The world recoiled in horror and disbelief when a South Korean couple’s infant daughter died of malnutrition in 2010 while her parents played video games. The sad tale drew more headlines when a South Korean court handed the couple a reduced sentence after factoring in their internet addiction. This case is at the center of Love Child, director Valerie Veatch’s upcoming film on internet policy in an increasingly wired world. Veatch has spent almost two months in South Korea, interviewing family members of the neglected child, as well as government officials, researchers and professional gamers to assemble a picture of life in a country where the internet is faster and more widespread than in the United States. Life + Times sat down with Veatch and producer David Foox to watch a short demo of Love Child, which is due out in 2013, and talk about what it means for people to live within a virtual environment so compelling that it affects their reality.
Life+Times: What was your purpose in making Love Child?
Valerie Veatch: The access to broadband and the incredibly sophisticated gaming industry in Korea have uniquely positioned it to be a place where virtual reality and reality begin to just blur together, and that lack of differentiation is really exemplified in the story of this couple who went to trial and were given a break because they were addicted to the internet. And just looking at the policy and research that goes into supporting that point of view, it unveils a totally interesting way of thinking about virtual reality.
L+T: What first drew you to this project?
VV: We’ve always been interested in looking at how virtual reality and society interact. When I was in college, I made a documentary about prostitutes in [the computer game] Second Life and this kid and how he saw what he was doing. Then our first feature doc [Me at the Zoo] was about an internet celebrity and that was the first time that we really got to explore directly through character these kinds of themes. And then this couple…I heard about it in the news and it was this salacious news story and seemed like there was a complex and interesting reason that everybody arrived at internet addiction being a viable defense and going through that process seemed like it would be an interesting film. And it is. And, you know, Korea is really looking to build a highly beneficial and diverse gaming atmosphere. And so a story like this really influences the research a lot. Some of the benefits that we learned that we didn’t really quite understand was how complicated the gaming psyche actually is. So on the one hand, all we have been faced with is this concept of playing too much to our addiction, but then going to Korea we saw games for cognitive function to increase your ability to learn faster or react to things, keeping your brain healthy for longer. We also saw games that were teaching you how to be a better person in real life, mimicking real life in many aspects. So, policy surrounding games is very critical in Korea because you can’t have a black-and-white situation, because there are huge benefits to certain games and, of course, there’s the professional atmosphere to it, which brings in money and competition and entertainment.
L+T: How did you get access to the couple’s family?
VV: We spoke to the lawyer. And he served as a go-between.
L+T: How did you explain your film to them?
VV: You know the point of view of the film is really more…
David Foox: Compassionate.
VV: Yeah. To explore how there is no difference between the virtual world and the real world and to hold them responsible for what happened isn’t our role. Also, the film is about a lot more themes than just this story — it’s about Korea’s response to this story and how Korea healed after it. And how the gaming industry is working to…I mean, of course they want the games to be immersing, but they also want them to reflect and build a good society. It’s very important to Koreans. I think the style of the storytelling and just the general tone of the film can capture somebody’s interest. Also, we’re keeping [the couple’s] anonymity and shifting the focus off them specifically while telling their story. We’re not going to reveal where they live or anything like that, so they can continue to reintegrate into society. He’s a taxi driver now and she’s having another child.
DF: They have two kids now. Third on the way.
L+T: Do you think that Korea is going through a transformation that America and other countries will be following?
DF: I think that’s an ingenious question and very accurate and exactly what’s happening. You know, Facebook in Korea — the equivalent — is called Cyworld and predates Facebook by about five years. [South Korea] has had high-speed internet much longer than we have, approximately 20 years longer. Their infrastructure was built at the beginning of the ‘50s and ‘60s, with the whole point of view being to build out big communications hubs for Koreans. They face unique problems that we in the West will never face but at the same time, it’s allowed for a very unique ecosystem to develop that’s truly, truly amazing. For instance, here in the West, our websites have never really been catered towards mobile devices first and foremost. That’s number one. And number two, the rate at which an image loads has governed what kind of images we put up there, ‘cause if it loads slowly, that’s annoying. So, you build your entire strategy around these fast-loading, small-sized images and definitely no video. Well, can you imagine if from the very start, with the tools that you’re given you could put any sized image or video up because it all flows freely? And so Korea’s had this intense development. What do you think, Val?
