Video Games

A Documentary on Game Addiction Tragedy Fails to Press the Right Buttons

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"Love Child"

Last night HBO premiered Love Child, a documentary about a couple in South Korea who let their newborn child die of starvation in 2010 while they played online video games for hours on end in a PC café. The documentary gets its title from the name of the newborn—Sarang, which means "love" in Korean.

The documentary describes the couple's game-centric life and interviews the attorney who defended them, a worker at the game café they frequented, and the journalist who covered the tragedy and legal case for the Western media, among others.

The documentary is an odd duck in that it strives to avoid some well-worn media pitfalls that result in fear-mongering in the reporting of video game "addiction," yet its approach doesn't seem to delve into any sort of science or research, other than a look inside a Korean company that provides what seems like specious aversion therapy to gamers. Instead the film superficially drifts over the nature of South Korea's extremely high-tech, game-centric culture, pulling at little strings of ideas here and there without accomplishing much.

It's frustrating to watch as the documentary descends into babble about whether people who play a lot of games or spend a lot of time interacting through the Internet differentiate between the real world and a virtual world. This discussion seems to typically originate as fact-free musing from people about gamers rather than from the gamers themselves. Do people know they aren't actually ones and zeroes? The chin-stroking takes a turn for the absurd when the documentary lets forth the suggestion that Sarang's parents didn't quite understand that babies need food to live because of all the time they spend in video games (the game in question, a now-defunct online role-playing game called Prius, involved taking care of a child-like assistant amid the adventures, and her existence is played up as much as possible to contrast with Sarang's neglect). Their defense attorney is partly responsible for pushing the "they didn't know how" narrative, so it makes sense for him to try to make the argument, but the documentary lets the nearly incomprehensible assertion just lie there all the way until the nearly the end, when somebody finally points out that people generally know that other people need food to live without special training.

In fact, the documentary reinforces the idea of gamer parents ignorant of the logistics of actual life by describing the communal nature of Korean society and suggesting the parents didn't have good relationships with their own parents (the family members themselves, though, are not interviewed for the documentary). South Korea's response to video game or Internet addiction has been government regulation—passing curfews to prohibit teenagers from playing video games after a certain time, reinforcing the idea that the problem is communal, not individual. Though there is a voice in the documentary stating that the problem isn't lack of regulation, his words become the segue to the exploration of the aversion therapy clinic. It's the equivalent of using drug addiction to promote drug courts. It doesn't really help illuminate anything.

The documentary floats over the basics of Korean culture like a travelogue on some lower tier cable channel without delving deeply enough to allow the viewer to understand what is really going on. Perhaps nobody really did, thus the long pauses for canned footage with ugly, multi-colored filters playing over junior college-level musings over the nature of the real world versus virtual reality. The documentary brings up the fact that the father was unemployed and was attempting to make money as a "gold farmer" in games. These are people who grind the drudgery of earning the online currency of games and then turn around and sell it for real money to other players so they can save time and purchase in-game goods without having to go through all the effort. But then this economic component of the couple's troubles is ignored. Why couldn't he find work? Was he unemployable because he was playing video games all the time, or was the order reversed? Did he end up playing video games because he couldn't find a job within Korea's information society?

Love Child clearly wants to make the viewer feel as though game addiction did ultimately cause Sarang's death. But the documentary doesn't want to appear to engage in fear-mongering, and yet it doesn't really do the hard work to make a valid case. The evidence remains circumstantial. A bunch of television news talking heads are shown referencing "Internet addiction," but given the media's reputation for mangling the results of scientific studies, it's not clear what we're supposed to take away from these invocations. It looks almost like Love Child wants it both ways—to engage in Internet addiction fear-mongering but in a fashion that appears sober and reflective and therefore not subject to the same criticism.

It's a shame, because it's not as though these isolated incidences aren't worth deeper analysis. I've seen lives destroyed by obsessions with gaming just as I have with drugs. But there's nothing actually useful about Love Child. It nibbles around the edges of a messy situation, afraid to get its hands truly dirty, perhaps out of fear of undercutting its own debate over the real vs. the virtual.

NEXT: Vandana Shiva Is One of the World's Worst People

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  1. Evolution in Action would have been a better title.

  2. I’ve seen lives destroyed by obsessions with gaming just as I have with drugs.

    Care to elaborate?

    1. I’d prefer not to, other than to say if the kid involved hadn’t been a teenager, it may have ended up like this one.

      1. “I’d prefer not to”

        Then what’s the point of invoking the anecdote? Especially in an article that you wrote, defending the need for “deeper analysis”?

        1. Simply to indicate that I know this happens to more people than the few that get media coverage for the worst possible outcome, but without violating somebody else’s privacy.

          1. Yes, because the only way to elaborate is to give their full legal names and addresses. All that’s being asked for is a little elaboration beyond “take my word for it”.

            *rolls eyes*

          2. The main reason I ask is that it’s hard to make sense of this

            “if the kid involved hadn’t been a teenager, it may have ended up like this one.”

            Could you at least clarify that part? It might make some sense, then.

            1. It sounds like they completely neglected their kid as well, but obviously, teenagers have some capacity to fend for themselves.

              1. That makes more sense, if that’s what he means.

        2. To let those of us with no comparable personal knowledge be aware that this actually happens?

          I’d kind of assumed “game addicts” were an invention of 80’s afternoon TV specials.

