In March 2010, police in South Korea arrested a husband and wife in a tragically ironic case that gained international notoriety—the couple let their three-month-old daughter, Sarang, starve to death in their apartment while they spent up to 12 hours a day nurturing a virtual daughter as part of 3-D fantasy massively multiplayer online role-playing game known as Prius. A new documentary uses the story of Kim Yoo-chul and Choi Mi-sun’s supposed “Internet addiction” as the starting point for a much broader, and more complicated, examination of a high-tech culture’s fascination with the blending of virtual worlds with reality.
Directed by Valerie Veatch, Love Child begins with Mi-sun’s mother describing how she and her 24-year-old daughter decided to visit a “PC bang”—a local gaming center—in 2008 as a way for Mi-sun to meet a potential spouse. PC bangs, as portrayed in the film, consist of dozens of consoles with comfortable chairs where patrons can log on for an hourly fee and immerse themselves in virtual world of their choosing. Such gaming centers have been common in South Korea for years thanks to both the country’s extensive high-speed Internet infrastructure and the population’s obsession with multi-player gaming as a social outlet, an extension of Korean culture, according to the film.
As Mi-sun’s mother tells it—no interviews with Mi-sun appeared in the Love Child preview screening Tuesday night in New York City—her daughter first came to know 34-year-old Yoo-chul through a multiplayer game both were playing. They later met in person and had a common-law marriage. Even though the couple spent more and more time playing Prius—up to 12 hours a day—Mi-sun gave birth to Sarang (Korean for “love”). Ironically, Prius’s online narrative includes mysterious childlike characters known as Animas that wander the virtual world until they connect with a particular player, after which they become devoted to that player and assist in game play.
With Yoo-chul, Mi-sun, and her mother engaging so much time in their virtual lives, Sarang was often left home alone, until the day in September 2009 when the couple returned to find that their infant daughter had died.
Prosecutors sought a five-year prison sentence for their role in Sarang’s death. The defense countered with the argument that Yoo-chul and Mi-sun were not responsible for their behavior due to an Internet addiction that impaired their judgment. This strategy—the first in South Korea’s history to employ Internet addiction as a defense—prevailed, and the couple avoided prison time, although they are prohibited from gaming. Yoo-chul now drives a bus, and the couple have a second child.
The case validated Internet addiction years before the American Psychiatric Association’s recent decision to include "Internet-use disorder" as a condition "recommended for further study” in the new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the international psychiatric diagnostic manual—to be released in May.
Still, categorizing Yoo-chul and Mi-sun’s gaming as an addiction appears to oversimplify the situation. The couple actually earned their living playing Prius and belonged to a guild, an organized group of gamers that worked as a team in the virtual world, according to Veatch, who co-directed 2012’s Me @ The Zoo. (Gamers can earn real money by selling virtual wealth accumulated during gameplay to other gamers.) As a guild advances, the game becomes more demanding and requires a greater time commitment.
The film also raises questions about the definitions of reality and virtual reality, with many of Veatch’s sources agreeing that we live in a time of “mixed reality,” where our physical and virtual interactions are blurred because of the ubiquity of technology. “If people play in a virtual world with real people, is that reality?” one of the film’s sources asks. “We’re transferring ourselves into a virtual space,” said Veatch, following the 20-minute preview of Love Child, which the director hopes to release later this year. “The story about [this] couple is a way of looking at this broader issue.”
South Korea’s heavy investment in Internet infrastructure puts its citizens in position to ponder these questions long before other countries. Most homes in South Korea have a high-speed Internet connection, and the country plans to build out its fiber-optic infrastructure so its upload and download speeds far exceed those found elsewhere in the world.
South Korea also tops the list in terms of wireless broadband subscriptions. All those improvements could see Prius-like gaming done at home rather than at a PC bang. Who knows what this might have meant for Sarang?
Images courtesy of Valerie Veatch