Interview: Mike Ren Yi

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Christopher B. Patterson is an Assistant Professor in the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia. He is author of the books Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific (Rutgers University Press, 2018), and Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games (New York University Press, 2020).

Mike Ren Yi has developed a reputation as a controversial game designer. As a diasporic Chinese American living in Shanghai, Mike creates personal games that explore the intersections of race, state control, and environmental degradation, all while working in an industry overseen by state censors. But while his games challenge the status quo, they also contain heartfelt expressions of daily life. His game Yellowface (2019), based loosely off of David Henry Hwang’s play of the same name, captures the microaggressions of being an Asian American man in the United States, while his game Hazy Days (2016) follows a young girl living in the pollution-saturated airways of contemporary China. Mike Ren Yi’s latest game, Novel Containment (2020), attempts to capture the atmosphere of state control and censorship during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it may be his most risky venture yet.

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Chris Patterson: How did you get into game design?

Mike Ren Yi: When my family immigrated to America in 1996, playing Pokemon became a crucial way for me to connect with other kids. Through the act of playing together, cultural barriers and language problems were broken into simple human interactions.

Although games were a major part of my childhood, I never really thought I could make games until college. I went to NYU studying Film and Animation, and during my Senior year the NYU Game Center started. I felt like the reason why I wanted to study films was actually fueled by my interest in games.

C: What led you to make games like Novel Containment and Yellowface, which are unabashed in their social and political themes?

M: I think these games are about how I see the world. Yellowface stemmed from feeling lost in China and angry over how people of color were being treated in America. Novel Containment was coming from my anxiety about the epidemic crisis as it was unfolding. I try to put my players into a unique perspective, guided by emotions and the circumstance at hand.

C: This “unique perspective” is your own, yes? And to much of the world, it would encompass, let’s say, diaspora, marginalization, migration, etc. Do you feel that games can express your perspective differently than, say, film or animation (your initial interests)?

M: The unique perspective stems from my own experiences, but I am really drawn to projects in which underrepresented characters take the forefront in the storytelling. Although games are a similar visual medium like films and animation, the emotions in games are revealed quite differently.

When I work on a game, I do apply much of what I learned from filmmaking towards designing my work. I think the most important similarity between the two mediums is trying to evoke emotions through what the player or audience sees. In films, you are showing the emotions through performance and storytelling, whereas in games, emotions like anxiety or stress can be designed for the player. When I approach making films or games, I always try to focus on what the player or audience member is going to be experiencing.

C: Your latest game, Novel Containment, is about the COVID-19 pandemic, told from the point of view of a government worker in charge of quarantine efforts at a train station in China. How did you come up with this game, and why take the angle of a government worker?

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M: Novel Containment stems from my own anxieties about the virus as it was happening in China. I wanted to look at it from the perspective of an everyday person who is thrown into chaos with power, but also a lot at risk.

I started prototyping the idea when news was breaking out in Wuhan about the virus. Working on Novel Containment was like a documentary, recording my own thoughts and reflecting on how things were being handled. Playing as a worker and checking temperatures as a mechanic, stems from our experience travelling during that time.

Another thing I wanted to capture was the sheer population of China. We know that China has 1.4 billion people, but that number seems so large it becomes abstract. With this game, part of the challenge was really trying to capture what it feels like to be overwhelmed by people, especially people trying to travel over Chinese New Year.

C: One thing I really enjoyed about Novel Containment is that it has a Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013) feeling of complicity to it. In Novel Containment, the player is pressured to under-report numbers of viral bodies. But the reasons for doing so are not merely from nationalism or fear. Novel Containment recognizes that the desire to under-report is not merely for fear of state repercussions (that is part of it), but is also a way to thoughtfully manage panic and anxiety. Did you have that in mind while making it?

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M: I loved Papers, Please and it’s a major source of inspiration for me. The reports that were coming out about the virus in China were very similar to what we saw around the world. Misinformation and panic were on the rise as the government scrambled to figure out what to do. There were fake cures being peddled on WeChat groups and supplies were being hoarded, but the immediate government response was swift and decisive.

Most people living here knew that the numbers were inaccurate and suppression of information was happening, but the truth is, no one really knew what the real figures were, not even the government. The daily case tallies kept changing drastically, sometimes doubling overnight.

Obviously, there’s an element of propaganda at play, but the real irony is we all live on the internet now and propaganda is much less effective when news travels through chat groups and apps, faster than any government entity can stop it. The truth always leaks out, as in the case of Doctor Li Wenliang, who has been immortalized in most people’s eyes. As a result of these factors, the way that the government handled the crisis could definitely be better, but transparency is not really a part of Chinese mentality when dealing with problems like this. This is something you quickly learn when you live in China. The truth is in the subtext, not the actual words being spoken.

The reality is that institutions around the world oppress people to keep power; some do it openly and some try to hide it, and I try to reflect that in my games. Once struggling individuals from around the world realize that their own experiences are not that different from one another, then we are on the path toward positive social change.

C: To me, the game feels very risky. As you know, there have been quite a few controversies between Chinese officials/gamers and certain game companies (the attacks on Devotion (Red Candle Games, 2019), the Blitzchung controversy, the current Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo, 2020) controversies). Are you nervous at all about the game’s reception?

