It was a great honor and pleasure to be interviewed by Stephen Dent for the Beyond Species Podcast. We had a very interesting conversation about imagining multispecies worlds, and we discussed, challenged, and speculated on several different stories of the multispecies bestiary that was a part of my PhD dissertation. These involve thought exchanges on octopuses, sheep, and monsters specifically. Here are the episode notes as well as a link to listen to the interview. Also make sure to check out some of the other episodes in this impressive collection of conversations on anti-speciesist research and activism.
Episode 29. In this episode, we hear from Dr. Michelle Westerlaken. Michelle explains her concept of multispecies-isms or multispecies worlding – a response to speciesism that looks for traces of how we humans interact with other species in our everyday lives, so as to imagine how relationships might take place in a non-speciesist future. Michelle’s work draws in strands from a range of disciplines, including interaction design, posthumanism and indigenous ways of knowing. Michelle finds the ethic of care a challenging but generative concept worth exploring. She also discusses the concept of the Bestiary in her thesis, which opens up spaces for nonhumans to “tell” stories, as well as to push our questions around speciesism into controversial territory. Gaming can also provide imaginative spaces for vegans to explore their ethics and enact non-speciesist worlding.
In November 2019, I was invited to give a talk at the WUD Silesia conference in Katowice (Poland). I met a lot of inspiring designers and made a bunch of new friends. The conference
I’m sharing the recording of the (30min) talk itself. It’s titled “It Matters what Designs Design Designs: Speculations on Multispecies Worlds”
It is a title adapted from a catchphrase by Donna Haraway (from her 2016 book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. The talk is essentially about why I prefer to understand design as “negotiating possibilities”.
Traditionally, the field of design is established by humans, with the goal to develop artefacts and interactions for humans. Nowadays, however, most designers also learned that their practice has a large impact on the environment and that it is always politically charged. This means that design processes and outcomes are never innocent, and do not only affect humans, but all kinds of entities and living beings.
In this talk, I elaborate on the implications of this statement with a focus on designing – not only for humans – but for other animals as well. I argue that, to be able to break with our outdated anthropocentric assumptions, we need to find the kinds of stories (or designs) that can inspire us to think differently about our current world and our relationships with other animals. This is a crucial first step in coming up with ideas for alternative futures.
The second part of the talk features a range of examples from the field of design in which humans and other animals are already negotiating a move from speciesist (oppressive and exploitative) relations, towards more respectful – multispecies – encounters. Here I also include some of the ways in which cats, dogs, ants, and penguins have been involved in my own design projects.
The field of design is – in one way or another – always connected to the ‘possible’. The aim of this talk is therefore to encourage designers to move from a focus on only critiquing the status quo towards finding ways to inspire other, more desirable, possibilities for the future.
The word ‘speciesism’ (pronounced species-ism), is still not a widely used term, but actually has been around since the 70s. When academics or animal activists mention this term it usually refers to the oppression and exploitation of animals justified on the grounds of belonging to a certain species. I wrote about this notion earlier on this blog as well as in the form of an entry in the critical posthumanist genealogy. The latter opens as follows:
“The term ‘speciesism’ […] refers to discrimination on the grounds of belonging to a certain species. Thus, speciesism includes the assignment of different values, rights, or special consideration to individuals based solely on their species membership. Continuing the analogy to discriminatory practices like racism, sexism, classism, and others, the term was further popularised by philosopher Peter Singer in his 1975 book Animal Liberation. Since then, the term ‘speciesism’ has been usually appropriated with regard to practices of human domination over animals and the exclusion of all nonhuman animals from the rights and freedoms that are granted to humans.”
Over the last decades, the field of Critical Animal Studies, animal activists, as well as scholars from other fields (including post-humanism and eco-feminism) have articulated a large body of work that critically analysed speciesist practices, norms, and understandings that problematises the way in which other animals are treated in our societies. The two links in the first paragraph of this post are a great starting point for those of you that want to understand this further. What is important here is that people who problematise speciesism are interested in challenging the basic assumptions that underly the normalisation of animal exploitation. This makes it fundamentally different compared to, say, advocate for treating animals better within their current environments. Anti-speciesists are therefore often (but not always (!)) anti-capitalist and/or pro-vegan.
One of the most pressing questions, I find especially crucial with regards to design, is to try and understand what the opposite of speciesism can actually mean. In fact, this is a question that became the driving curiosity for my PhD research. Researchers and activists often focus on articulating the meaning of terms like non-speciesism, anti-speciesism, or post-speciesism, but also notions of post-humanism, post-colonialism, or post-anthropocene. This is all very helpful in understanding the major issues of our time, but these words say nothing about what such worlds contain, besides saying what they are not.
Earlier I made a quite simplified analogy about the difficulties in designing or imaging a non-chair. What I meant is that it is philosophically impossible to design or imagine something by only trying to describe what it not. To be able to design particular worlds – worlds that we want to bring into being – we need to actively and continuously create those concepts that fit with the unfolding perspectives that embody and inhabit those worlds. With regards to this challenge, the notion of non-speciesism is counter-productive, and even paralysing, because rather than creating a new concept to think-with, in only offers a break-down (non-) of the problematised concept (speciesism).
So what concepts can we actually use instead? And is it even possible to put non-speciesist interactions into words if they are so scarce in our societies? And can we create or use a concept that can allow for a flexible and ever-evolving understanding (rather than a reductive or too definite notion that attempts to describe something we have a hard time imagining in the first place).
During this PhD project, I went on a two year quest to find the right words and discovered something odd: many people that problematise speciesism do not know the answer to this question. This is to say that they do have very clearly developed intuitions towards the kinds of respectful and compassionate relationships they (intend to) have with other animals, but they are not sure what words to use to describe these interactions. So, many people know quite well how to live these worlds in practice, but do not describe them as a concept.
There are some terms to discuss here. For example, terms like ‘animal liberation‘ or ‘animal justice‘, have important functions in animal activism as they advocate for liberating animals from their current oppressors or granting justice to victims of oppression. These terms, however, point towards the actions that should be undertaken to end a perceived injustice (for example through protest, civil disobedience, laws, or sanctuaries). All of these are crucial stages towards creating a non-speciesist society, but do not describe such a society itself.
