“If a game designer fails to lead users to be immersed in games, then it’s a neglect of duty.”
—Game developer Tae-Geon Kim
“When we arrived at the scene, the baby was in the basement. Things were messy, and the baby was dead.” As Detective Sang-Yoon Han remembers the moment he first saw Sarang Kim’s body, you see, at first, institutional images: an exterior shot of police headquarters, an interior showing a jail cell, and then the detective himself, seated in an interrogation room, a two way mirror behind him, a clock reflected. “Yes, I was there,” he says in response to a question you don’t hear. The camera angles up at him from behind, the clock now visible on the wall before him.
Time is important here, in this story of a South Korean baby who died in 2010 while her parents were playing online video games. Indeed, the first scene in Valerie Veatch’s documentary, Love Child, shows that same interrogation room, that same clock, as questions are put to the little girl’s father, Kim Jae-beom.
Or it may be that these questions are put to someone reenacting the interview, his shoulder barely visible in a couple of foregrounds, while a young man asks about time: when did he and his wife find the body? What time did they get home from PC Bang, the gaming café where they regularly spent ten hours at a time? Again, you use the clock, second hand advancing, moment by moment.
Time is important here because it is so lost. “The baby was just lying straight,” Sang-Yoon Han says. And here the camera cuts to crime scene footage, blurred so that it’s almost impossible to identify the body you’re looking at, lying straight. Suddenly, you see, time is immediate, visceral, and still, tragically and confusingly, lost.
Love Child begins with Sarang’s death. It’s a factual point of departure, but it’s not simple, rendered here through interviews, TV reports, and archival footage of her parents’ arrests, coats over their heads as they make their way in slow motion past photographers. From here, the film goes on to consider a broader, more complicated saga, a series of interlocking contexts that may or may not be directly connected to this one sensational case.
It notes other deaths attributed to gamers’ distractions, as well as the media upset over such sensations. The clerk at PC Bang—introduced by a camera following him down stairs into the underground facility, filled with dinging consoles and faceless gamers—says the couple “drifted in and out”, though because they were always there, he barely noticed them. “They were so happy,” he says, “lost in this game together.”
Lost in this game. The couple met in an online role-playing game, the film reports, and had no source of income other than gaming. The detective describes their affect on arrest as alarmingly detached, “not like normal people”. Journalist Andrew Salmon, who covered the case in 2010, surmises, “They were beyond familial influences… There was no one to tell them, ‘Hey you two, stop playing games, go home take care of your child.’” He then notes the terrible irony that they were, at the time, playing Prius, a game in which they were raising a virtual child named Anima.
But even as you may be assessing the parents according to your own moral measure, the film turns to the Kims’ public defender, Ji-Hoon Lee, who explains the legal strategy, which was to introduce the notion of addiction. The Kims’ illness impaired their judgment, their comprehension, their fundamental life skills. (Last year, the US Diagnostic Statistical Manual noted “Internet Gaming Disorder” in an appendix, calling for more investigation of the phenomenon.)
Moreover, the film suggests, this addiction is related to cultural imperatives, including “government policy” from the ‘90s onward, to create “one of the most wired and wireless countries in the world.” Such advances in turn lead to easy access, even for those users like the Kims, who can’t afford their own high-speed access, in mightily profitable gaming cafés.
No surprise, the industry is resisting the legal and medical designation of the disorder. But the film is less interested in making a case for the individual disorders than it is in revealing cultural and corporate pathologies. It makes this case less by an assembly of facts than by impressions. Game developers and addiction counselors both come at the problem from specific and limited angles. One designer describes his process and ambition, asserting, “Role playing allows us to switch roles. I think that serious games are functional and meaningful enough, if they enable people to gain not only information and knowledge but also empathy.” (The Kims, you might recall at this moment, were described as lacking exactly that.)
A doctor at an addiction clinic, meanwhile, suggests that she tried to understand the addiction by taking pleasure in games herself: “It made me to keep thinking of the games in my real life,” she says, abstractedly, The scenes and images kept coming across my mind.”
The scenes and images might keep coming across your mind, too, as the film provides scenes and narration from Prius, alongside repeated slow-moving pans over people walking with their cell phones before them, designers at work in their cubicles, players in front of screens, sometimes smoking cigarettes or eating noodles, but more often so transfixed that they seem not to have need of any other stimulation at all.
In between these allusions to the transport offered by games, the film shows occasional images of people in something like “real life”, images that tilt between poetic and impoverished: a dog is tied up in a lonely looking alley, ants make their way over dirt, an unidentifiable individual hobbles along with a walker, and a mother appears with a small child: as he plays with a broken umbrella, she’s distracted by her phone.
None of these frames shows a crime and none suggests illness. They’re eerie, but also, utterly familiar. Yes, there may be a line to cross, where virtual life and real life become difficult to distinguish, but it’s a line that most tech users don’t contemplate, lost in worlds, in connections, in time that’s slipping away.