During the pandemic, many people have leaned into art and hobbies to ease the stress of everyday life.
For Chanhee Choi, a multidisciplinary interactive artist and Ph.D. candidate in the University of Washington Digital Arts and Experimental Media department, art became a way to reflect on her experience with discrimination and racism as a Korean in America during the pandemic.
Last March, after the first few cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed the United States, but before the pandemic completely shut down life as we knew it, Choi was walking down the street with a face mask on when a man shouted a racial slur at her.
“I was walking around the place over there and then someone who looked like a stranger I never met was saying ‘Hey, you (expletive) Chinese, you brought coronavirus,’” Choi said.
After the interaction, Choi said she was inspired to create “Pandemic 2020” — a first-person, 3D, environmental art game that depicts what life is like for people of color during the pandemic.
It’s not a traditional video game, Choi said. It’s an art game that’s more about experiencing a world rather than racking up points.
Asian and Black Americans have been the targets of racism and xenophobia throughout the pandemic, and Asians, especially, are incorrectly seen as carriers of the virus. Choi said she wanted to demonstrate what that feels like firsthand as the player moves within the digital world and interacts with the hostile characters.
Players take on the role of the virus as they travel through seven different levels and scenes of the game and are faced with hostility and anger from the other characters. While some of these characters would run away from the player out of fear, the others would physically or verbally fight them.
Although the game is set in an abstract reality, Choi incorporated real news footage and popular social media posts about the virus in the different scenes. Those scenes represent the racist clichés and tropes like “China virus,” insensitive jokes about eating bats, and footage of President Donald Trump’s dialogue about the virus.
James Coupe, associate professor for digital art and experimental media at UW, helped mentor Choi as she built the digital world of Pandemic 2020.
“It seems like as the world was changing and shifting, there were new rooms and parts of the game that would emerge in response, so that was kind of interesting,” Coupe said. “It’s very complex territory.”
For example, when Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country after George Floyd was killed, Choi shifted her game’s mindset to not just act as a commentary on the Asian American experience, but to reflect on how race as a whole is depicted in the media and how people of color are discriminated against by society.
She included scenes from Black Lives Matter protests and a scene where there are dozens of George Floyds lying on the ground surrounded by police officers and protesters.
“I was only focusing on xenophobia and the more Asian side, but after George Floyd changed my mind. I tried to more open my mind, open ideas up like, ‘What is the real problem? How can we change our judgment to people?’” she said.
Choi said the first few levels of the game have humorous elements, but as the player progresses, it becomes more dangerous and hostile. For instance, the player can collect toilet paper and hand sanitizer and “throw” them at the characters that are trying to fight them in the first few levels.
But the player faces more physical violence and hostility from characters as they move through the levels, making a statement on “politics, classism, and the elite’s indifference toward lower socioeconomic groups.”
Afroditi Psarra, artist and assistant professor of digital arts and experimental media at UW, worked with Choi to develop the artistic aesthetic of the game.
“For me, I think one of the most powerful images of the game is the crowds that she has created. There’s this kind of like, mass of people that walk like zombies following — they appear out of nowhere — they follow the player and it creates an intense atmosphere,” Psarra said.
The ending of the game is still in the works, but Choi said it will show a message of hope.
“She’s making work that tries to respond to what’s going on outside, and I think that’s an important thing for artists to grapple with,” Coupe said. “The pandemic has thrown up all kinds of interesting challenges. How do we deal with confinement? How do we deal with what’s happening politically? I wonder if this, from at least her point of view, becomes a way of coping.”
Choi said some players might find the game uncomfortable, but she hopes they learn something while playing it.
“I hope they enjoy, even if it can feel uncomfortable,” she said. “I want them to experience with it how to feel like being a minority … if they feel like, ‘I really didn’t like it, I’m not going to play anymore,’ that’s maybe best.”
The game will go up on Choi’s website (https://chaneec.com) for free when she finishes it later this year, and anyone will be able to play it.