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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 6

Real World

A new film examines Internet addiction and a baby's death

In March 2010 police in South Korea arrested a husband and wife in a tragically ironic case that gained international notoriety: the couple let their three-month-old daughter, Sarang, starve to death in their apartment while they spent up to 12 hours a day nurturing a virtual daughter as part of a 3-D fantasy online role-playing game known as Prius Online. A documentary to be released this month uses the story as the starting point for an examination of a high-tech culture's fascination with the blending of virtual and real worlds.

Directed by Valerie Veatch, Love Child begins with Choi Mi-sun's mother describing how she and her then 24-year-old daughter decided to visit a “PC bang”—a local gaming center—in 2008 as a way for Mi-sun to meet a potential spouse. Such gaming centers have been common in South Korea for years thanks to both the country's extensive high-speed Internet infrastructure and the population's obsession with multiplayer gaming as a social outlet.

As detailed in the film, through a multiplayer game, Mi-sun met then 34-year-old Kim Yoo-chul. They later had a common-law marriage, and Mi-sun gave birth to Sarang (Korean for “love”). With Yoo-chul, Mi-sun and her mother spending so much time playing Prius Online, Sarang was often left home alone, until the day in September 2009 when the couple returned to find that their infant daughter had died.

Prosecutors sought a five-year prison sentence for the couple. The defense countered that Yoo-chul and Mi-sun were not responsible for their behavior because an Internet addiction had impaired their judgment. (The couple, however, also earned their living playing Prius Online, which gamers can do by selling their virtual wealth to other gamers.) This strategy—the first in South Korea's history to employ Internet addiction as a defense—helped reduce the couple's jail sentence.

Although South Korea is already the world leader when it comes to Internet connectivity and speed, it has announced plans to build out its fiber-optic infrastructure so its upload and download speeds exceed by an even wider margin those found elsewhere. All those improvements could see Prius Online–like gaming done at home rather than at a PC bang. Who knows what that might have meant for Sarang?

Adapted from Observations at blogs.ScientificAmerican.com/observations

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