“I’m here because my baby died,” a man says at the beginning of “Love Child,” a documentary from Valerie Veatch that aired on HBO last night. “What’s your occupation?” a cop asks him. “I don’t have a job,” the man responds. “For how long did you play the computer game?” the interrogation continues. “Over 10 hours, I think.” “What caused your baby’s death, do you think?” the police officer presses forward. “I’m not sure,” the man replies. “She was a premature baby from the beginning.”
This is an unnerving introduction to the case at the heart of the film, the 2010 death by neglect of a South Korean baby girl named Sarang, who starved to death while her parents were out playing video games. And at first, it seems like a setup that would reinforce an idea that shows up frequently in American media and politics: that video games warp the people who play them. But fortunately, “Love Child” tells a more subtle story, one that is both specific to South Korea but that might profitably influence our discussions here at home.
Video games are a convenient scapegoat for Sarang’s death, but journalist Andrew Salmon, who covered the trial, tells Veatch that the couple seemed to have problems that extended far beyond their gaming obsession.
“I was expecting to be angry at these two people who had let their child die of starvation. But I ended up feeling rather sorry for them. They were a very, very poor couple,” Salmon said. “They struck me as being a rather pathetic pair of people. They’d clearly fallen through the cracks of society … They were unaware of what they’d been doing, they had no information about raising children.”
Blaming a couple for their own distortion is more appealing than asking where their friends and family were or raising questions about resources and mental health support available to new parents. Such a narrative limits the scope of guilt, and also any mandate for broader change or national self-evaluation.
“Love Child” would be a valuable contribution to the discussion of video game obsession if it only urged us to remember that video game or Internet addiction was only one of a number of elements that contributed to Sarang’s death. But the film also explores the policy decisions and country-specific factors that shape Internet and gaming culture in South Korea.
“The Korean government made a far-sighted and arguably risky decision in the 1990s to invest a lot of money into the broadband Internet infrastructure,” Salmon explains in the film. “They realized this could enable more advanced services than were available in the rest of the world at that time.”
South Korea has tried to pass laws in response to the Internet culture that grew up as a result of this technological capability, but culture adapts more quickly than legislation can. In 2012, the government directed some video game companies to restrict access to younger players between midnight and 8 in the morning: Some of the sources interviewed in “Love Child” suggested that such policymaking only encouraged gaming companies to target adults.
South Korea is now debating whether to classify video game obsession as an addiction as serious as dependence on alcohol and drugs or an inability to stop gambling.
Given that Sarang’s parents were so divorced from familial ties or social services, it is unclear whether such a characterization might have resulted in interventions to help them become better parents. Sarang’s parents left her at home to play at one of the country’s Internet cafes. Their long-running sessions there were the result of a perverse attempt at economy: They were buying long blocks of time online, which were cheaper than shorter stints.
It is also easy to seize on the specific game they were playing, which allowed participants to nurture a character called an “Anima.” Indeed, many news outlets pointed out the grotesqueness of neglecting a living child in favor of a fictional one.
Without excusing the couple’s behavior, “Love Child” tries to balance out their specific experience with other ways that video games interact with South Korean culture and faith.
Salmon points out the role of shamanism in South Korea. The film draws a clever parallel between the ability of shamans to pass between worlds and communicate with otherworldly beings and the experience of entering an immersive video game and gaining greater power to have adventures. In one case, “Love Child” points out, video game designers built avatars of children who died in a kindergarten camp fire and let their parents explore a peaceful artificial landscape with these reproductions as a form of therapy.
South Korea may be able to legislate definitions of addiction or put regulations on gaming companies. It is much harder to address the factors that draw players to games in the first place, be it a desire for a controlled environment where raising a child successfully is a matter of racking up points or an opportunity to remember someone who is gone forever.
“Love Child” will not provide reassurance for anyone who hopes that regulating or even outright banning video games would provide a balm to a host of social ills. But policymakers should take a lesson from the film anyway, and remember that when something terrible involving an obsessive gamer happens, video games are more likely a symptom of larger issues than a cause.