The term ‘ethical veganism’, is sometimes also used to describe post-speciesist societies, but this term usually refers to a consumption ideology: vegan shoes are made without animal body-parts, vegan milk is made out of plant-based ingredients, etc. The term was originally coined by Donald Watson in 1944 to differentiate the ‘Vegan Society’ from vegetarianism, to indicate a specific diet (The Vegan Society n.d.). When extending this to every-day encounters and interactions it would be unusual to say that I just had a vegan encounter with a squirrel, perhaps confusingly implying that we did not eat each other. The term also presupposes that eating another animal or their products is by definition excluded from a world that is not speciesist. Imagining a society beyond dietary habits requires a concept that can account for the variety of relationships that can be formed between animals in a non-speciesist society.
Other terms, like ‘animalism’ or ‘sentientism’ – derived from a broadening of a ‘humanist’ ideology – imply an expansion of anthropocentric modernist traditions of humanism towards zoo-centrism, merely raising the status of other animals, creating a new moral boundary at the question of what counts as ‘sentient’, as well as maintaining a modernist idea of higher versus lower entities that are ‘animal-like’. These ideologies tend to get stuck with questions like ‘what about plants, bacteria, fungi, and artificial intelligence?’, maintaining that, in order to be included into a framework that are offered serious moral consideration by humans, entities need to have certain ‘sentient’ (or human-like) characteristics.
Lastly, some other notions from post-humanist perspectives that generally aim to de-centre the human, such as eco-feminism, ecosophy, and bioethics, aim much more broadly at deconstructing the category ‘human’ as something unique, distinct, and at the centre of the world. Although a non-speciesist framework might fit into these concepts, these categories are so broad that they do not sufficiently focus on our relationships with other animals in a way that includes a firm rejection of speciesism. In the abstractions and philosophies of the scholars engaging with these terms, the focus is often returned to the meaning of being human within these worlds, while I am more interested in conceptualising the relationships between humans and other animals.
In my thesis, I started to use a placeholder to refer to non-speciesist engagements with other animals and called it ‘multi-species-isms‘, or as an adjective ‘multispecies worlds‘, and I have grown an attachment to these terms. With these words, I wanted to fabricate a concept that can account for multiplicity, while still sticking to the idea of ‘species’ as a useful reminder of the violence that is inflicted upon other animals. Without going too deep into my ecofeminist (Harawayan) interpretations of ‘worlds’, ‘species’ and ‘multiplicity’ here, I want to stress that there is no one-way definition that can be pinned down by humans, but many different ways in which mutually meaningful relationships between animals can be formed.
‘Multi-species-isms‘, I argue, can be used to identify the actual (rather than negating) ingredients of worlds that are respectful towards other animals (rather than speciesist). ‘Multispecies‘ does not only mean that multiple species are involved (and that it is often impossible to separate these living entities from each other), but is further expanded to include a multiplicity of perspectives in which all the involved entities are making worlds and influencing other worlds all the time.
This is all rather complicated, so some examples would be helpful. Ecofeminist philosopher Anna Tsing describes the world making of other organisms by saying that beavers make worlds by re-shaping streams, plants live on land because fungi made soil by digesting rocks, bacteria made our oxygen atmosphere while plants maintain it: in other words, each organism changes everyone’s worlds as they overlap (Tsing 2015: 22). Donna Haraway (in her 2016 book ‘Staying With the Trouble […]’) then uses the term ‘multispecies worlding‘ to describe a practice (or perhaps more like a kind of life-skill) in which we should be paying more attention to how humans and other animals continuously make, share, break, and give form to worlds, especially with regards to mundane every-day life. And not only in terms of suffering, but also – and perhaps most importantly – for finding ideas to continue worlding in other, more desirable [and definitely less speciesist], ways.
About 1,5 years ago I started to create annotated illustrations of the encounters I experienced, or learned about through stories of other people, that I think could be examples of already existing ‘multi-species-isms‘. I’m sharing some of them in this post and many more will be part of the PhD thesis when it’s ready (expected in September 2020). Feel free to use and share these illustrations, but please don’t forget to credit or cite. :)
I think it is crucial for researchers and activists to be able to further articulate their thoughts on the kinds of futures they find desirable, instead of only focusing on what they are against. With regards to speciesism, this is very difficult, because speciesist practices initially seem to be everywhere. Creating repertoires of ‘multi-species-isms‘ is therefore particularly important for future oriented forms of thought in fields such as design or arts, as well as for practices of community building and policy making. I hope that these drawings, rather than prescribing certain ways of living, most of all allows you to relate to these stories with your own imaginations, and figure out their meanings for yourselves. Because it is up to everyone to negotiate these stories further and find inspiration to contribute your own ideas as to how less speciesist futures can be given form.
Despret, Vinciane. (2016). What Would Animals Say if we Asked them the Right Questions? (Buchanan, B, (Tr.)) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Haraway, Donna. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Powers, Richard. (2018). The Overstory. Portsmouth, NH: William Heinemann Ltd.
Singer, Peter. (2009). Animal Liberation. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
As a PhD student and avid reader of books, Goodreads is my preferred social networking platform. Not only to keep track of what I’m reading, but also to browse new books inspired by reviews of friends and other readers. Kind of like strolling through an endless bookshop, that is always open, with lots of information on every available book, and my friends and colleagues are there too :)
But – PhD-ing or not – keeping up with an enjoyable and meaningful reading routine is difficult. Finding a balance between attention span, available time, encouraging titles, mixing different genres, and keeping up with publications in my research field is hard.
Here’s a cliché that works for me: gift yourself this time, as often as you can. Turn this gift into a routine.
So what I did for the last 2,5 years, is to head out in the morning (during most days of the week), get to a coffee place between home and work, order a big oat-milk latte, turn off my phone, and read for an hour or so.
It didn’t require me to get up earlier, because I see this hour as a valuable part of my work day (and I think this should actually be the case regardless of the type of work you’re doing). And yes, this is a financial investment. And this involves privilege. But I decided to go out for dinner less often to save money, spend less time scrolling Twitter in the morning, and start most days by gifting myself this small favor instead.
I love to share my reading list with others, and I always love to receive more book recommendations. My complete reading lists for 2016-2018 can be found here.