          1. Game addicts are incredibly rare, of course, but cases like these do crop up every once in a while. And not just people starving their kids; people keeling over from embolisms after sitting in a net cafe for 40+ hours, for example.

            1. Yet, the phenomenon seems to be curiously limited to East Asia.

              1. Obesity epidemic averted!

          2. this should have been the photo accompanying the article.

          3. My complaint is that it’s a really weak anecdote and his follow up to HM was really hard to make out. I don’t doubt that it might be an issue, but I expect a little more than “trust me, this happens”.

            1. but I expect a little more than “trust me, this happens”.

              I agree, but I’d like to note that Scott’s a good egg. so let’s cut him some slack.

              1. Yeah, you’re right.
                Just finished a semester of upper-level sociology that left me agitated with the kind of bullshit “documentaries” we were presented with as “evidence” of global-warming, fracking, steroids, capitalism, etc.

                It’s still hard to not scream bullshit at everything I see right now.

      2. Fair enough. But may I ask if you believe drug addiction is the same kind of animal as a video game addiction? That is, do you believe there is something inherently addictive in playing games themselves? Or are there people, for whatever reason, who will exhibit obsessive behavior from a pleasurable, dopamine-generating activity, be it shopping, gambling, viewing pornography, etc?

        1. I don’t believe video games are inherently addictive, but I can’t even hazard a guess to the rest, which was something I hoped the documentary would delve into.

          1. Yeah, it is a shame that the documentary seems to avoid the topic. That having been said, in many online MMORPGs, especially Asian ones, there are elements of gambling that are not outrageous in their venality but are central to the gameplay. I can see that a player, who allows his or her identity to become invested in the game would be the same type of person to not have the inhibition to interact with this gambling aspect of the game in a non-harmful way.

  3. “a documentary about a couple in South Korea who let their newborn child die of starvation in 2010 while they played online video games for hours on end in a PC caf?.”

    Noobs.

  4. I heard that South Korea not only has a television channel devoted to StarCraft, but an army unit too. They’re different.

    1. They do and they’re very popular. They also have stations based on the board game called “Go,” a game I do not understand in anyway.

      They also have much less porn that I would prefer. But the porn they do have is weird and….well it’s just fucking weird. And not in the Japanese way.

      Most of what I’ve seen is “girl leaves house and boyfriend cheats on girl with his mistress. Girlfriend comes back and is angry and punishes boy by tying him up with pantyhose and toying with him. Then, after they’ve made up, boy and girlfriend then punish the mistress by making her strip (only topless) and clean the house/car/etc while the original couple creepily watch and demean her.”

      SugarFree is SO hard right now.

      1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Korean porn. I wonder why Japanese porn is so much more prevalent.

        1. After that description, you’re still wondering?

          1. Ha! Good point. I was hoping he was exaggerating though. Considering the average K-Pop video, there’s gotta be somebody there who can make a damn good porno.

        2. Let’s be honest. I wouldn’t need much more than this.

          Context: Incredibly hot (duh) KPop dancers perform at an all boy middle school. The boys freak out. They were correct to do so. It’s unbelievably hot.

          I’ll be in my bunk.

          1. Link no work. Damn you reasonable!

            Trust me. Click it.

            http://imgur.com/gallery/nz0nZ

            1. Yep, I’ve seen that. That must have been awkward as hell, since those dudes can’t wear good loose-fitting, boner-hiding clothing.

          2. K-Crap creeps me out, especially the foppish male singers/hip-hop wannabes who look like they’re wearing a pound of TV makeup.

      2. Ahem. They call it Baduk, and would probably be horrified to have to use the Japanese name, what with their fear of Japanese being seen as better.

        They also gamble at the game, in a variant called Bangneki.

        I play go/baduk, but fairly badly. 🙁

        1. Lord, the hatred between the two is so visceral.

          I remember talking to my kids about Hiroshima/Nagasaki. The kids stood up and cheered. Round of applause. It was very creepy. I purposefully would bring it up (whenever relevant, of course) to gauge the students’ reactions.

          Universal clapping and cheering. Very unnerving, but I do at least “understand” it.

    2. There was a brief segment on pro gaming in the documentary as well for no particular reason related to the document, part of that superficial “Koreans like their games” travelogue. The guy who keeled over dead after a StarCraft marathon is mentioned toward the end.

  5. I am in Korea for four more days and then I’m gone, likely/possibly forever. I’m getting distracted from cleaning out my apartment. I have many things to get rid of/throw away/sell. So instead of getting on my shit and doing that….I’m gonna go to a baseball game in Seoul with my buddy.

    I don’t get why titles do this. The title in Korean is “???” Sarang. ???=Cyber, and the word is said the same (roughly) in both languages. I like Cyber Sarang/Cyber Love much better than Love Child as a title.

    1. Well, “Cyber Sarang” means nothing to the average American viewer; whereas, “Cyber Love” seems like the documentary will be about teledildonics or Internet porn. Similarly, Love Child isn’t a good title because it isn’t descriptive of the topic of the documentary as well. I would have avoided the pun that is lost in translation to begin with and just gone for a title that isn’t connected to the original Korean at all.

      1. I was thinking that Cyber Love would have been the best title. Is their “love for their child” real or is it digital? I haven’t seen the docu but it seemed to be the main theme.

        Sigh. I don’t like your prescription. Mine is better.

        1. Well, I am pervert. So you have to take that into account.

  6. Games don’t kill people. Irresponsible parents do.

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