For many Asians, heightened xenophobia and the rise in hate crimes during 2020, and now through 2021, added extra stress and trauma to their everyday lives. In a now too-familiar story, Chanhee Choi, a South Korean student at the University of Washington, was attacked in downtown Seattle by a racist assailant, ranting about Chinese people and the coronavirus. Afterward, she decided to do something that only she could have done to bring awareness to the issue.
She decided to make a game about it.
“It was around the beginning of the pandemic, in 2020,” said Choi. “I was walking down the street in downtown Seattle. At the moment I was just back from a trip home to see my family. There, everyone was wearing masks, but here, nobody did it. I was the only one wearing a mask because I just came from South Korea, so I was worried about being around others, if it was possible to get coronavirus. I was just protecting myself, but I didn't expect that someone could judge me or have a problem, or think wearing a mask makes me look like I'm sick. Suddenly one guy started yelling at me like, ‘Are you Chinese? You brought coronavirus.’ He raised his fist to my face. I looked around for help and everyone turned away, like they didn’t want to see me. I felt like I was the only Asian in the city, even though Seattle has so many. I was there by myself, knowing what he was doing to me. I had never felt this kind of fear in the United States. Since that happened, I don’t go downtown alone now. At the time I noticed that every time Trump was on the news, he mentioned the China virus. But why did that happen to me? That was my first question. It really affected me. I wanted to share this kind of feeling and sadness, so others could try to understand the experience that I had.”
That was when Choi decided to use her skills in digital arts and experimental media, her major, to incorporate her experiences into a game. “I'm a transdisciplinary artist. I was making 3D animations and also video games,” Choi said. “I’ve learned a lot, like about how brain sensors and mechatronics could work, to engage them in a digital world. So yeah, this is where I got the idea to make Pandemic, using Unity and Maya 3D.”
To begin with, Choi created a 3D avatar of the Covid-19 molecule that players are forced to play the game with, to represent the dehumanizing racism of equating Asian people with a virus. Throughout several levels, the scenery—and enemies—become incrementally more aggressive and disturbing. Some of those scenes even contain TV screens that show the player reports of real hate crimes. To offer players some agency against the way enemies attack them, earlier in the game Choi provides some humorous, familiar items to fight back with.
“The main character is a virus molecule exploring the world. Some people try to attack it,” Choi explained. “I made certain functions for the player, so that they can collect toilet paper and hand sanitizer to throw back at their attackers. I know that’s somewhat silly, but remember: Toilet paper was like gold at the beginning.”
When it came time to create the enemies in the game and the obstacles the player would encounter, Choi took inspiration from the real world, including some troubling examples she’d seen on social media.
“My inspiration for creating the enemies was drawn from the cartoons of a racist artist from the Netherlands,” she said. “He made these loop animations of a Chinese woman wearing a bikini made out of corona molecules, eating a lot of spoiled food and French-kissing a bat. It made her look like an unclean and stupid sex symbol. This video went viral in 2020, and somehow, no one was mad about it. I thought, what is happening?”
Choi suggested that people watching the video, if they didn’t already get and agree with the stereotyping, may not have understood exactly how harmful and xenophobic it really was. So she decided to include the video—or at least elements of it—in her game. “I’m modeling an image that looks similar to that cartoon in 3D form. It’s to interpret just one sample of the messages of bigotry being shared on social media. TikTok has more cartoons like that, which many young boys and girls can see. When I show these things to others, I say, ‘Hey, don’t you think this is wrong?’ They actually say, ‘What is wrong?’ It's not funny. This could be dangerous, a stereotype of this one race spreading disease and eating a bat. Who will that kind of image affect?”
To express her frustration and also hold a mirror up to the uncritical reception that memes like this get on social media, she added a level in the game full of zombies, driven by nothing but mindness resentment and hatred.
“The pattern of the zombies actually matches Trump’s tweets about Covid,” said Choi. “There is a sort of sound system, so when you get close, you hear it. The sound is a random quote from authentic social media posts. One woman yells, ‘You guys have to go back to your country.’ It’s a constant viral ranting. And the zombies keep following you, so you have to try to run away. They keep gathering—you can see at one point there are like 30 or 40 of them, and they keep crawling toward you.”
“You have to throw the toilet paper at them to make them disappear,” Choi said, with a smile.
According to Stop AAPI Hate, women are two times more likely to be attacked than men, often linked to gendered stereotypes of promiscuity and subservience, which we saw in the Atlanta shooting in March 2021. That violence against women, and the increased risk of future violence, are driving factors that propel Choi forward as she works on Pandemic.
When discussing the Atlanta shooting, Choi says that “the general consensus is literally for the woman to somehow be cooperative: exotic, an object. There is an example set for the severity of these crimes, like when the police just said, ‘He had a bad day.’ Everyone has a bad day. I really don't understand why those who commit the crimes are protected like martyrs, like we deserve to die. I realized that I have to just keep trying to speak up. It's OK to be aggressive, or try to make your voice heard. I think that is the only solution.”
Pandemic is slated for a release this summer on Chanhee Choi’s website. It will be available as a free download on PC.