Based on his own experiences as a child in Japan during the Second World War, Nosaka tells the stories of the 15th of August, 1945. The day the war ended in Japan. They involve a whale falling in love with a submarine, a parrot and a boy teaching each other how to speak, a mother trying to save her child from burning with her own tears, a keeper fleeing the war with an elephant, and many more touching and heartbreaking perspectives from the war.
Thank you so much, Yazan, for recommending this book!
I wholeheartedly recommend all three philosopher books by Yalom, including “When Nietzsche Wept” and “The Schopenhauer Cure”. Yalom writes a fascinating mix of fiction and biography about the lives of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.
This book is about the intersections of the lives of Baruch Spinoza and Alfred Rosenberg (living 300 years apart). It deals with themes of anti-semitism, punishment, ideologies, and of course: ethics.
Thank you Meggy, for introducing me to Yalom’s books!
Please do yourself and your (present or future) partner a favor and read this book about relationships. Based on attachment theory and emotionally focused therapy, Johnson outlines a much needed addition to engaging with romantic relationships. It has changed my views on communication, arguments, trust, and safety in close relationships with others.
Thanks again Meggy, I’ve been recommending this book widely this year.
This timely anthology offers some fascinating experimental perspectives regarding our lives on this late stage of the Earth as we know it. The book is divided in 18 different short essays by different contributors such as Donna Haraway and Ursula Le Guin. It takes various different perspectives on thinking about the future of this Earth, our bodies, and countless other species. Although it seems focused on academics, if you’re into stories of the anthropocene and posthumanism, or looking for a book to widen your perspectives on what it means to be human, I recommend it.
Thank you organizers of the NORDES Design and Care summer school for putting this on the reading list! This earlier blog post has more info on this course as well as some of the other readings.
“But as visitors we need to respect Iranian culture” I uttered in the beginning of this year in a conversation about feminism and Iran’s mandatory Hijab law.
I’ve been thinking about the definition of ‘bravery’ this year, and I think Alinejad hits the spot: people who, instead of running away from knowledge that challenges their (or others’) ways of viewing the world, approach this difference with curiosity and without hypocrisy. That, and not being afraid to admit to being wrong to me are very courageous characteristics.
It is only by reading through the memoir of Alinejad that I was able to get a better understanding of the complexities, paradoxes, and internal conflicts of growing up as a feminist woman in Iran. I think that, in turn, my understanding of feminism has broadened beyond western ways of thinking about the world.
Last week I got the opportunity to participate in the Nordic Design Research (Nordes) Summer School, with this year’s theme: Design and Care (in connection to their 2019 Conference with the same theme (the call for papers should be out soon)).
It was such an interesting and meaningful week. I think that this was mostly due to the careful planning and great attention to detail that made participants feel welcome, heard, and cared for by the organizers (Li Jönsson, Kristina Lindstrom, Åsa Ståhl, Mathilda Tham, and Juliana Restrepo Giraldo <3).
Also, all the food was vegan and super tasty… that really helped too.
picture taken by Juliana Restrepo Giraldo
picture taken by Juliana Restrepo Giraldo
The starting point for the course content, excursions, and discussions were these three books:
I really recommend them, regardless of your research topics or general interests. They are the kind of books that can help its readers to develop a more flexible mindset about the damaged world we live in. They are really quite dense reads though (!). If you’re looking for something a little more casual, I suggest to start with the Anna Tsing one (Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet), which is an edited collection that includes many short stories that offer different perspectives on the environmental, scientific, (and patriarchal) situations we’re facing today. To me it seems relevant to any kind of research interest.
Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s book was the one with the most impact on my research from a more theoretical perspective. The meaning and practices of “care” that are outlined by the author provide a very helpful framing for a new kind of “doing ethics” that is mostly done in practice rather than theory. According to the author, this all begins with an understanding of the condition of life on earth as interdependent and requires that we care about things because they are a part of us, and they can help us flourish or they can kill us.
A more accessible line of thinking proposed through this framework: when I touch something, I am being touched by that thing at the same time. Care is reciprocal.
Donna Haraway has been a long time academic role-model to me. Specifically, her ideas regarding the making of “knowledge” largely transformed the way I think about the world and doing research. Also, seriously, I hope this will be me some day:
Though I might not always agree with her previous writings about other animals, her latest book (Staying with the Trouble) provides a provocative and honest account of the earthly troubles we are facing as well as the complexity of figuring out new ways of living together with other humans and non-humans. Her book starts here: our bodies are largely made up of bacteria and other symbiotic relationships. What we refer to as “I” (the individual, the Homo Sapiens), is actually the result of many processes that involves entanglements with many non-humans. How rude of us to call ourselves a ‘species’, and develop all kinds of (scientific) assumptions based on such an arrogant and faulty line of thinking. We’re not humans. We’re more like humus really… and we should be composting more. Everything is messy and imperfect.
These theoretical insights formed the starting point for our discussions and the two main excursions that were part of the program (shorter activities also included recycled food tasting by Rude Food and a presentation by the Feminist Farming project).
On the second day of the program we went farming. It’s interesting to see what happens when a bunch of scholars and/or gardening-videogame enthusiasts actually work in the field together. Everybody came to their own moment of realization of how theory is very different from practice. My moment involved a snail and a pair of scissors:
The Nybrukarna farm collective is a small scale vegetable farm that brings the harvest directly from the land to the share-holders. While Maja, the founder of the collective, explained our farming duties for the day, a snail (actually it was a slug) entered her vision. “Look, when you find a snail…. YOU KILL IT IMMEDIATELY!”, she said while taking out a pair of scissors and cutting the slug in half. “I don’t care how you do it… crush it, squeeze it, cut it… as long as it’s dead”.
“that’s not vegan, is it?”, I whispered to my neighbor in the field.
“Nope, but I suppose it had to be done”, he replied.
