The Story Of A Couple Who Played Video Games While Their Child Died

The Story Of A Couple Who Played Video Games While Their Child Died

One day in March 2010, news began to surface that police in South Korea had arrested a couple for the death of their daughter Sarang, the Korean word for “love”. She was only three months old. By the time her parents called local authorities to report her death, she was severely underweight — dropping from her birth weight of 2.9kg to 2.5kg. An autopsy revealed that she died of malnutrition.

Her death attracted international attention once police revealed its cause: Sarang had slowly starved due to negligence. Her parents, both unemployed and living in relative poverty, would leave her alone for six to 12 hours at a time while they visited local PC cafes to play Prius, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing game that was popular in the country at the time.

The tragic irony of Sarang’s death is that her parents neglected proper attention and care because they were playing a game that allowed its players to foster virtual children known as “Anima”. Massively, an MMO-focused gaming site, described the Anima as “the raison d’etre for Prius” in a 2011 story about a presentation discussing the game at that year’s Game Developers Conference.

“A large part of Prius‘ gameplay revolves around getting to know your Anima’s personality as well as gauging her moods and persuading her to help you with your game goals and various quests,” Massively wrote. The virtual child was a central feature of many different aspects of the game’s combat and levelling system. Getting to know the Anima’s particular personality and backstory was considered an integral part of the game’s story. gPotato, the company that supported the game’s online services, hailed the Anima as “a quantum leap when it comes to MMORPG pet design, as she not only requires character progression of her own apart from your main avatar but also serves as a gateway to the game’s crafting implementation.”

Sarang’s parents weren’t able to support their real child. But their devotion to Prius suggested that the concept of genuinely successful parenting wasn’t foreign to them, either. So why did the couple fail in their real-world responsibilities when they were enthralled by like-minded virtual ones?

The criminal investigation and ensuing trial ultimately concluded that it was because both of them were suffering from a crippling addiction to the video game. The court judging Sarang’s parents ultimately gave them a lenient sentence that involved no prison time. The father, awash with guilt, ended up volunteering himself for incarceration as an act of profound contrition.

The story of Sarang and her parents is at the centre of Love Child, a new documentary directed by Valerie Veatch. I would recommend the movie for anyone unfamiliar with the story or the many nuances of South Korea’s game industry and culture more generally. It’s a comprehensive and refreshingly diplomatic approach to an issue that’s often so fraught with cultural panic that just trying to talk about it in a reasonable way can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

Whether or not you think that Sarang’s parents deserve any of the sympathy that the authorities showed them, Love Child makes a strong case for the cultural and political significance of their story. The fact that they weren’t viewed as criminals through and through has some intriguing implications in particular. Andrew Salmon, one of the first journalists who covered the story for an international audience and a central character in Love Child, explains early on in the film that the criminal sentencing established “a far-reaching legal precedent” to treat video game addiction “as a mitigating factor in crimes” similar to “psychological problems, drug addiction and drunkenness.”

Love Child shows how this “legal precedent” has already started to work its way into many aspects of South Korean gaming culture in the four years since Sarang’s tragic story first came to light. Many popular video games now contain time-lock features that block players (particularly young ones) from playing for too long or during certain times of the day. Legislation has been drawn up to address compulsive game-related behaviour in similar ways to other kinds of addiction or mental illness. Rehabilitation centres and treatment programs have popped up across the country to help struggling gamers address damaging or compulsive behaviour.

One rehab center that is detailed in the movie shows a young man rigged up to an intricate series of screens and monitors and administered a sort of aversion therapy that looked sort of like a less scary, dystopian version of the notorious movie theatre scene from Clockwork Orange. The patient is shown a series of nature-themed videos set to soothing music. Afterwards, they’re shown footage of a video game while harsh, discordant music is played alongside the video.

Love Child is at its best when it sticks to these specific examples detailing the intricacies of the Korean video game industry and the elements that have sprung up to respond to its excesses. But this is not a perfect movie. Veatch spends remarkably little time with the family at the heart of her documentary, and we never hear from the parents directly. For a story that’s moving because of its tragic, human details, the absence of the actual people who were most closely involved is unfortunate.

When I asked Veatch about this, she told me that she didn’t include the parents partly out of respect for their privacy. But she also said she just didn’t think they were “very good characters.”

Why make a movie about them, then? Obviously the drama of Sarang’s tragic death is a major pull for an investigation into an overarching issue that affects both gamers and the people close to them. When it came to actually speaking to her parents, however, Veatch said that she ran into hurdles communicating with them effectively. She told me that throughout the 8 weeks she gave to reporting and filming in Korea, she spent one afternoon actually talking to the couple face-to-face. She was more interested in focusing on the broader cultural questions at play in the story, she reasoned.

This is troubling for no other reason than that it seems to blur the line, intentionally or not, between a personal story and a societal one. Veatch consults with experienced lawyers, doctors, and psychologists in her movie. But addiction is something that is only ever truly experienced on a personal level. Understanding it in a way that would allow us to truly empathise with the people who are genuinely suffering would require getting at least some access to their inner life.

