The objective in an online role playing game is for your virtual avatar to grow stronger and more independent. But according to two documentaries premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival, these Internet-based video game playgrounds became so addictive they began to suck the souls out of some who played them.
In "Love Child," which premieres Friday and shows again Sunday in Park City, a young South Korean couple was so immersed in a massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), they starved their three-month-old daughter to death.
“Love Child” » Friday, Jan. 17, 6 p.m., Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City; Saturday, Jan. 18, midnight, Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City; Sunday, Jan. 19, 7 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2, Park City; Wednesday, Jan. 22, 12:15 p.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City; Friday, Jan. 24, 3 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema 2, Park City.
“Web Junkie” » Sunday, Jan. 19, 6 p.m., Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City; Monday, Jan. 20, 6 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City; Tuesday, Jan. 21, 10 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2, Park City; Thursday, Jan. 23, 10 a.m., Holiday Village Cinema 4, Park City; Friday, Jan. 24, 9 p.m., Screening Room, Sundance Resort; Saturday, Jan. 25, 3:45 p.m., Temple Theatre, Park City.
In "Web Junkie," which premieres Sunday, China believes it has an epidemic of teen Internet addiction so deadly, it has created hundreds of militarized boot camps to treat kids.
Both demonstrate a growing culture in Asia in which this divide between the virtual and real worlds is causing young people to seek escape at the cost of loved ones.
"This story for me kind of illustrated the collapse of ‘digital dualism,’ this idea of the virtual world and real world as distinctive, different spaces," said filmmaker Valerie Veatch, who directed "Love Child."
In Seoul, the young couple whose baby died from neglect went on trial in 2010, resulting in a policy debate over the impact of the Internet in one of the world’s most connected countries. South Korea has become a mecca of the digital domain where an estimated 98 percent of households have a broadband connection and nearly two-thirds have a smartphone. Samsung, the world’s largest manufacturer of smartphones, is headquartered in South Korea.
But the National Information Society Agency also predicts that 160,000 South Korean children between 5 and 9 years old are addicted to the Internet.
Though South Korea has so many connected homes, it’s still a country — like China — in which Internet cafes are popular hangouts for teens to go and play multiplayer online games. The young couple in the film, whose daughter is named Sarang ("love" in Korean), would go to a local Internet cafe to play the Korean MMORPG, "Prius," for as much as 10 hours a day. During that time, they only fed their baby once a day.
Veatch insists "Love Child" is not about the couple but about a changing landscape in which technology has taken over a country’s priorities.
"This is just one flicker in the kind of conversation of how technology is impacting our society," she said.
In the United States, web addiction has not yet been declared an official clinical disorder in the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s "Diagnostic and Statstical Manual of Mental Disorder," which came out last May for the first time in 20 years. Instead, "Internet-Use Gaming Disorder" is listed in the manual’s appendix which states it demands further research before it is classified a mental disorder such as drug addiction.
"We just don’t simply know how to best to assess it and if it’s is a unique condition," said Nancy Petry, professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center who researches addiction. "It needs more study."
But in China, officials already have declared Internet addiction as a clinical disorder, and "Web Junkie" takes viewers into one of that country’s military-run addiction centers for teens.
Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia spent four months inside one of those centers beginning in 2010 and revealed a place where teens are literally imprisoned for their gaming addiction but learn that their obsessions are the symptom of a larger issue with relationships.
The film follows a few of the boys in the center, some who reveal troubled relationships with their parents, including one with an abusive father. It seems that Internet gaming, where these lonely souls seek approval and friendship from other strangers in the online game, has become a haven from strained relationships.
"The Internet has created a deep change in human relationships. We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone," Shlam said. "The human need for relationships is changing, and the issue of over-use and dependency on technology is a universally pressing issue. All these things inspired us to pursue this story."
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.