I guess this is what all of the authors had been talking about in their books before.
picture taken by Juliana Restrepo Giraldo
picture taken by Juliana Restrepo Giraldo
The third day of the course was spend in the area of Orrefors, in Småland, where we visited the remains of the “Kingdom of Crystal”: the local glass blowing industry that was founded in 1898. What is not part of this neat Wikipedia description is the large scale pollution that now troubles this place (and all other glass blowing sites in this region). Higher rates of cancer among inhabitants, uranium pollution, different kinds of metals in the ground and water, etc. People used to trash all sorts of things in these local landfills. We were told that there are about 40 of those polluted landfills in Sweden (and many more in the rest of the world). Researchers and local entrepreneurs are now trying to find new ways of dealing with this urgent matter.
Soon after we arrived things started to get even more complicated.
“Can you please help us turn this park into a tourist attraction?”
“How can we extract glass from these landfills before other companies empty them?”
“We want to bring you recycled glass for high-end design work, so we need to find a sustainable way to extract the pollution.”
“We found a plant that absorbs the pollution, but when animals eat from these plants, it might kill them.”
“Can you please form groups and discuss these issues in relation to your own research. But don’t forget about the group-assignment.”
…A bit overwhelming. But again, I suppose this is what all of the authors had been talking about in their books before.
The next day we reflected on these complexities and found major difficulties with the amount of perspectives (of both humans and non-humans) that have to be taken into account in this more care-ful way of doing ethics that the authors are advocating for.
But if we need to take EVERYTHING into account, what do we put on our banners when we go to our demonstrations, marches, and rallies? We tried to prototype some new slogans that communicate these perspectives (see image above), although I doubt they will take us very far if we stick to the current formats for doing politics.
Perhaps it means that, when so many valid perspectives and difficulties are on the table, we need more flexible ways of making up our minds. To me this is where designers are particularly needed. People that are continuously training the skills that are required to enter a complex situation with care; with an open-mindedness towards all kinds of perspectives and world-views. With the goal to gain more care-ful understandings; those kinds of understandings that more honestly and equally includes different people, their bacteria, the water, the soil, the slugs, the led, and other things that are already inherently part of the situation.
This makes the ‘art of living on a damaged planted’ an easy one to problematize but, when we courageously decide to ‘stay with the trouble’ a great one to master.
(In this post I summarize a research paper I recently presented at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference. I tried to leave out as much academic jargon and complexity as possible, while keeping the main points of the text. The original paper can be found here)
“Hi, my name is Link and I am a Hylian. I am also known as “The Hero of Time”. This is because I am the chosen one who explores the virtual world of the Zelda game series as a protagonist, while pursuing an important quest for justice and peace.
I am also a vegan.
This does not only mean that I refuse to eat animal products. In fact, I try to avoid all aspects of speciesism that I encounter during my adventures. I don’t kill or bully other creatures, I don’t buy any leather or wool clothing items, I don’t pick up weapons made of bones, and I don’t tame or ride horses. On the other hand, I eat a lot of veggies and I do my best to fight the evil spirit of Ganon.”
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher that focused his work on notions of power, freedom, and knowledge. Particularly in his later work, he emphasized the active and critical negotiation we can have with power structures as well as practicing different ways of living with limitations. He aimed to reframe our understanding of concepts like power and freedom not as static limitations but as arbitrary constraints that can be negotiated with and that give us the possibility to continuously reshape ourselves.
The methods and practices that could be used for styling or transforming one’s self were defined by Foucault as ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault, 1988, p. 18). He hoped that freedom could be obtained through the practice of ‘care for the self’: to give a certain shape or style to one’s own life as a form of ethical or aesthetical self-fashioning (Foucault, 1988). In this context, self-fashioning refers to the constant and life-long practice of exerting power over one’s own life in order to find a personal sense of freedom. This is done by taking the liberty to impose rules and disciplines over our own lives that shape specific ways of living freely within existing structures of domination and oppression.
By playing The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild. (BOTW) (Nintendo, 2017) through a vegan-run I tried to practice Foucauldian self-fashioning with my-self (both virtual and actual) through disruption and destabilization of the default gameplay. This type of adjusted playing style is also called ‘expansive gameplay‘. Similar to speed-runs or pacifist-runs, but with a clear focus on improvised decision making that is based on a guiding set of broadly interpretable values.
Veganism is understood here as a general and interpretable ideology, not a strict set of rules. So instead of a predefined set-out challenge (such as “don’t kill anyone” (in the case of pacifist-runs) or “complete the game as fast as possible” (in the case of speed-runs)) the game is approached according to values that can be negotiated with. Questions that come up while playing characterize the vegan movement at large and include things like ‘what is considered a living creature?’, ‘when is hurting another creature as a form of self-defense appropriate?’, ‘what should I do if I receive an item that contains animal products as a gift?’. In other words, it requires a constant exploration and willingness to reinvent what it means to be vegan.
In my daily life, it is often very difficult to avoid animal consumption entirely (I might not be fully aware of the ingredients of certain types of food, there might be no adequate vegan options available, or I need to take into account the socio-cultural dimensions of being offered food as somebody’s guest). However, in the world of BOTW, those decisions can be made much more rigidly. In other words, now I am the protagonist in my own game and I establish veganism as the new standard to live by. Something that is largely impossible in the actual world where veganism is considered to be far outside of the norm and I am often ridiculed or demanded to explain myself.
As feminist theorist Margaret A. McLaren wrote, critical practices such as self-writing and autobiography are empowering and political forms of liberating self-care – Foucauldian technologies of the self – specifically for marginalized individuals (2002). I argue that engaging with decision making in fictional worlds (such as by playing videogames or writing fan-fiction) might add an intense dimension to self-fashioning that provides an empowering safe-space of negotiating political decisions that are perhaps impossible to negotiate with in real life.
“In the morning, I head out to explore Kakariko town. I try to talk to some of the inhabitants about speciesism, but they all seem busy or uninterested. Then I pass by a small chicken farm. An older man with a tall hat and a white beard is standing in front of the fence. He is covering his face with both hands. He seems upset. I decide to approach him.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”, I ask.
“My precious Cuccos. They escaped! What do I doooo… AAAARRRRGH!! Please, help me find them and put them back behind the fence”, he says, gasping for air in between words.
“Your chickens escaped? How?” I reply.
“THEY MADE A HOLE IN THE FENCE. I already covered it up again. But 10 of them are gone.”
“Hmm, interesting”, is all I can come up with for now, and I walk away.
