UW News

September 24, 2020

Video: ‘Art game’ looks at the pandemic through an artist’s eye

UW News

Artists have always looked for ways to represent the human experience. As COVID-19’s impact ripples through science, politics and society, reflections of the pandemic show up in art, and even in video games.

Chanhee Choi is a multidisciplinary interactive artist and Ph.D. candidate in the UW Digital Arts and Experimental Media department. She’s creating a digital art game called “Pandemic,” a vehicle for her thoughts and experiences since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.

Choi has created a virtual environment that players move through as a coronavirus cell, guided by the arrows on their keyboard. They see glimpses of the real-world pandemic with its quarantines, protests, economic crises and loneliness. 

Players proceed through different scenes that Choi has built — a quiet room lit by a computer screen, fiery, violent streets, huddled crowds lorded over by giant politicians. She says the imagery is culled from experiencing life through the media on our screens, something a lot of us are doing as we spend time at home.

“As this pandemic goes on, it seems we are just watching a surreal parallel universe,” Choi said. “This is why I decided to make a video game. I needed to describe the surrealistic struggle of this particular moment and engage with the people going through it with me.” 

Still image from “Pandemic” by Chanhee Choi

Originally from South Korea, Choi says a strong motivator for the project was a racist experience she had at the beginning of the pandemic:

“In March, as I walked alone in the city, I was humiliated by the comments of a non-Asian stranger. He said, ‘You f—ing Chinese, you brought the coronavirus.’ I was very shocked. I started questioning whether it would have happened if I were any other race besides Asian.”

She began tracking and recording xenophobic attacks or expressions of bigotry that seemed related to the coronavirus. Soon, “Pandemic” took take shape, her first foray into 3D game design.

Choi describes “Pandemic” as an “art game,” a relatively new video game genre that’s about experiencing an envisioned environment rather than racking up points in a traditional goal-driven game. She points to “Passages” (2007) by Jason Rohrer as an early example where the player spends five minutes experiencing a character’s entire lifetime; commentators have described it as emotionally powerful. In another example, Mike Yi Ren’s game “Yellowface” walks you through awkward racial stereotyping at a house party. 

Choi says games can reveal perspectives to players from outside their everyday lives.

“I’d like to give people the experience of being a minority in America,” she said.

“Pandemic” is expected to be finished later this year, with sound by audio collaborator Wei Yang. Choi plans to make it available for download off her website so that anyone can explore it on their own computer.

You can watch a recent piece by Choi called ‘Darkness’ here.

For more information contact:
Chanhee Choi cchoi8@uw.edu
Video producer Kiyomi Taguchi: ktaguchi@uw.edu/206-685-2716