Designing playful engagements with animals to find, imagine, or emphasize non-speciesist practices
During the last three months I got to travel quite a lot as part of my research. I visited three conferences (the Future and Reality of Gaming (FROG) Conference in Vienna (Austria), the International Design Congress (IDC) in Gwangju (South Korea), and the PhD by Design conference in London (U.K.)). Next to this I gave several lectures about my research topic at Malmö University and I was interviewed by Wired Magazine and the Austrian news site ORF .
Next to the fact that I didn’t get much new research done in the past three months, I also noticed that (similarly to most researchers), no matter which context, people often ask me the same kind of questions. This is great, not only because people that ask questions are usually interested in knowing more about my research topic or triggered to provide (mostly) helpful feedback, but also because their questions are usually illustrated with stories of their own playful experiences with their cats, dogs, parrots, and chimpanzees. In these occasions something beautiful happens which secretly makes my research topic so much more awesome: people share the most amazing, often deeply personal, stories with me and thereby create a great atmosphere for discussion and a lively space in which we can share ideas, experiences, and challenges.
More specifically, in the past months, I also got to know more about the dog of the keynote speaker (that loves playing with tennis balls), my co-supervisor’s cat (that liked to be carried around on a chair), the parrot of the conference attendant (for which he wants to design games), the dog of the student in my class (that needs to learn how to properly play fetch), the caique of my previous classmate (that likes orange toys in particular), the cat of the conference organizer (that is looking forward to finally playing Felino), the dog of a fellow PhD student (that is totally into watching TV), and this inspirational list goes on and on.
Next to these amazing stories, people often ask me similar kinds of questions. These are the three types of questions I get the most:
1. But why do you need to develop new technology for animals, isn’t there enough technology already, why adding more?
My most frequent answer is that over de last decades we have surrounded animals with technology in which they play a role, usually as a means to an end. For example we developed technology to make the life of the farmer more efficient, to make it easier to maintain animals, or to safely and effectively interact with animals. I think that it’s time to start considering the animal as a legitimate participant in both the interaction and the design process. This means that we could find new ways to include the animal in our research and design process in order to develop technology that actually adheres to their needs and perspectives and could potentially enrich or improve their lives. I think this is part of what it means to live on a more sustainable and appreciating planet.
2. But how can you know what the experiences of the animals are like when they play with your designed artefacts?
Well, we don’t, that’s the exciting part of doing this research. This is a big challenge that calls for a combination of different disciplines including animal sciences, design research, and philosophy. Since we won’t be able to interview the animal, and relying on observations invites a big risk of drawing the wrong subjective conclusions, we could try and find other methods. We wrote more about that here, here, and here.
3. But why do you want to design games and toys, isn’t it more useful to research animal technology that can help animals in their training, feeding, health, etc.?
I would say that taking these angles could be interesting as well. However, the beautiful thing about play and playfulness is that it can invite the animal to join the interaction on a free, shared, and voluntary basis. This means that we never have to force the animal to interact with our prototypes, because we want to create something that the animal actually enjoys. I find this a very suitable starting point and it allows us to learn much more about the animal’s preferences and interests.
All in all, these three months allowed me to learn a lot about describing my work to other people and thinking about the kinds of questions that it brings up. It is great to talk about these topics and hear other people’s thoughts on my research, but what sticks with me the most are their animal stories and I would love to hear more of those as well!