Documentary LOVE CHILD to Premiere 7/28 on HBO

Documentary LOVE CHILD to Premiere 7/28 on HBO

In 2010, the death from malnutrition of South Korean infant Sarang became an international news story when the circumstances were revealed: The parents had neglected her for an online fantasy game. Their subsequent trial, in the first case involving Internet addiction, established a global precedent in a world where virtual is the new reality.

Directed by Valerie Veatch (HBO's "Me @the Zoo,") and executive produced by T-Mobile CEO John Legere, LOVE CHILD explores this growing problem, weaving a tale of personal tragedy together with social commentary. Shining a light on how new technology can have unforeseen dire consequences, the timely documentary debuts MONDAY, JULY 28 (9:00-10:15 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

Other HBO playdates: July 28 (3:25 a.m.) and 31 (11:15 a.m., 6:00 p.m.), and Aug. 3 (4:00 p.m.), 5 (1:15 p.m.) and 16 (8:30 a.m.)

HBO2 playdates: July 29 (8:00 p.m.) and Aug. 1 (6:00 a.m.), 8 (5:10 a.m.), 10 (11:15 a.m.), 19 (10:20 a.m.,midnight) and 30 (3:15 p.m.)

A reported two million people suffer from gaming addiction in South Korea, in part because of the government's heavy investment in a broadband Internet infrastructure that is arguably one of the world's most advanced, and has turned Seoul into the "digital capital of the world." South Korea's Internet economy is worth $7.9 billion, and makes up 7% of the country's gross domestic product. Lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would classify Internet and online gaming addiction as a mitigating factor in criminal prosecutions, along with addiction to gambling, drugs and alcohol.

Director Valerie Veatch juxtaposes footage of Prius, the 3-D fantasy game the parents played daily, with observations by experts and those directly involved in the case, including lead detective Young Jin-Park, public defender Ji-Hoon Lee, Nexxon game developer Kim Tagon, British journalist Andrew Salmon, the psychiatrist consulted during the trial and an employee of the Internet café ("PC room") the couple frequented.

When South Korean police were contacted by a couple whose three-month-old daughter, Sarang ("Love" in Korean), had died, they were immediately suspicious. Born prematurely, she "was just lying straight" when they found her, claimed her parents. However, detective Young Jin-Park recalls that "it was obvious she had starved to death." Upon further investigation, police learned that the parents, who met online, spent six to 12 hours a day in a PC room playing Prius, leaving their daughter at home alone and hungry. In fact, the couple's main source of income was "Gold Mining," or trading points in the game for cash.

In Prius, the couple cared for Anima, a child-like mini-avatar earned after completing a number of quests, whose "personality changes based on interactions it has with the player." Journalist Andrew Salmon, who followed the case from the start, notes the irony "that [the couple] was raising an un-live child while essentially abandoning their own."

A psychiatric evaluation of the couple suggested that the two had become addicts who were "incapable of distinguishing between the virtual and real." Unsupported by their families, who disapproved of their marriage, they found an environment in the game where they were "rewarded." Given that South Korean law lessens penalties for crimes committed by the mentally and physically ill, defense attorney Ji-Hoon Lee argued the couple's gaming addiction should offer the same protection. A psychiatrist consulted in the case explains that it all came down to one question: "Is the brain of a patient with game addiction the same as the brain of the patient with substance addictions?"

This possibility caused many to fear that an onset of game addiction cases would hurt South Korea's reputation. An aggressive government campaign in the 1990s dramatically increased the number of Internet connections, leading to one of the world's finest broadband structures and an exploding gaming industry. Last year, South Korea exported $4.2 billion in cultural content, half of it from online games. "Internet gaming [here] is a real sport, where top players earn million-dollar contracts," explains one news reporter, noting the sponsorship of massive tech corporations.

As more South Koreans suffer from game addiction, some think the government is responsible for the side effects of its "Internet experiment." Internet-addiction clinics have sprung up, employing aversion therapy in an attempt to solve the problem, while the government recently introduced a controversial bill aimed at including gaming in the same category as gambling, drug and alcohol addictions. But with the rise of smartphones and other mobile devices, gaming is still expanding at an extraordinary rate. "The virtual reality reflects real life and becomes mixed together," says one game developer, suggesting this may not be a bad thing.

After a highly publicized trial, the Kims were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but given less severe sentences due to their addiction. Sarang's father served one year in prison, while her mother (revealed to be pregnant once more) did not serve any time. Although Prius' Korean servers were permanently shut down in Dec. 2013, the debate about online addiction - a global issue - rages on. "After the trial, I asked my doctor if I too was an online addict," a PC room employee recalls, "He laughed and said 'How does a fish know if it's in water?'"

The issues raised by LOVE CHILD are universal. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that a Chicago-based university will give 30 athletic scholarships for gamers and support a gaming team. Meanwhile, there is a movement in the U.S. to have Internet addiction formally added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the industry standard for classification of mental disorders that is published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Valerie Veatch is one of the youngest filmmakers ever to have two documentary feature films debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Her previous film, "Me @the Zoo," debuted on HBO in summer 2012. Typifying her innovative work in documentary filmmaking, she is the first filmmaker to use the new RGBDToolkit immersive technology, which its creators describe as "computational photography."

Executive producer John Legere is currently the CEO of T-Mobile USA. He was previously CEO of the telecommunications company Global Crossing, CEO of Asia Global Crossing, an executive at Dell and chief executive of AT&T Asia.

LOVE CHILD is a film by Valerie Veatch; produced by David Foox; director of photography, Daniel B. Levin; executive producers, John Legere, Christina Legere, Elizabeth Legere and Andrew Teng; producers, Daniel B. Levin, Danny Kim and Minji Kim. For HBO: supervising producer, Sara Bernstein, executive producer, Sheila Nevins.