M: This is something I’ve thought about since Hazy Days, but I find that I’m not making work specifically for Chinese audiences. If anything, the games are more targeted towards Western audiences who are interested in China or are attempting to study China through a modern perspective. The purpose of these games is to provide empathy on critical issues when thinking about China as a country filled with humans, rather than a government institution.

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When Hazy Days came out, I was interviewed by a few Chinese gaming publications and the response has been positive. I think Hazy Days and Novel Containment try to examine how people function in conditions beyond their control. China is where I currently live, but I hope the experiences I bring up are universal enough to relate to on an emotional human level.

C: On your itch.io page you identify as Asian-American, and currently live in Shanghai. I feel a kinship with that choice, as I lived in Nanjing and then Hong Kong for nearly five years. Why live in China, and how do you see your experience overseas as an Asian-American?

M: I first moved to China in 2015 after a few visits here before. I was initially planning on staying for a year, but the longer I stayed, the more I realized how interesting China was becoming, not only on a global scale but from the day-to-day moments of my life here.

Being Asian-American in China has a completely different set of challenges to it. For one, you feel like you are part of the majority and not a minority. However, your approach to social situations is different from other Chinese people, and that really changes how people see you.

Although I identify as Asian-American, I was actually born in China and moved to the U.S. when I was 6. I became a naturalized U.S. Citizen at 18. As an Asian-American immigrant, I am truly stuck between worlds. I feel my job is to facilitate discussions between people and to help one another see the other side as human.

C: Do you collaborate with game designers in China? How is the culture in China and Shanghai for game designers?

M: Shanghai has a very active gaming scene with Chinajoy, the E3 of China, being held here every year. EA, Ubisoft, Epic, Riot, and other international game companies have headquarters here. We are also surrounded by the giant tech companies of China including Tencent and Baidu. After spending well over four years in the Chinese video game industry, I’d say the creative process and distribution channels are the key challenges that face game designers in China.

I think the hardest thing about working in any creative industry in China is the government oversight on projects. To be an independent game developer doesn’t really exist in the way that Western countries approach indie games. For one, you can’t self-publish if you are trying to target Chinese audiences as everything published here is stringently regulated through a few major publishers. Censorship is a real thing and there are certain experiences that just would not be possible, as a result. Why would you make a game that could not get released?

That has developed a culture of for-profit-like gaming experiences, but I think like anything here, it’s in constant change. Whenever I attend a game jam in China, some of the games are the most original I’ve seen and reflect the culture in these really personal ways. I just hope that one day there’s more of an ability to create and distribute these original works.

C: When I played Hazy Days it basically just reminded me of living in Nanjing, but I could see how others might see it as a dystopian game showing a ruined state.

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M: Hazy Days was one of the first personal projects I did about China, and it stemmed from the fact that air pollution was a brutal and real thing I had to deal with when I first moved here. At the time, I remember seeing a lot of Western Media’s coverage of the “airpocolypse,” framing China as horrible, hopeless, and a backwards country without any care for the people living through it.

I think the root of Hazy Days was to create something that humanized the issue of air pollution by looking at a young girl just trying to see her grandma. The response of the game has been overall positive. By portraying something personal, my hope is that people feel empathy for someone going through these conditions.

C: In my recent Games Course, I taught your game Yellowface, and many of my students chose to write about it and base some of their game project ideas on it. The comic-like, silhouette style feels unique, as does the kind of inability to win in a game about race.

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M: I’m so glad to hear that! Yellowface, the game, was really inspired by David Henry Hwang’s play Yellowface in which he tackles the idea of mistaken racial identity. The term “yellow face,” with all its negative historical context, is ripe for repurposing in a game about racial politics.

I think some of those core elements of Hwang’s work came into the game when thinking about the visual style. I knew that it was important to have the color mechanic reflect how you perceive the other person, or how you perceive yourself. The comic style came from a need to simplify characters into their most basic representation, in order to focus on skin color as a defining feature.

The inability to “win” just evolved naturally as I worked on it. You can’t really win this type of conversation about race. How you look is loaded with all these assumptions about your life. The question then is not about winning the conversation, but how you choose to accept your identity.

C: In Yellowface, my students were especially taken with how casual the racism appeared, but also in the player’s choices that were usually to either answer in a capitulating way (like saying he is from China) or to make a kind of joke about it. This felt very familiar to students who had faced casual racism and had come up with less direct ways of making the racism explicit.

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M: It’s an unfortunate reality, but it’s how I survived as an Asian-American growing up in the South. I grew up in North Carolina, went to a primarily white southern high school, and it was through this self-deprecating humor that I got through it all. I think when people of color are asked these questions, these kinds of responses can get triggered as a defense mechanism. Sarcasm becomes a way of highlighting something fundamentally wrong about the statement without directly putting pressure on the other person. We all make assumptions based on how people appear, however, once you start getting to know someone and how they see themselves, many of those assumptions are challenged.

I think Asian-American identity is super complicated due to the fact that all East Asian and mixed-race Asians are kind of grouped together as Asian-Americans. A Korean American and a Japanese American can have very different upbringings and values. From the perspective of other races, we are all the same. We have been perceived as outsiders to American culture, even though we may have more in common with American culture than our own ethnic identities. This melting pot of Asian cultures ends up becoming the Asian-American identity. In some ways, this unifies our experiences and can make us stronger together.

To contact Mike Ren Yi, visit www.Mikeyren.com or tweet him at @mikerenyi