I find several of the escaped chickens roam around the village that day, picking up grains from the ground and sleeping peacefully on top of the signposts. Later, when it gets dark, I head back over to the farm. It seems like nobody is around. Quietly, I climb over the fence, carefully pick up each of the chickens that remained in the enclosure and release them in the field behind the farm. This feels so good. I finally feel like I accomplished something.
I sleep wonderfully that night.”
A few other games scholars have written about the notion of Foucauldian self-fashioning in virtual worlds as well. But mostly from a general perspective. For example, they argued that playing and designing virtual worlds are transformational activities that allow for changes in terms of social criticism, training and teaching, ethics, interpersonal relationships, creative thinking, and philosophical inquiry (Gualeni, 2014). Or they are skeptical about the effectiveness or productiveness of games functioning as practices of self-fashioning, because virtual worlds are too different from real life (Parker, 2011).
However, I think that my specific experience of playing BOTW as a vegan could offer something to this discussion. I found that, rather than a small-scale simulation of real life, the gameplay offered me an extra imaginary space that shapes my relation to power in real life. A space where a vegan utopia or a firm political response towards certain vegan ideologies can be imagined, materialized, strategized, and played out. Is this form of virtual self-fashioning then only an illusion or small-scale playground because it takes place inside a world of fiction? Or can those empowering virtual spaces instead offer the effectiveness and productiveness that are needed to reimagine and negotiate power, but are not (yet) available or granted to those that need it in real life?
I think that the following online discussions of other people’s experience with their vegan-run of BOTW exemplifies that these fictional forms of self-fashioning do impact our perspectives in the real world.
Even though the BOTW vegan-run discussions seem much more ad-hoc and tentative, they open up a certain kind of unstructured and non-authoritarian space in which players discuss their experiences and perspectives. Discussing vegan-run experiences and strategies led to different conversations on the topic of what veganism entails and how this form of playing relates to our interactions with animals in real life.
These conversations help to situate one’s own vegan practices in relation to other people (both vegan and non-vegan). Furthermore, I argue that they could even function as a nuanced form of animal activism by promoting and detailing a vegan agenda that is emerged within the fictional or hypothetical context of the game, but also includes concepts that extend into the real world. But above anything, these forms of playing and discussing give vegans a space for self-individualization and exploration that is not usually granted to vegans in society. Suddenly, regular BOTW players want to know the details of my in-game diet, why I avoid horse riding, how I managed to accomplish specific quests, and whether I consider mechanical monsters as sentient or not.
In this paper, I set out to extend the discussion within the game studies community on the topic of Foucauldian self-fashioning with a focus on a specific kind of expansive gameplay (a vegan-run) in a specific game (BOTW). I argue that further inquiry into different forms of self-fashioning (such as playing with and within virtual worlds and generating new narratives from those worlds) constitutes an important step towards social and political transformation. More specifically, I aimed to show how the practice of expansive gameplay and sharing those experiences with others could be regarded as self-fashioning tools and offer both empowerment and political action to marginalized individuals.
Nonetheless, we should remain critical towards assigning too much political importance to these playful practices and continue to evaluate how they fit into existing power structures and potential resistance to those. What happens to an individual that receives hateful comments after sharing her experiences? Do fictional spaces that resemble safe zones for marginalized people risk becoming addictive forms of escapism? What is the role of the technologies themselves that are involved with this self-fashioning and transformation (such as the game or online medium that largely determines how (inter)actions are shaped)?
To investigate these questions within the field of practically engaged philosophy, I suggest that there is much knowledge to be gained from looking at individual experiences, procedures, and techniques of the self (rather than solely focusing on universal statements or general theory).
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments-section below.
Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Edited by Martin L. H., Gutman, H. and Hutton P. H. London, UK: Tavistock Publications.
Gualeni, S. (2014). Freer than we think: Game design as a liberation practice. POCG 2014, retrieved here.
McLaren, M. A. (2002). Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Nintendo (2017). The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild. Nintendo Switch (screenshots taken by the author).
Parker, F. (2011). In the domain of optional rules: Foucault’s aesthetic self-fashioning and expansive gameplay. POCG 2011, retrieved here.
As part of my PhD project, I started documenting encounters between humans and animals that I find inspiring for non-speciesist thinking. In a recent journal article on Imagining Non-Speciesism, I wrote that if we can speculate about a world that abandons speciesism (here specifically referring to the killing, abuse, exploitation, and oppression of animals), it must mean that some parts of this world exist already. Otherwise, how can we think of it in the first place?
My next question then becomes: where can we find those existing moments of non-speciesism in the world? And consequently, how can these aspects help or inspire us to imagine and speculate about non-speciesist futures? We cannot expect such futures to appear out of nowhere. They need to be actively designed, materialized, and constructed.
New as a Recombination of That Which Already Exists
Since I am trained as an interaction designer, let’s make a short analogy to the field of design to clarify this point further. To use a familiar trope, imagine we want to design a new chair. However, this chair should be unlike any other. It will change the way we sit. It will change the whole concept of comfort. It will be the most comfortable chair ever. But if we want to create such an unfamiliarly comfortable chair, how can we start imagining or designing it? That’s right. By spending a lot of time looking at existing chairs that we particularly like for their comfort and trying to figure out what makes them so comfortable. By looking at comfortable ways of sitting on them, in order to find elements we appreciate and could then use to recombine differently. By rethinking those already existing ideas about comfort in chairs further and finding different forms of inspiration, until something “new” can be designed.
Traces of Less Speciesist Worlds
To me, this is where innovations in the field of design could find methodological connections with other, bigger, or more systemic social changes in the world. And where fields like critical theory and utopian studies could be complemented with a more presence-oriented focus on those already existing aspects that could inspire change.
So over the last few months I started to think about these ideas in relation to non-speciesism. I started to pay specific attention to interactions between animals and humans. Interactions that show some kind of existing potential for non-speciesist thinking. This potential could arise in many different ways. For example, it could involve renegotiation of former boundaries, interactions that are initiated out of compassion for the other, surprising and unexpected behavior that spark empathy, playful encounters, appreciation of differences, or subversion of speciesist norms. My goal was to document these interactions in order to inspire new ideas of what it could mean to live in a non-speciesist world.
