National Edition

Online gaming addictions: Sundance films explore a darker side of the Internet

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 22 2014 7:25 p.m. MST

Image from the film "Web Junkie" of youth undergoing testing a rehabilitation camp outside of Beijing for youth diagnosed with an Internet addiction disorder.

Courtesy of Dogwoof Global

PARK CITY — For weeks, the young couple would arrive at an Internet cafe in Suwon, South Korea, shortly after dinner and spend up to 10 hours playing an online game that involved raising a virtual child in a fantasy world.

Meanwhile, their real-life 3-month-old girl was home alone with a bottle. The neglect resulted in the infant's death and involuntary manslaughter charges against the parents.

In mainland China, desperate parents are forcing their teen children into military-style government rehabilitation camps, hoping to cure the youths of a diagnosed addiction to online gaming, which has blurred their distinction between the real and virtual worlds.

In the bordering nation of Bhutan, the light from a television screen flickers off the faces of a family who appear at once mesmerized and perplexed by the broadcast of a wrestling match. It's late 2012, and their rural village of Laya has just been wired for electricity and many of the villagers had never experienced TV.

The three scenarios are depicted in separate documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival that examine the consequences of technological development. But the films also explore questions of responsibility for those consequences and answers to helping those adversely affected by advances in technology.

"Technology is so much a part of life and something we are concerned about," said Hilla Medalia, a co-director of "Web Junkie," the film about the Chinese rehab camps. "The Internet is so important in so many ways. I can't imagine living without it. I don't know how I ever did. But I think it is time to look at impact of Internet ... to look at the dark side."

Public response

Valarie Veatch said she first heard about the South Korean couple in 2010 from news reports about their trial, where their attorney successfully made a case that their clients suffered from an addiction to Internet gaming, akin to alcohol, drug or gambling addictions.

The father was sentenced to two years in prison, while the mother's sentence was suspended because she was pregnant with the couple's second child.

"The story seemed so emblematic and symbolic of how technology impacts society," said Veatch, who used the tragedy to explore the ramifications of a wired society in "Love Child."

Her documentary tells of South Korea building one of the world's most advanced information technology infrastructures in the world. As a result its citizens are some of the most connected to technology in the world. The infrastructure and its resulting economic benefits in attracting industry and jobs accounted for 7 percent of the country's gross domestic product, or $7.9 billion, according to the film.

The city where the infant's death occurred was voted the Most Intelligent Community in the world in 2010, the same year that the baby's parents — Kim Yun-jeong, 25, and her partner, Kim Jae-beom, 41 — were tried and convicted.

"The film really doesn't even scratch the surface in the context of South Korea rebuilding from nothing in the past 50 years into a major player in the world" because of its technological capability, Veatch said.

But the case of a child dying because of her parents obsession with Internet gaming has forced citizens and policy-makers to consider the costs of South Korea's technological prowess, Veatch said.

"It just felt like in this smart, wired society, we can lose our humanity," she said.

Since the verdict, a debate has continued among South Korean policy-makers on how to define and regulate online gaming addiction. Legislation was introduced in December that would define online games as one of the four vices — along with alcohol, drugs and gambling — and tax the industry to fund treatment.

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