A baby starves to death while its parents play online.
It has come to this: A child starved to death while her parents cared for an imaginary child instead.
It happened in South Korea. A man and woman met online. Their online relationship became physical. They made a real baby.
But the baby was troubled. She was premature. Her parents never named her.
Instead, they found another child to raise. She was healthy, happy, and beautiful. She lived in a world called Prius Online. It's a 3-D-graphics-enhanced universe where you can find new friends, a new job, and a new child. Her name is Anima. According to her online introduction, "Anima is not a passive unit that simply tags along with you and follow[s] your orders. She is your companion with her own intentions who knows how to express her feelings."
We used to call sites like this one games. But today, they're more than that. They're worlds. "You get to meet Anima like you meet your soul mate once you start adjusting yourself to the new world," says Prius Online. The difference is more than marketing. A game is a place where your mind takes a vacation. A world is a place where your mind moves in, sets up house, and changes its mailing address.
That's what happened to the Korean couple. They left their real daughter at home, alone, while they spent their days at an Internet café. Or rather, they spent their days in cyberspace. The café was more like a Harry Potter portkey, a vehicle for disappearing from one place and appearing in another. Once a day, they returned to the physical world to feed their daughter powdered milk. Then they went back to the world they cared about.
One day, after a 12-hour stint online, they visited the physical world and found their baby dead. The autopsy blamed malnutrition and dehydration. A police officer said the parents "seemed to have lost their will to live a normal life because they didn't have jobs and gave birth to a premature baby." Consequently, "They indulged themselves in the online game of raising a virtual character so as to escape from reality, which led to the death of their real baby."
Maybe this is just a weird story about a sick couple on the other side of the planet. But look in the mirror. Every time you answer your cell phone in traffic, squander your work day on YouTube, text a colleague during dinner, or turn on the TV to escape your kids, you're leaving this world. You're neglecting the people around you, sometimes at the risk of killing them.
The problem isn't that you're a bad or weak person. It's worse than that. The problem is that all of us are susceptible to being drawn into other worlds, and other worlds are becoming ever more compelling. In the old days, imaginary friends had to be imagined. Now you can see and interact with them. In cyberspace, they exist. They're more alluring and less flawed than your friends in the physical world. And thanks to artificial intelligence and three-dimensional graphics, they're becoming quite lifelike.
That's the real horror behind the Korean story: The balance of power between the worlds is shifting. Here and there, virtual reality is gaining the upper hand. The clearest evidence is death. When people consumed by the digital world begin to die and kill in the physical world, flesh is losing its grip. It still defines our deaths, but it no longer defines our lives.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.