One example includes an encounter with a pigeon I experienced last summer. This encounter took place on the town’s square of an Italian village in the Alps. As a common morning routine, together with a friend we were walking towards the main fountain on the square to drink some fresh water. This fountain in particular has four different water outlets in the form of horse- and lion- heads (see image below). However, as soon as we got closer to one of the water outlets, my friend noticed a pigeon that was peacefully sleeping in the sun, on top of one of the statues. “Let’s go to a different outlet”, my friend said, “so we don’t have to wake up the pigeon”.
What could this encounter tell us about sharing spaces with pigeons in urban environments? Why was my friend suddenly so considerate about the life of this peaceful pigeon? How does the design of the fountain encourage this compassionate action? What other elements in urban architecture allow for these kind of considerate encounters? How could urban spaces be designed to encourage more of these less-speciesist negotiations in the future?
I will be documenting these types of encounters – ones that hint towards non-speciesist thinking with animals – during the next months. My goal with this, basically, is to create a collection of chairs. A collection that shows us what kind of less-speciesist encounters already exist, that can inspire new ideas and imaginations about non-speciesism.
So far, my collection involves things like playful interactions with farm sanctuary animals, the appreciation of listening to bird songs in a city park, activities of recognizing oneself in a zoo animal, a surprise encounter with a rattlesnake, and learning how turkeys enjoy to be pet.
A Broader Perspective
Of course, the imagination of non-speciesist thinking does not have to emerge from co-located interactions with animals only. Other kinds of traces of less speciesist worlds exist as well. For example, works of art that serve to subvert our ways of thinking about animals. Or representations of other creatures in different types of media that hint towards utopias for all creatures. Together with Interaction Designer and PhD candidate Erik Sandelin, we started to collect these “snapshots of human de-centred every days” on this website.
Please let us know if you know of anything that could be added to these collections!
Starting off the day in Dim Sum restaurant Dragon Lake House, all 7 participants contributed presentations that discussed different dragon representations from games including Skyrim, Zelda’s Breath of the Wild, Pokémon Go, Mahjong, Bubble Bobble, That Dragon Cancer, Puzzle and Dragons, the Final Fantasy series, Magic the Gathering, Garry’s Mod, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and DOTA 2.
We focused specifically on the differences in appearances, abilities, narrative elements, and cultural aspects that constitute dragons in games. This led to interesting discussions on what actually makes a ‘dragon’ a ‘dragon’ as a fictional or mythical construct. As well as how these representations are culturally enforced, gendered, stereotyped, but also somewhat unfixed throughout games. During this part of the seminar we also noted down keywords of the discussion that we used during the second activity.
Due to a lack of a meeting room, we decided that the second part of the seminar should take place in alignment with true Hong Kong trends: a Karaoke Box. It soon turned out that the echoed microphones and (lack of) singing skills among people in the adjacent rooms added an unforeseen extra dimension to our seminar.
We started with a brainstorming exercise that involved an adaptation of the popular Cards Against Humanity game. In our version, called Dragons Against the Humanities, we used the titles of last years’ DiGRA Conference Proceedings and the keywords we created in the morning to generate new paper titles. This activity led to 7 abstract titles we wanted to explore further:
Design Guidelines for Personifications of Dragons
Exploring Draconic Identity Experiences in Videogames
How Effective are Anthropomorphic Dragons in Simulating the Existential Crisis of Being both a Fairy and a Dragon?
Towards a History of Dragons as Valuable Resources
The Short Term Dynamics of Meeting a Dragon
Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of Dragon Ownership
Methods for the Estimation of Degrees of Dragonness
As you can imagine, these titles were quite amusing to us. However, at the same time, it sparked our imagination and gave us new ideas about dragon representations. We decided to divide the titles among participants and start writing abstracts that match those titles. To remove ownership of the work, we chose to work for 7 minutes on each abstract, and then rotate our computers 7 times among all participants. So that every one of us contributed to all abstracts. This must have been one of the most serious Karaoke Box uses ever.
Afterwards, we went to Victoria Park to enjoy some daylight and fresh air, and we presented the abstracts to each other. To conclude the fruitful and inspiring seminar day, we all played a local dragon-themed escape room, that we did not manage to solve in time. Perhaps because, as game scholars, we were highly overthinking the puzzles.
Thanks to all participants for engaging with us in a productive day of dragon-game-talk. We are currently considering our options to rewrite the abstracts into conference papers.
I find it seriously quite difficult to live a completely vegan life style in reality. Every meal or purchase involves another complicated decision making process. Most of the time it works out, but sometimes I make compromises or I lack the confidence to insist on my veganism when it requires some cooperation of other people. Maybe my friends want to go to a specific restaurant that doesn’t have any vegan options. Perhaps I’m traveling for work and I am in need of healthy food/proteins to keep my energy levels up, but all the vegan dishes include a collection of carbs, sugar, and a tiny leaf of lettuce. Or maybe I’m simply too weak to refuse the amazingly good looking salmon sushi (I know… it’s all my fault!!). And what?! Beer is not always vegan?
It is actually quite hard, if not impossible, to imagine and live my life as a complete non-speciesist. BUT WAIT… WHAT IF I COULD LIVE A FULLY NON-SPECIESIST LIFE IN A VIRTUAL WORLD INSTEAD?
Zelda – Breath of the Wild
It was the first time I saw somebody play Nintendo’s new Zelda game. In the game, my friend walked around the forest, picked up a tree branch, walked towards an innocent red little Bokoblin, and started beating him to death:
me: NOO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! This creature didn’t do anything to you, why did you need to kill him?
friend: Well, because it gives me more resources and the game wants me to do it.
me: But that doesn’t mean you have to!
friend: I play however I want to, and you play however you want to ok?
So I started playing Zelda with the same non-speciesist intentions I have in real life in the attempt to do a Vegan Run.
Before you start getting angry, please note that here I do not claim that in playing Zelda, or any other game for that matter, we should abandon all forms of violence (although I fully support critical readings of oppression towards others in different media forms (particularly with regards to sexism, racism, and speciesism).
