April 1st, 2010
07:18 AM ET

Couple on trial after child died during Internet gaming

The trial of a South Korean couple whose 3-month-old baby allegedly died of malnutrition while they nurtured an animated child during marathon sessions playing an online game begins Friday in Suwon, a satellite city south of Seoul.

The unmarried and unemployed couple, who have not been named, will be tried in Suwon District Court for negligent homicide. They were arrested in March.

The couple reportedly was obsessed with a game called Prius Online, playing it for sessions lasting as long as 12 hours. In the 3D fantasy game, players raise "Anima," a blue girl, who, as she grows, gains magical powers.

The case has highlighted the dark side of the Internet in South Korea, a nation renowned for its outstanding technological infrastructure and early adoption of the Internet and mobile technologies.

Korea boasts the highest broadband penetration rate on earth: 95 percent of households were connected in 2009, according to Strategic Analytics. And statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that Korea, with a population of 48 million, has the sixth-largest net number of broadband users in the developed world.

According to the Korea Cultural Content Agency, or KOCCA, the gaming sector, both online and mobile, is worth some $5 billion. Korean gamers do not need to invest in expensive consoles: 21,496 "PC Bangs" (Internet cafes) nationwide offer ultra high-speed access at hourly prices that start at just over a dollar.

"Korea is a very small country where everywhere you can see a PC Bang, and every house has broadband, so there are very easy conditions for playing online games," Justin Kim of KOCCA told CNN. "We also have a competitive culture: If one of my friends plays a game, I play with him, I can compete with him."

The popularity of online gaming in Korea has spawned three online gaming leagues and 12 pro teams sponsored by corporates such as SK and Samsung.

However, like all technologies, the Internet is a two-edged sword. Availability of Internet access combined with a pressure-cooker society - intensely competitive Koreans work the longest hours in the OECD, and are members of a conservative, privacy-deficient culture where peer pressure to conform can be overwhelming - leading some individuals to escape online.

"South Korea remains a very conservative society so people who fall outside the norm can come under severe stress and pressure," Michael Breen, the Seoul-based author of the book "The Koreans," told CNN last month. "The Internet has provided such people with a paradise to escape to and simply get lost in."

There are periodic reports of people dying after excessive sessions playing online, and even of gangs tracking down teams who beat them in online games and assaulting them.

"i-ACTION 2012," an inter-ministry team led by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, has been formed. ACTION stands for Attention, Counseling, Training, Institution, Outcome and Networks. A detailed government policy to deal with the issues of Internet addiction will be revealed to the public in mid-April.

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