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An Artist Was Targeted in a Hate Crime. So She Designed a Video Game

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.” 

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