Since it doesn’t provide much of a window into the lives of Sarang’s parents, Love Child carries an unresolved tension throughout its story. The movie presents two different views of video game addiction: a genuine malady, and an unwieldy concept that causes unnecessary controversy and ultimately distracts us from the real issue — whatever that may be. After raising both as compelling possibilities, it never settles on one over the other.

Veatch, meanwhile, makes some disturbing implications in her film. A passage on the economic importance of South Korea’s game industry suggests that the country didn’t respond to Sarang’s death as decisively as it should have for questionable reasons. Throughout the movie, there’s a lingering insinuation that game developers feel a financial impetus to keep players hooked into their games despite legitimate concerns about the health and well-being of their audience. Love Child stops short of making any strong statements about any of these intimations, however.

Speaking to Veatch, it sounded like she was more interested in raising big questions than trying to answer all of them. She told me that she’s not even sure that “addiction” is the proper term to use when discussing video games, for instance. It’s a “flawed paradigm” that invites misinterpretation and unnecessary panic, she argued.

Leaving fruitful questions open for further discussion isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But it’s become too easy to leave any inquiry into the addictive power of video games to the “expert” class of lawyers and doctors like the ones Veatch consults in her film. It’s time that we start proposing clear answers — artistic and ethical ones. Because if we don’t, I’m scared what the future of video games might look like.

As for the story of Sarang’s parents? Prius was shut down in 2013 after years of waning popularity. The two of them have another child now. The father has a real job, outside of any MMO, and the mother stays at home tending to her child. A lawyer for the family says that the couple has sworn off video games for good.

Pictures: Love Child/HBO


  • Creepy top pic…
    But no, I don’t show sympathy for such people. I don’t think this needs to be said again, but if you have a child, be responsible for it, no one forced you, you made the choice. If you’re not at the stage in your life where you can handle such a responsibility, DON’T HAVE KIDS.
    These people are criminals and should be punished for their actions (or inaction). Drug addicts and drunks are the same and need to be responsible for their own actions and stop blaming their addiction. Mental illness is another matter, depends how they got the mental illness. But if you are mentally ill and don’t seek treatment, or whoever is responsible for them doesn’t seek treatment for them, then they are to blame.

      • I purposely didn’t mention that and I knew someone would bring it up.
        It’s the same thing, you should have practiced safe sex. And if you did but somehow still ended up pregnant, well bad luck I guess, sometimes stuff just happens. Suck it up and step up to the job.

        • “Yeah I had drunk sex without protection and now I’m pregnant” is not an accident. That is being stupid.

          Step up to the job +1

    • Sex education is taboo in a lot of cultures (presumably South Korea too), combined with over half a lifetime of video game addiction, they probably had the maturity of primary school kids and probably had no idea that ‘dick in vagina leads to babby’.

      It doesn’t justify neglecting an infant like that, but it is worth considering the wider social issues that led to this situation.

      • I highly doubt any young person living in a first world country wouldn’t know about safe sex, even if you were never officially educated in it. As for the video game addiction, well, like I said, you did that to yourself. I would think that the majority of people visiting this site plays video games, but we’ve learnt self-control and moderation, and that as you progress through life, you have to take on more responsibilities, be a contributing member to society, and that there are things more important than playing games.
        Social issues exist everywhere, doesn’t mean you have to let them affect you and it certainly doesn’t mean they can excuse your actions.

    • We don’t live in a world where things are black and white and it’s hard to make a judgement in a situation like this even if you know all the details. I’m not going to comment on drug addicts and drunks because I believe their addiction is more physically systemic than a dopamine induced addiction to a game.

      But I feel I should point out that everyone has varying degrees of resistance to addictive tendencies. I have friends who if given the chance will lapse completely into a gambling addiction and swear off it while myself and a few others can get into recreationally even for a few weeks and drop it whenever we want. It was the same with me and a group of friends when we decided to give up smoking, I was able to go cold turkey straight off the bat but my friends had to wean themselves off. That said I believe that people who give in to their addictions represents not just a personal failure on their part but to a lesser degree a societal failure from the community (friends/family/neighbours) to not recognize that the person in question needed help and an intervention.

      I think it’s a hard call to make (as to whether they should’ve been branded as outright criminals) given we still don’t understand half as much as we should about human brain chemistry or why some people have an increased tendency to give into addictions. It’s also worth noting that most people who suffer from mild cases of mental illness or instability are usually completely unaware of it and more often than not it’s only people external to the situation who are able to realize that maybe this person needs help. So it’s un-realistic to expect people to seek out treatment for a condition that they might not even be aware they have.

      That said this is a really tragic and heart wrenching situation and it shouldn’t have taken the loss an innocent child’s life for this couple to wake up to their problem with gaming.

      • I agree on the giving in part. There’s always a way to beat an addiction, it just depends whether you tried hard enough or you just said “nope, too hard” and gave in.

        That’s why I said it depends for mental illnesses, if you’re not aware, then you can’t really be blamed for it. But once you are aware, you should do something about it.

