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HBO documentary examines addiction, ethics of game design in shadow of child's death

Her name means love in Korean.

Three-month-old Sarang died in her sleep of malnutrition. The five-and-a-half pound baby wasted away while her parents spent their nights playing Prius Online, raising a virtual child in a Korean cyber cafe as they neglected their real one at home.

Love Child, a documentary about the 2010 death and the culture surrounding it, starts airing on HBO this week. Director Valerie Veatch, also the director behind HBO's ME @the Zoo, told Polygon that her documentary isn't meant to be an attack on the game industry, but instead a way to spark an important dialog.

Are video games addictive? Do game developers have an ethical responsibility in how they bring their creations to life? What role should gamers have in the shape those games take?

love child

There are no real answers in the documentary — even the ethicist, the psychologist and the media expert we spoke with don't have answers — but it is meant to be a solid starting point for a meaningful discussion.

And that's already happening, Veatch said.

The documentary was screened in Korea in June and the director said she saw younger viewers deeply impacted by the film.

"The younger kids who watched it, they really loved the dialog it started," she said. "They are looking at the technology in this film. It's exciting to begin this dialog because the virtual world is something we can design and influence.

"What I really love that is happening so far, and I hope continues to happen, is that people seem to be asking themselves ‘What is this technology?' ‘How is it asking me to behave?' and ‘How is it changing me?'"

A paradigm shift

Veatch first became interested in the 2010 criminal case when she saw coverage of it on the BBC, she said. As she followed the court case in the news she began to realize that she was watching a trial that captured a distinct shift, a moment when the real world and the virtual world were beginning to blend together.

"They were unable to distinguish between the real and the virtual," she said. "It created this whole paradigm shift."

After wrapping up a film in 2012, Veatch traveled to Korea and filmed for a few months, meeting with the people involved in the case, clinicians and game developers.

love child

"I spent a year and a half editing, trying to tell a story that was true to the phenomenon that is happening," she said. "I think that as any country catches up to Korea's highly advanced telecom structure, they will begin to see this kind of Internet overuse too."

South Korea's internet economy is worth $7.9 billion and makes up 7 percent of the country's gross domestic product. A reported 2 million people suffer from gaming addiction in South Korea, according to the creators of Love Child. And the couple who let Sarang die were two of them, according to the court. The duo were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and given a reduced sentence due to their addiction.

An artifact of media hysteria

Despite the subject of her documentary, Veatch describes herself as a "technotopian," someone who sees technology improving society.

"I love gaming," she said. "I think there is a lot of value there. But I think this is a complicated issue and I think we're just scratching the surface of how virtual space is changing our minds."

Villanova University's Patrick Markey, an associate professor of psychology and expert on how video games affect human behavior and relationships, said that there is no question that some people play video games excessively and that doing so could lead to negative consequences.

"However, people engage in all types of activities excessively if that activity provides enjoyment or distracts them from other issues going on in their lives," he said. "For example, a person under extreme stress (either due to work, children, or just because they are generally anxious) might engage in excessive gameplay as a way to avoid dealing with this stress. In this manner excessive gameplay might be considered more of a symptom of an underlying issue than the actual cause of a problem."

Markey dismisses the notion that video games are addictive as an "artifact of media hysteria."

"There is currently no major organization which has accepted that video games are addictive in the same manner as drugs or gambling," he said. "In short, video games might encourage high levels of engagement but they are not addictive."

For some, the distinction is the difference between addiction and obsession.

"The claim that video games are addictive, often conflates chemical addition with obsessive behaviors," said Adrienne Shaw, an assistant professor at Temple University's department of media studies and production. "More than that, as Carl Hart from Columbia has found, our understanding of chemical addiction has been largely shaped by the assumption that it is not a rational choice. Doing so stops us from dealing the underlying causes of the chemical addictions and obsessive behaviors."

Pathologizing excessive game play can actually be a hindrance, she said.

"When people neglect their kids, I suspect there are many more issues at play than video game obsessions," Shaw said. "If it wasn't games, it would probably have been something else."

Game developers' moral obligations

As for the ethics involved, Shaw believes that any talk of ethical game design should focus on economic exploitation and not game design decisions.

"Do video game designers want people to play their games?" she said. "Obviously. But if we say this is unethical, then what we're really saying is that capitalism is unethical (which, in many ways it is)."

But not everyone agrees.

Andrew Cullison is the director of the Janet Prindle Institute of Ethics at DePauw University and the secretary-treasurer of the American Philosophical Association's Eastern Division. Cullison, who develops video games in his spare time, has also taught classes on ethics and technology.

"I do think game developers have a moral obligation to think about their game design in light of recent evidence we have concerning the addictiveness," he said. "It's easy to dismiss abuse of a product as a personal choice of the consumer, but as evidence of addiction for any product grows — it becomes less clear how much choice is involved.

"What's more troubling about this phenomenon, is that the business model for games has changed in two important ways that make it very tempting for developers to try and create a game that is addictive. In-app purchase and subscription-based models are more lucrative if the consumer can't stop playing, as are free games that rely on cost-per-click advertisements. You only make money off your users if they keep coming back to play, and the more addicted they are to the game, the more likely you are to make money off their clicks."

Cullison believes the growing trend and ability to make revenue from a single, heavily involved gamer has created a dramatic shift in how some game developers are thinking about game design.

love child

"Making an addictive game is the obvious choice for maximizing revenue in these new ways," he said. "So, I'm worried that we'll not see developers shy away from actively trying to create addictive games."

A game designed to pull people back in was certainly one element of the Love Child tragedy, Veatch said.

"I don't think that gaming itself is addictive," she said. "I think without understanding the psychology of a game's use, a lot of people can get sucked in, though. There is a line when you lose your interest in life, then things like this happen and a child is emaciated."

Veatch said that her biggest hope as a filmmaker is to ask questions and create a space for dialog.

"Through this dialog we can build," she said. "We consume these things with very little critique. As a consumer we should have a role in the process of this design and in asking for better technology.

"[Love Child] is challenging the gaming industry to coincide with our humanity rather than compete with it. The virtual space is not going away; it's here and we are building it together."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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