Instead, in a much more personal and carefully set-out thought experiment, I imagined that within this virtual world, I could perhaps get much closer to speculating and philosophizing about the non-speciesist lifestyle of Link (the main character of the game). In other words, I approached the game with the question: could it be possible to live a vegan lifestyle in a more satisfying way within this virtual world, compared to real life? Perhaps it would be easier, because there are significantly less complicated options and choices to make within Zelda’s virtual environment, as opposed to real life. And perhaps this experience could propose new ideas about our views on non-speciesism, living together with animals, or it might give us some new (non-oppressive) ideas about the design of future (virtual) worlds.
With a bit of background research, I quickly discovered that (as expected) other vegan Zelda players had very similar intentions. Interestingly, although the game encourages you to turn in to a violent masculist bully machine (like my friend quickly signed up for), the game also allows you to successfully live off apples, mushrooms, and other veggies, run away from anything that tries to attack you, and ignore any side-quests that try to convince you to abandon this goal and become part of the dominant masculist culture (sounds much like real life, right?).
Since I am still playing the game, I cannot share any final reflections or insights. Nevertheless I wanted to share some of the situations and challenges I got myself into so far:
What to Wear?
In the first minutes of the game, Link wakes up in his underwear, but the player quickly finds some old clothes to put on. They seem to contain some leather straps, but I figured that since they are very old, I might as well hold on to them. Throughout the game players can upgrade their clothes. Some of these contain leather or wool, but there are certainly some other vegan options as well.
What to Eat?
Perhaps just like in real life, assembling a vegan diet is possible, but sometimes challenging. Here I am just running around in Hyrule, collecting apples, mushrooms, and other veggies. Happily ignoring the numerous attempts in which the game tries to convince me to hunt innocent forest creatures, kill for fun, and cook with animal ingredients.
No, I Won’t Help You Out, Farmer
To progress in the game, it is sometimes necessary to kill mechanical monsters (made of machine parts), defend myself from creatures that attack me, and work towards restoring peace in the Hyrule kingdom. However, some of the side quests include speciesist practices that I’d rather ignore:
Don’t Try to Lure Me into Becoming a Bully
Playing the game with these non-speciesist intentions, makes me much more aware of the numerous attempts that the game takes in convincing me to become a violent bully. These are some of the speciesist loading screen tips I got so far:
And no “Bro”, I am certainly NOT thinking about riding a horse, no matter how many times you try to convince me to:
However I must admit, living a non-speciesist life in the worlds of Zelda is much harder than I expected it to be (but still easier than in the real world). As an example, some questions I’m currently struggling with include:
What do I do when I receive an unwanted gift or reward that contains an animal product for completing a challenge? (for example a costume that contains leather)
If a creature attacks me, and I had to kill it (which I consider to be within the boundaries of non-speciesism), do I pick up the items they leave behind, even if they contain animal products, or do I leave them lying around in the forest?
Are the strings of the bow (a weapon in the game) made of horse hair?
Should “evil” creatures made of mechanical parts be considered as species?
If I am required to kill an “evil” animal (one that bullied other beings or stole items) as part of the quest to restore peace to the Hyrule kingdom, is this speciesist?
Let me know what you think or if you have any other questions I should include!
Update: please find a reflective follow-up post on my experience of playing BOTW as a vegan here. Alternatively, the research paper on this topic can be found here.
After a bit more than 1,5 years of PhD-ing, next week it’s time for my 25% seminar. It will take place on May 2nd at Malmö University (10.15-12.00). I will present the current state of my research which includes a theoretical framing as well as some ongoing design projects that involve cats, dogs, ants, and penguins. After this talk, there will be a discussion on my work together with Prof. Maria Hellström Reimer.
In the seminar I will be drawing from my newest paper. Part of this text will be published soon in a special issue on the topic of ‘Utopias’ in a journal called Antae. Please find the abstract for my talk below. Let me know if you’re interested in receiving the full text and/or attending this seminar!
Title of the Talk: Imagining Non-Speciesism
We live in a world where (non-human) animals are killed and abused in numbers that are almost beyond comprehension. This killing is ubiquitous and omnipresent, and yet largely invisible to most people. Once we come to the realization that the normalization of animal oppression is something that we should oppose, envisioning futures that abandon ‘speciesism’ requires an almost unimaginable rethinking of our current society. Yet, resistance and alternative practices do exist. These forces consist of alternative opinions, attitudes, feelings, meanings, and values, which are not considered to be the norm, but can somehow still be accommodated and tolerated within dominant culture.
In this modest approach towards imagining non-speciesist futures – which invites serious ethical consideration of animals – I aim to bring those under-emphasized and hidden alternative perspectives to light in order to make them more valid and more real as practices that counter hegemony. By paying attention to existing philosophies and personal affective accounts, this project highlights alternatives and possibilities for designers/artists, in the broadest sense of the word, to imagine and shape futures that are utopian, not just for humans, but for animals as well. I conclude by arguing and exemplifying how shared encounters with animals that are open to surprises, joy, and playfulness can inspire us to re-negotiate relationships with other beings. In this set-up, we can explore alternative scenarios, practice our sensitivity, develop empathy, and try out different realities together with other animals.
I hope to return to this aquarium next summer, with some ideas that can help us think about the futures of zoo animals as well as some prototypes for playful artefacts that could become part of the enrichment program of these penguins that live in captivity. One part of this process is to involve other designers and learn from their ideas. And the Interaction Design students did a great job with this last week!
Their assignment asked the students to design lo-fi prototypes (meaning low-fidelity prototypes made out of paper or other material as a first step towards creating a testable prototype later into the process). The goal of this stage was to come up with a collection of interesting ideas that could be discussed, tried out among people, and then later developed further, into artefacts that could be tested by the penguins. This blog post shows a summary of what they came up with:
The inspiration for the design ideas of this group was informed by both existing research into the sensory perceptions of penguins as well as material exploration of physical objects. Their research provided inspiring insights about penguins’ eyesight (they have excellent eyesight and can see low wavelengths of blue, green, and violet and have good vision both underwater as well as on land), their hearing (penguins use different sounds to socialize and to identify their parents), and their smell (that indicates where to find prey).
