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game on

Case in South Korea reveals the extremes of online addiction

Daniel Levin/HBO

One night and early morning in 2009, a couple from South Korea spent hours at an Internet cafe playing a game called “Prius Online.” Back at their apartment, alone, was their infant daughter Sarang — Korean for “love” — who was dangerously malnourished. When her parents returned home after their long night, Sarang was dead.

They were charged months later, and the case became a major news story in South Korea that echoed throughout the world.

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“Love Child,” a documentary that played at the 2014 Sundance Film festival and is now available on HBO Go (it premiered there last weekend), examines this case and the thorny issues it raises. The film serves, in part, to explain the cultural context in which the tragedy occurred. It explains that South Korea, which was slow at first to offer Internet access, benefited from a massive government investment in infrastructure and is now, arguably, the most wired country in the world.

It has become a world capital of online gaming, complete with professional leagues that dwarf anything in the United States and booming activity in Internet cafes. This culture has brought with it industry, entertainment, and social connections that wouldn’t have existed otherwise — but also greater opportunities for addiction.

Who was this couple, exactly, and what led them to fatally neglect their child? “Love Child” doesn’t probe too deeply into the parents’ world (though it does point out that they didn’t have close relationships with their own family, which is not typical of South Koreans). Rather, it intersperses details from the case with a broader look at the Internet culture in South Korea and the issues and controversies evolving from it.

This lack of specifics about the parents doesn’t harm the film. Rather, the broader, more impressionistic look it offers — one interspersed with gameplay footage and dreamlike digitized sequences — suits the complexity of the subject. Issues of family and addiction and the connection between mental illness and personal culpability all existed long before the Internet, so “Love Child” is in part about figuring out where online games fit into the bigger picture.

Perhaps the most interesting detail from the case — and it was irresistible fodder for the media at the time — was that in “Prius” players can raise a virtual child who helps them in their quest. The heart wrenching question screams out: Why would parents devote so much time to a virtual child while their actual child lay dying at home?

South Korea has become a world capital of online gaming. . . . This culture has brought with it industry, entertainment, and social connections that wouldn’t have existed otherwise — but also greater opportunities for addiction.

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Another striking part of the case is how the South Korean courts handled the question of culpability. Prosecutors sought only five-year sentences for the parents. Imagine how they might have fared here? “Love Child” suggests South Koreans have a more sympathetic view of the role mental illness and addiction can play in criminal behavior than what we have in the United States, where we regularly lock up people for, effectively, being mentally ill.

I found “Love Child” engrossing. It poses lots of interesting, discussion-worthy questions about the tumultuous, evolving space where real and virtual life intersect.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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