Animals & Playful Design


A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (4/4)

In the last three blog posts I discussed the term speciesismthe intersectionalities between speciesism and other forms of oppression, and the concept of animal agency. In this post, I will briefly outline how I approach the idea of playful design together with animals.

As you might have read elsewhere on this website, one activity in which humans and animals are sharing a particularly evident mutual understanding is playfulness. This is not only the case between humans and their pets. According to Pierre Huber in 1810, even ants engage in play (Burghardt, 2006). While some researchers wish to think about animal playfulness as a purely functional behaviour, many researchers that investigate the worlds of human and animal play advocate for the suggestion that animals are playful, simply because they want to (Burghardt, 2006).

Moreover, since we aim to start over on a more equal foundation in our relationships with animals, I think that there is no need to make any pre-composed assumptions or hypotheses about what a specific animal can or cannot do. Instead I suggest that it is safe to assume that all beings would like to live an enjoyable life. We could focus on playfulness as an equalizing common ground between humans and animals that can facilitate cross-species interactions that could help us better understand each other and enrich the life of the animal (Wirman, 2015).

In my research I propose to explore the possibilities for being playful together with animals with a focus on what we share. Here, for me, the term playfulness does not only entail the activity of play as a non-functional, spontaneous, unserious, intentional behaviour (Burghardt, 2006), but also includes more ambiguous and self-effacing elements that are in need of someone to complete and interpret them (Sicart, 2014). In other words, I aim to understand playfulness as a wide spectrum of meaningful activities that are simply done for the sake of enjoyment or pleasure. I suggest that playfulness can be interpreted as a broader way of defining open-ended interactions we share with animals. Think about things like exchanging affection, exploring objects out of curiosity, sunbathing, walking together, or simply looking at each other.

When we could use the context of playfulness as a voluntary, free, and shared way of getting to know each other we might be able to get a closer understanding of the animal, what she enjoys, and how she would like to spend her time. In other words, providing the animal with her own agency to dictate a certain course of action and allowing the animal to be playful in the way she imagines can perhaps teach us more about the future in which the animal sees herself.

Getting Animals Involved by Materialising Speculations

As mentioned in the previous blog post, I see design-based research as a particularly useful context for speculating about a non-spieciesist future together with the animal, because it could allow us to have a conversation with the animal through the material of the design artefact. In this set-up, we could try to engage in physically acting out potential thought experiments, possible futures, or imaginations that are made physical in a designed intervention. In this way, rather than speculating and reflecting through language, as we usually do in the humanities, the animal could get involved in our practices, negotiate their experience, and influence how the experiment could evolve. The goal of these experiments then, could be to explore new modes of interacting with animals, to engage in mutual understanding between species, to stimulate discussions, and to reshape the relationships we have established with beings around us.

As a starting point, what if we could develop design experiments around questions like: would it be possible for humans and insects to spend time together and engage in an activity that is enjoyable for all beings involved? And how does this change the way we relate to insects? Or how could the experience of exploring virtual worlds become meaningful for another being that is not human and what kind of design scenarios does this involve? Or simply imagine or act out an experiment in which you spend one week together with your cat and provide her with exactly the same considerations, rights, access, and privilege as you would grant your roommate. It would be interesting to see how your relationship evolves during this week and what it can tell us about the agency of your cat and the meaning of non-speciesism.

In a book by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby called Speculative Everything, a similar way of thinking with objects or props is presented, which can help us speculate through materiality:

“Props used in design speculations are functional and skilfully designed; they facilitate imagining and help us entertain ideas about everyday life that might not be obvious. They help us think about alternative possibilities-they challenge the ideals, values, and beliefs of our society embodied in material culture.” (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 90)

The question that emerges from this in practice is how could the animal can get involved in this idea of speculation, imagination, and alternative world constructions? Since in speculative design “props are intended not to mimic reality or allow us to play act but to entertain new ideas, thoughts, and possibilities for an alternative world from the one we and the prop coexist in” (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p.92). I would not want to exclude the possibility for animals to engage in make believe and use their imagination in playful activities, but it might be very difficult to facilitate this in a design experiment and derive meaningful reflections from the animal’s experiences. On the other hand, the goal of speculative design is to prompt participants or viewers to “creatively engage with the props and make them their own” (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 92). Taking this together with the viewpoints I presented from the field of Critical Animal Studies, to me it seems very important that the animal can somehow get involved in the activity of non-speciesist future world construction. As a result, the props we wish to design with this purpose in mind have to allow enough room for the animal to make their own interpretations. Could it be that what arises, perhaps, is a form of speculative multispecies philosophy, materialised in physical design experiments?

This is the last post in this series on Critical Animal Studies in which I tried to reflect on readings and discussions I had over the past few months and, through writing, articulate how this field could connect to my own research topic. Thank you so much for reading along and bringing up all the interesting questions and comments that were triggered by the points that I outlined here. I think that this might be going in an interesting direction :).

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri.


Burghardt, G. M. 2006. The Genesis of Animal Play. Testing the Limits. London, UK: MIT Press.

Dunne, A., and Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything. Design Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wirman, H. (2014). Games for/with Strangers: Captive Orangutan (Pongo Pygmaeus) Touch Screen Play. Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, 30, 103-113. Retrieved March 23, 2016 from

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