The death of China’s first interactive social impact app

Why I left China after five years, Part Two

In Part One we covered the beginning of ‘Living+’, its difficulties because of government regulations, and we ended with Durex funding the development.

At this point, we were eager to begin and started in earnest. Finding the artist and the programmer to help was no problem. ‘Living+’ was an interactive story of a young adult who was just about to graduate university at the top of the class — many Chinese youth’s big dream — but is diagnosed with HIV during a trip back to the hometown during Chinese New Year. The player would navigate through a branching narrative, making choices regarding telling family, finding healthcare, getting a job, etc. The story would be interrupted with mini-games in the style of the endless runner, Jetpack Joyride, designed to be fun but teach the player about the mechanics of the virus.

Our failure to include documentary-style videos

We also wanted to add real-life stories in the style of two to three minute documentaries to emphasize the real-world impact of the stigma.

His name is Kun Kun, and the Red Ribbon Foundation 
placed him in a school for children with similar stories. 
And the villagers aren’t coldblooded, just uneducated.

In 2014, two hundred villagers in Sichuan Province, China, had signed a petition to exile an 8-year-old HIV positive boy from their small town. The incident grabbed international headlines. Even the boy’s guardian, his grandfather, signed the document. This was a powerful example of the real-world impact of the stigma; naturally, we wanted to include it in our videos.

We contacted two videographers to help us create the videos. We used encrypted communications because we had heard stories of the government stopping similar activities with printed copies of the journalist or filmmaker’s communications. Encrypting our communications scared the videographers and we were asked to follow government regulations by requesting a film permit from government officials.

You can guess how well that went — after several failed requests to film in different areas of China, the videographers did not want to risk their visas and abandoned the project.

In hindsight, we could have approached news organizations which had done similar stories and used their videos in place of documentary-style clips.

Development continued, but not for long.

‘Living+’ interactive narrative

We had been in development for a few weeks and the prototype was coming along nicely. We had the story mapped out. Implementing the story wasn’t that difficult. Twine is a open-source tool for interactive storytelling that allowed us a lot of flexibility for testing and rapid iterations.

People who tested the story tended to develop some kind of cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling between their situation in-game and their actions. We saw a lot of people start to attempt to hide their disease by the third choice in the story. It was proving to drive home the point of the stigma effectively. The lines you see in the visualization above would be mini-game ‘breaks.’

‘Living+’ mini-game prototype

The mini-game was inspired by endless runners like Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride. We knew these games were easy to play and fun for almost everyone. Plus, it allowed us to add things like leader boards and collectibles. By contextually unlocking features within the mini-game following the story we could teach the player about the mechanics of HIV. We could express how the virus invaded the body and attacked red blood cells, how the body’s main defense against the virus, the t-cell, could fight the virus aided by treatments and medication.

Maybe someone in the gov’t didn’t approve.

It was the end of May, 2015, and we had only been in development for about four weeks when suddenly everything halted. The director of marketing had to renew his visa, except there was a problem — the government didn’t allow it.

Of course, I can’t prove that it had anything to do with our project, but it was enough to halt development and cause Durex to restructure their management. We had to wait weeks for new management to come in. While we were waiting, the government seemed to think that Durex had to pay taxes on the money they had planned to use to fund the project unless we registered the project as a non-profit. If you read Part One, then you know how difficult that can be. How much taxes, you ask. At least 35%, but Durex wasn’t sure. They speculated that it could be as much as 60%.

That was the final nail in the coffin.

Durex management finally got back to us in mid to late June just to tell us that our project was no longer possible. New management thought the taxes to be too high. There didn’t seem to be any way around it for them.

‘Living+’ was dead.

My contacts in UNICEF and UNAIDS were going through budget crises, Danlan still didn’t want to put up any money, and I was mentally exhausted. Finally, I found myself in a position where I had to question the possibility of doing any similar projects in China. With all the government regulations and taxes specifically designed to make similar project impossible I doubted that anyone could do anything of real social value in the country.

That was the moment I decided I couldn’t stay in China any longer, not if I wanted to change things and make the world a better place.

What did I learn?

Well, I had a framework for future interactive projects. All I had to do was adapt it to new subject content. I saw parallels of the root cause of the HIV stigma in China to issues in the West — mainly issues in immigration, the refugee crisis, and misinformation from mainstream media. These are new causes, new subject matter, to tackle.

I learned how to sell my ideas, how to do media project planning, how to encrypt communications, how to write a business plan, and how to do a market analysis. Not to mention a handful of other useful skills.

I learned that even though you have the best intentions and the support of others, authoritarian government policies will affect your work. Or in simpler terms, I learned that environment has a big impact on possibilities. I learned that interactive media does, in fact, have the power to inspire empathy and better understanding.

Most importantly, I learned that minimizing suffering by finding novel and transparent ways to inform people and help them empower themselves was truly the most important thing I could be doing.

Thus we begin with INTERACTIVE_MET and life in Germany, but these will be covered in future posts.



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