the world when, in September 2009, the couple was arrested for the death of their baby girl. Sarang, which means “love” in Korean, starved to death while the Kims went on all-night gaming binges. It was the first known fatality from gaming addiction. The subsequent trial raised a previously unheard of legal precedent: Could online gaming be grouped with gambling, drugs, and drinking as an addition that impairs a person’s judgment enough to make such a fatal mistake?
Though the case is now five years old, the issue hasn’t remained an anomaly. Just this past April, a 22-year-old father was arrested for leaving his 2-year-old son to starve at home while he played games for 10 days.
In Love Child, an HBO documentary airing on July 28, director Valerie Veatch seeks an explanation for such horrific negligence in a country where an estimated 2 million are addicted to gaming. “The virtual space isn’t going away, but the way we use it and what we are accomplishing by spending time in this space will transform as we understand how to design technologies that support our human-ness and our social institutions, like family,” she tells The Daily Beast.
Sang Yoon Han, a veteran detective, describes the scene at the Kims’ home as “terrible.” The underweight girl—who had dropped from 6.4 lb. to 5.5 lb. since her birth—was lying straight in a crib, blanket pulled over her, in a messy room.
According to police, the child’s mother had never gone to the hospital until it was time to deliver. She had never received vaccines or checkups. She fed the baby spoiled milk and was, the investigator says, “completely ignorant” of how to raise a child. After the infant’s death, the parents, afraid to alert police, had done online searches for funeral arrangements before calling the authorities. “A typical parent would weep in this situation, but they showed no emotion,” he remembers in the documentary. “None of us believed it at first.”
In the 1990s, South Korea poured money into broadband, building an infrastructure for Internet connectivity that would become considered the world’s finest. All-night gaming rooms proliferated, offering those unable to pay for high-speed Internet a chance to play in their favorite virtual realities.
Talented gamers can make a solid living in South Korea by competing in championships or selling the virtual money for real cash. This “gold farming” was the main source of income for the Kims. They would go to PC Bang, a gaming cafe, for blocks of time because it was cheaper that way. For the price of seven hours, their lawyer says, they could play for 10 hours. They “were trying to save money.”
On a boulevard with stacked neon-lit signs blanketing the buildings, Veatch finds the gaming arcade frequented by the Kims. “They were so happy lost in this game together,” an employee remembers. The gaming companies made South Korea happy as well. At that time, the industry was worth $5 billion—it’s worth nearly $8 billion now.
After the infant’s death, the parents, afraid to alert police, had done online searches for funeral arrangements before calling the authorities.
During the couple’s first hearing, they confessed to charges of involuntary manslaughter. “I think of our baby in heaven,” the father said in the trial. “I will be guilty until the day I die.”
Perhaps virtual reality so invaded their minds that they were imagining the wrong could be undone as it is on one high level of Prius, when the “Anima” is killed but revived by cashing in gaming points.
Now South Korea is attempting to tackle addiction in the highest level: outlawing children under 16 from gaming between midnight and 6 a.m., and drawing up legislation to group gaming in with other anti-social addictions. It’s a restriction that the gaming industry sees as detrimental to business, but also, ironically, to society. “Through these experiences we could understand each other more,” the head developer of Prius argues in Love Child. “I think that serious games are functional and meaningful enough if they enable people to gain not only info and knowledge but also empathy.”
Across South Korea, addicts can seek treatment at a growing number of clinics. At one in Seoul, researchers show their patients 10 minutes of peaceful nature scenes, a gaming video, and then a clip that solicits negative feelings. This “makes the patient have a more negative attitude toward games,” one specialist says.
“There is not a one-stop answer to ‘Internet addiction,’ instead I think it is a dialog between users, technology companies and infrastructure policy bodies that will help us understand how to sustain our human attributes as we have increasingly meaningful experiences in virtual spaces,” Veatch says.
But one of the police interrogators isn’t convinced that an addiction can explain such negligence as was displayed in the Kims’ case. “It’s not as simple as addiction and treatment,” he says. “It’s a basic responsibility as a human to feed her own baby. It’s not something to be taught.”
In the four years since the trial, the couple’s game of choice, Prius, has slipped from popularity and been discontinued, surely replaced by hundreds of competitors vying for the 60 minutes of daily game time consumed by an average Korean.
But its impact on South Korea had far-reaching consequences. With addiction as a defense, the court lessened the prosecution’s requested five-year sentence and gave Kim Jae-beom two years behind bars. His wife didn’t serve time but received a three-year suspended sentence. At the time of their trial she was pregnant with their second child. But this time, their lawyer promises in Love Child, they won’t let anything happen to their real-life baby. They’ve sworn to never play games again.