        I realise there’ll be people who’ll disagree with me, that’s fine, but personally, I’m calling them criminals. I’m an engineer, so this is how I see it: if I designed a bridge and it had a flaw which I knew about but did nothing about, and the bridge collapsed and killed many people, I would be held responsible for negligence, lose my credentials as an engineer and most likely go to jail. This is no different. Their negligence caused the death of another human being.

        • There’s a couple of problems with that comparison though. When you design a bridge you can see all the details in front of you, you’re basing your design off physics – facts. When people suffer from a mental illness or deficiency more often than not they don’t realize they’re sick and need help. Same goes for most people who suffer from addictions, until someone wakes them up to it more often than not people don’t realize they’re addicted.

          Engineers deal in facts and even then things can be overlooked leading to disasters. People and addictions deal in brain chemistry where what’s considered to be factual changes depending on neuroscientist you’re speaking to. If the parents in question here were aware they had a gaming addiction or a mental condition that made them more susceptible to addiction then negligence comes into play and they should be tried as criminals; however the more likely scenario is that they weren’t aware and weren’t made aware (by their community) that they were clearly being pulled into an unhealthy degree of addiction here.

          Negligence is usually defined as not taking reasonable steps to ensure that there isn’t a breach in contract. In civil cases like this it can be defined as the reasonable steps a person should’ve taken to avoid harming someone or someone’s property (same principle can be applied to your engineering example, if you can show you did everything rationally expected of an engineer when designing the bridge). If the parents weren’t aware of their addiction or their joint mental deficiency what reasonable actions could they have taken to find out about it? What reasonable actions can any mentally deficient person take to wake up to their illness? Like I said, most of the time its the people around them that informs them something’s wrong and they should speak to a mental health professional. If you wish to argue negligence for the parents then you need to extend that argument to their close friends and family and the neighbours who had proximity to the child as well.

          Trying a couple for a fuck up which cost them their child and branding them as criminals doesn’t serve society in the least. Rehabilitation and ensuring that this can never happen again (i.e. regular unannounced check ups on their current child) is the more productive solution. They’re going to have to live with their failure as parents that cost them their first born from here on out so unless their complete psychopaths those are chains they are never going to be able to take off.

          • You don’t need someone to tell you that your child has malnutrition and is getting skinnier by the day, you can see that. You don’t need someone to tell you that an infant might need food and drink in a 6-12 hour period, that’s common sense. Heck, even you need a drink at the net cafe in that time period, right? Even if you don’t need to eat.
            The more we let these people off easily, the more things like this will happen. I’m not saying these people shouldn’t be educated and rehabilitated, they sure as heck should be. But they should also be held responsible for the death of another human being just like any other person should. Just because that human being is their own child and they are already suffering at their own guilt is irrelevant. Would you be arguing your case the same way if someone else’s child was left in their care and died because of their gaming addiction?

            And thanks for bringing up the point about other people who had close proximity to the child. Yes, if these people didn’t do anything about it, then my argument extends to them too. Obviously, they might not be responsible legally, but shame on them if they really just stood by and did nothing.

            Like I said, I realise there’ll be people who don’t agree with me, and I do see your side of the argument, but personally, in this particular case, I don’t believe they should be let off so easily, and they certainly should not have another child until they have their issues sorted.

            These sorts of discussions will never end, so I’m just gonna leave it here and agree to disagree.

          • If this was someone else’s child I’d imagine the prosecution could go for a charge of manslaughter as it wasn’t just a child’s life that was ended but also the family to whom the child belongs to undergoing suffering because of their negligence. But that’s a different scenario and this is why courts carry out trials and judgements on a case by case basis to evaluate each situation by itself referring to prior cases as guidelines.

            As you say it is common sense to notice how your child is suffering which is why I would argue there was something clearly wrong with this couple mentally. Something it doesn’t seem they were aware of. I’m hoping they have since sought mental help and I will concede to the point that I don’t think they should have the right to look after another child, at least not without constant oversight by the state until the child is over 18.

    • Addiction is should be considered a mental illness. Although a person probably made poor decisions to arrive at the point of addiction, once addiction has truly taken hold of someone you’d be silly to say they’re not sick.

  • About them not being viewed as criminals… I think that’s fair. They were definitely negligent, there is no doubt about that, and they will have to carry the guilt of what they have done, but I don’t think this makes them criminal. It’s horrible and tragic and yes, perhaps they should not have had a child if they couldn’t care for her, but that occurs all the time.

    I think I’ll skip this one.

  • Anyone know where we can watch this? i think it would be quite fascinating although very sad.

  • I’m glad they weren’t sentenced to prison time. Incarceration is completely useless in this case and won’t change the attitudes of the parents. If anything, it will further develop any mental illnesses they were previously suffering from and ruin their lives. I find the idea that people need to be “punished” for doing something wrong quite disgusting. Society should be helping those who have made mistakes to become better humans, not turning them into monsters and locking them away (obviously some people do need to be separated for the safety of society and themselves).

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