VV: Totally. The model that business is done in is very cooperative and driven by trying to create an ecosystem. And so, there have been huge advances in gaming and devices and now what we’ve been looking at in the film is global gaming and shifting the narrative of the game from a desktop experience to a mobile experience — like how they’re building interfaces and how they’re shifting focus and what they expect from the player is the ability to be immersed 24/7.
DF: So, we feel that for any type of gaming policy or internet addiction studies or anything regarding the interface between a virtual world and the real world, Korea makes an ideal example to look at because they’re just facing it one step ahead of the Western world.
L+T: After all the research you’ve done, while you were putting this film together, do you have a positive outlook on where our changing society is going?
DF: I do. Valerie?
DF: Valerie has said this before but I think it’s the best way to clarify whether this is a good thing or not: She said, “This [is the] first time internet addiction was used successfully in the case of manslaughter in the real world, and it’s the first time we’ve made a virtual world so real that it can impact the justice system of the very real world.” So, I guess the significance of this is that we are creating new dimensions. Shifting agency from the real world into the virtual world can break down all kinds of traditional, insurmountable blockages like geography and space and time. The beginning of the trailer opens with this research doctor talking about what a lot of gamers say: “Why is it important for us to distinguish between the virtual world and the real world?” Your experiences are your experiences, and what we should be looking at instead is how to be designing the virtual world really aggressively and thoughtfully because it will and already does affect our real life.
L+T: It seems that the focus here isn’t just on games, but even the broader idea of virtual life. That seems to be something that America in particular is facing. I don’t know if you’re following the whole Gawker and Reddit situation, but the idea of what kinds of rights do we have online seems to be very much a part of the discussion right now.
DF: (to Valerie) So Gawker uncovered the identity of this crazy troll from Texas [on Reddit] who hates everybody and goes by the name “Violentacrez.” Anyway, they outed him. And the question is, how much privacy can you expect from your moniker or your avatar? And the answer is none really. And so what’s playing out in that arena will eventually translate to Facebook and each individual’s connection to whatever social media they’re touching.
VV: I mean, in Korea they don’t even have monikers.
DF: Right. You are your social security number online.
DF: It’s called the Cinderella law. And the reason it was created is because underage kids were gaming so much that it was taking away from their ability to study or serve their nations in other ways. So after midnight or a certain period of time they can’t play anymore, they get kicked off.
VV: If they’re underage.
DF: So that’s the solution, but then the kids being smart kids, they figure out a way around it and they just use their grandparent’s or someone older’s ID number instead. And so suddenly, you got Grandma who’s, like, amazing at StarCraft.
L+T: Although it seems from the film that some grandmothers really are amazing at StarCraft.
VV: Well everyone games in Korea. Everybody.
DF: Yeah, there’s like a game for everybody.
L+T: Is there anything that really surprised you while you were working on this project?
VV: I would say the biggest shift that I had after visiting Korea was, I had always assumed that playing games is a very isolating experience and what I realized is that the gaming culture in Korea is extremely community-oriented and you’re playing with your friends. There are tournaments and events where people go and watch other people play in an incredibly team-based community. Very, very socially inviting, which makes this story all that much more complex and interesting.
DF: Yeah, and because, say, in Japan where you have people who are mostly individual games playing on their console in their apartment by themselves, even if they are playing with real people it’s across the divide. But in Korea you would have these PC bungs [cafes], which have exceedingly high-speed internet and you’ll have your tribe hanging with you while you play. So, it’s a community within their community, like a subculture.