Plenty has been made of South Korea’s fixation with online culture, most visible in the marathon sessions of games like Starcraft.
But a new HBO documentary is focusing on a different aspect of the country’s gaming culture: The death of one couple’s 3-month-old baby from malnutrition in 2009 while they played an online game in six-to-12-hour binges.
The horrible irony of the story? The game they were playing involved caring for a virtual child.
Kim Jae-beom and his wife Kim Yun-jeong were arrested and charged for their neglect, and the couple’s real-life child, Sarang, provides the name for the HBO documentary, Love Child, airing July 28. (Sarang means “love” in Korean.)
The game the pair was playing, Prius, rewarded them with a mini-avatar named Anima – disturbingly, the character is killed in one of the game’s higher levels and can be revived by cashing in earned points. The pair would often play the game for hours in a gaming cafe, selling the virtual money they amassed for real funds, a practice that was their primary source of income.
The couple confessed to charges of involuntary manslaughter during their first hearing. “I think of our baby in heaven,” Jae-beom said. “I will be guilty until the day I die.”
“The virtual space isn’t going away,” the film’s director, Valerie Veatch, told The Daily Beast. “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.”
Citing addiction to gaming as a defense, the court gave Jae-beom a lessened sentence – he served two years behind bars. His wife, who at the time of their trial was pregnant with their second child, received a three-year suspended sentence.
The pair have sworn never to play video games again.