Online gaming addictions: Sundance films explore a darker side of the Internet
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."
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.
"However, there is fierce opposition to the proposed bill. Opponents argue that a detailed study on overindulgence in online games should be conducted first, rather than blindly regulating Internet games," according to BusinessKorea.com.
China is one of the first countries to classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder, according to the film Web Junkie, which takes viewers into one of 400 military-style boot camps where teenagers are treated.
Most of the patients are teenage boys who spend six hours or more a day at Internet cafes playing online games. The film shows some of the boys bragging about who has played for the longest continuous stretch, only stopping to cat nap, eat or go to the bathroom. One teen claimed to have played 15 days straight.
But Medalia and co-director Shosh Shlam also revealed an underlying cause of the youths attraction to online gaming — dysfunctional relationships between the child and his parents.
"There were family issues and clearly (online gaming) is an escape for these kids," Medalia said. "The questions was what came first, the addiction and overuse of the Internet or the relationship problems."
Some of the teens said when gaming they felt successful and accepted. They dismissed the notion that they had become antisocial, with one boy saying he had fallen in love with another gamer online who understood him, calling it his first "cyber love."
The therapy also involved parents who were candidly told during a session that their children were lonely because the parents failed to connect to them emotionally.
One parent responded that these children are the only child — the result of the China's one-child policy — and as parents they failed to make friends with their only child.
"We only ask them to study hard," he said. "Their pain, their worries, we see none of that ... as long as they study hard all is well."
The psychologist conducting the session, Professor Tao Ran, said these children have turned to the Internet as their friend and confidant: "All of them feel zero degree of emotion toward another person," he told the parents.
The rehabilitation centers in China have been around since 2004 and Tao claims a 70 percent success rate in curing patients of Internet addictions. But Shlam said there is no reliable data on the success of the rehab treatments centers.
Reality vs. fantasy
Tao invited the Israeli filmmakers to his camp because he wants to spread his theory that the Internet can be as addictive as a drug and the West needs to address the issue as aggressively as Asia, Shlam said.
Internet addiction is not considered a clinical disorder in the United States, where experts say it requires further study.
"We need to be careful as to whether we're responding to a fear of technology rather than looking at the complex pressures around a individual who is exhibiting signs of abuse of any substance or activity in ways that are problematic in all areas of the individual's life," said Pamela Brown Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, in Newport Beach, Calif.
She questions whether efforts in South Korea to regulate the Internet will address the underlying problems of people obsessed with online gaming.
"My concern is that it's an easy answer to blame games and the Internet (and) ignore more fundamental issues surrounding mental health," she said.
Veatch explained the debate around the societal impact of developing technologies also delves into questions of reality verses imagined reality that have been asked every time a new medium takes hold in society.
The remote nation of Bhutan has the benefit of learning from more developed countries that have been adapting to electronic media for more than a century. French Filmmaker Thomas Balmes' documentary "Happiness" begins with King Jigme Wangchuck announcing an initiative in 1999 to provide television and Internet throughout the largely undeveloped nation and assuring the masses that rapid development was synonymous with the “gross national happiness” of his country.
The film, which follows a family of yak herders in the rural highlands of Bhutan and their dogged pursuit of buying a television in time for the electrification of their village, questions of whether the innovation brings happiness.
Balmes, who doesn't have a TV in his own home because he doesn't like the content broadcast on French television, said he does not advocate getting rid of technology or slowing its advance.
"We shouldn't replace the computer with pen and paper, but we should be working at educating ourselves about technology" and how it impacts society, he said.
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