Children die every day and it’s seldom front-page news; even the daily body count of Palestinian children being killed by Israel in the current conflict has produced the yaddaa-yadda effect in a lot of readers and watchers of news. 'Didn’t I hear this story yesterday?' they ask, reaching for the remote.
But when a child dies because of parental neglect, the story has the ability to upend society, at least for a moment. Valerie Veatch was in Rome in 2010 when she saw a story on CNN International about a Korean baby who had starved to death while his parents were playing a video game. “My previous film was concerned with how technology impacts society, how we are changing, how we form relationships,” she says, referring to the 2012 Me @ the Zoo (which she co-directed with Chris Moukarbel), a film about a transgendered man and his life on YouTube. The Korean case was the only known one at the time in which a child had died as an indirect result of Internet gaming (an Oklahoma couple has since been accused of something similar). But the death of the three-month old Sarang (whose name means “love” in Korean) said as much about that country’s culture, old and new, as it did about the nature of addiction.
The resulting film, Love Child (HBO, Monday, July 28) premiered in Korea in the shadow of another, much larger tragedy: In April, a ferry bound for the island of Jeju capsized, killing over 300 people, many of them children on a holiday. (The captain and crew abandoned the drowning passengers and one member of the family that owned the ferry has killed himself.) “Parenthood has a sacred place in Korean society,” says Veatch. “All these parents were saying, ‘We’re poor and all our kids took the ferry, most rich kids get to fly over to the island they were going to.’ [The news] just started this self-reflective look -- what are we doing here? As a society we’ve grown so fast.’ South Korea had the lowest GDP in the world 50 years ago and now they are one of the main financial powerhouses in global economy.”
With that economic growth came quantum leaps in Internet connectivity. Love Child (which owes a lot to the reporting of Andrew Salmon, who broke the story on CNN and is one of the film’s talking heads) charts the government’s investment, starting in the 1990’s, in a broadband, high-speed internet structure and the business -- and gaming -- that followed. But most Koreans could still not afford the connection and a chain of popular video gaming parlors (“PC bangs”) sprung up across the land, serving the 24/7 needs of the millions of multiplayer game enthusiasts.
The parents of Sarang met online, playing a popular (and since defunct) game called Prius. Little is revealed about them in the film except that they were poor, uneducated and that there was a big spread in their ages (he was 41 at the time of their daughter’s death, and the mother was almost 20 years younger). They created avatars (choices included robots, knights and wizards, with the option to customize your character) and soon set out on the game’s ultimate quest: to raise a virtual child. “If you complete the quest you are also given an Anima,” one of the gaming kids interviewed in the film explains. “The Anima is the central key to this game,” he says -- its personality changes depending on its interactions with the player’s avatar.
Kind of like having a real child.
“I had heard they were raising an Internet fairy baby,” says Veatch, who got a crash course in Korean culture as well as the online gaming world from a number of filmmakers (and gamers) there. “I had no idea that the game kind of weirdly mirrored the story I was set on, or that it’s built into the game that the fairy baby dies.”
Anima (as the fairy baby was called) is a pixilated little Tinkerbell with big Keane-painting eyes. In one of Prius’s strange plot points, the baby -- which grows and bonds with the player’s avatar -- can sacrifice itself for you. You could watch her die on-screen, her big eyes crying blood, until she reappears as a butterfly and says, “If you earn enough experience points, you can revive me!”
“Back around that time a lot of Korean games were coming out with these pet creatures you needed to take care of,” says Veatch, “and that was intentionally to bring in a bigger female base. Psychologically there is something about nurturing that they found would be engaging to a female audience.”
Real nurturing, however, was something Sarang’s parents knew nothing about. The mother only went to a doctor once before delivery and then returned to gaming almost immediately, though they claimed later it was for financial reasons. (Skilled players can barter their virtual money for real dough in what’s known as “Gold Farming.”) “They were unaware what they’d been doing, had no information about raising children,” says Salmon.
“The saddest thing about the story is that they weren’t bad parents,” says Veatch; “they just applied the parenting skills they learned from raising this Anima to raising this baby: feed it, game for ten hours, come back, feed it.... And the baby lacked the interface to communicate with them what it needs; it didn’t have display buttons on it that said, more this! They didn’t know how to read the needs of their baby because they could only read an online environment.”
In the wake on Sarang’s death and the parents’ trial (the father served a year, the mother’s sentence was suspended) Korea came to face its internet gaming problem. Laws were passed meant to keep minors offline, or at least out of the gaming parlors, from midnight to six a.m. But far more intriguing than the legal possibilities raised by the case is the research Veatch did into one of Korea’s ancient cultures: shamanist religion.
There are scenes of modern Koreans, most of whom are Christian or Buddhist, taking part in ceremonies, banging drums and chanting, while a shaman leads them in one of the world’s oldest known languages. The shaman is the interface between the normal world and the spiritual world, we learn. “They are each possessed by a certain spirit and that spirit can guide them into the spirit world,” according to Salmon
“There is a very immediate spiritual world you can travel to through these emissaries,” says Veatch. “I think that mentality is one reasons virtual gaming is so appealing in Korea. There is this sense of the spiritual and traveling into this virtual space is exactly the same as being present and not present.”
We learn at the film’s end that the couple has since had another child and given up gaming. The director does not overreach in her message and most of the story is left to the witnesses to tell. “It’s a basic responsibility as a human being to feed her own baby,” says the medical examiner, still reeling from the Sarang’s death years later. “It’s not something to be taught.”