The material exploration that inspired the students happened when they tried out combinations of floating objects in water. They discovered playful qualities in the fact that some objects attach to each other in the water and combined this with the playful qualities of rotating floating objects:
Inspired by this exploration and research, they made a prototype consisting of two (or more) cubes that can be attached together with magnets. The cubes light up in different colours and change colour whenever they are touched (using touch sensors and an Arduino micro computer). Next to that, their designs have a short rope that the penguins could use to pull the cube through the water:
The designer envision a further development of the prototype to be waterproof, rigid, and safely hide the interactive components. The design process of this group of students is a really interesting example of how material exploration and insights on sensory perceptions of penguins can inspire a very open-ended playful artefact that could be appropriated by the penguins in many different ways.
Ligia Estera Oprea
Starting out from quite thorough research into enrichment for zoo animals, this group mentioned that designing playful objects for these penguins could be considered as a bit of a guessing game, since it is very difficult to imagine what these penguins would be interested in. Even though they can do a lot of research into penguin behaviour, they reflected that their prototypes are still built on assumptions, uncertainty, and predictions about how the penguins could eventually appropriate their designs. Next to that, this group reflected quite critically on the concept of a zoo, its function in society, and the question whether zoo enrichment it mostly there to entertain the animal or the zoo visitor. They summarized their initial reflections and questions like this:
In terms of design work, they started their ideation process by brainstorming and sketching out different ideas, some of them deliberately silly and others more seriously possible:
For their final prototype, the students chose to develop a digital version of their concept, consisting of a floating island in the water that both the penguins and the zookeepers can interact with. The island can be moved through the water, it changes color, it can be jumped on and off, and it can be used as a slide:
This prototype was made with Processing software and was used to demonstrate and animate the different ways in which the penguins could interact with the floating island. Interestingly, the designers showed how a digital prototype for a physical object can still allow for some exploration in terms of possible playful interactions with objects. Next to this, the digital prototype functioned as a tool to explain and present their design to other people. The next step in this process would be to design a physical prototype of the island that could be tested together with the penguins.
Ana Cecília Martins Barbosa
Judit Komaromi Haque
This group started their exploration by looking at each of the penguins that currently live in the Aquarium of the Pacific and trying to imagine what could be designed for these specific animals. Furthermore, through general research they found inspiration in knowing more about the penguins’ sensory perception such as eyesight and touch, the use of their beak, their interest in shiny objects and collecting rocks, and their seemingly clumsy way of walking.
They also reflected on the difficulty of trying to design something for an animal that they do not usually come into contact with. They therefore proposed that the next stage of the design process should involve a zookeeper or animal welfare specialist that could help the designers to evaluate their ideas, in order to make further design decisions. For this reason, the designers did not propose one final design idea but presented five different prototypes that could be explored and tried out further:
What was interesting in their design process was the way in which the students used existing research and information about penguin behaviour very specifically as inspiration for each of the five concepts they worked out further. This resulted in five very different prototypes that offer very different types of exploratory playful interaction.
Mauricio Struckel Pedrozo Mendes
The challenge of coming up with a useful design process without being able to test out the ideas was also reflected upon by this group of students. Instead they decided to look up existing information about penguins, specifically videos of penguin interacting with objects in a playful way, and draw new ideas from that.
They found that penguins are interested in new objects, collecting items, using their beaks to explore their surroundings. Furthermore, they are interested in shiny objects and they are curious about new floors under their feet. They had many different ideas and chose to work out three concepts in more detail. These include a bubble ring machine (inspired by dolphin play), a playful pinball machine that drops down stones for the penguins to collect, and a tactile floor interface with playful elements such as water fountains, lights, different floor temperatures, and sounds. They started prototyping each of these concepts:
Next to the prototypes, this group provided a quite extensive reflection on the ethical implications for developing enrichment for zoo animals. They are concerned with the idea that their concepts could be used in a way that the penguins are encouraged to become more of a performer or circus artist for the zoo visitors. At the same time, they considered that by taking the animals needs and perspectives into account, designing for zoo enrichment could perhaps provide the animals with a better life quality.
Considering the fact that the students only had one week to become familiar with the Magellanic penguin, formulate design openings, ideate, and develop a prototype, I think that all groups delivered great work. Collectively, they managed to explore different angles from which to approach this assignment, provided basic reflections on the ethical implications of their work, and offered a variety of different ideas and concepts that could be explored further in collaboration with the different stakeholders of this project. I hope that this one-week assignment allowed for an interesting learning process with regard to the challenges that arise in designing playful artefacts for other species. Next to this, I hope that some of the ideas and reflections that the students presented could lead to new developments and questions in relation to playful enrichment in zoos.
In terms of PhD design work, 2016 was all about ants. It all started in January this year, when I convinced the department head that it was a good idea to put an ant colony on my desk at university. As long as I wouldn’t let them escape it was ok…
Spoiler: they escaped, and this formed the inspiration for a short gamejam in which 16 interaction/game designers developed five prototypes for ‘escape-room challenges’ that ants could interact with. Afterwards, I set up a 24/7 live-stream for five weeks, during which the ants tried out all five prototypes.
The goal of this project was not to build a new form of ant human entertainment or demonstrate that ants are somehow playful. Instead, I wanted to see what kind of transformations would take place among designers, once they started to design for a species that they generally don’t relate to. In other words, I was looking for so-called ‘situated knowledges’ (subjective, partial, local kinds of insights) (Haraway, 1988) that could generate sensitivities among the designers and propose new ideas about our relationships with these ants.
This sensitivity already started to develop for me personally, as soon as I started spending time with these ants on a daily basis. Here’s a short piece of a journal that I kept during that time:
“Some days I feel a bit bad about having those ants in possession. […] It seemed like ants could actually be satisfied in captivity, because they have all the resources they need and in the wild they apparently don’t go further away from their nest than absolutely necessary. But the more I think about these things, the more I feel that I’m somehow cruel to them, especially in relation to their escape adventure and me blocking their way out (after they put so much effort into building their escape route) or using this as an insight into making escape rooms in which we as humans are in control of their life in such an unequal way.”
The designers of the prototype also had some things to say about the way it changed their views on the ants they designed for:
“I have never thought that ants possibly could enjoy certain activities, instead of doing it out of instinct or just to survive”
“It was super interesting as the word “empathy” often is a key word in IxD [Interaction Design]. This is usually easier with people as you can relate to them. It was fun trying to imagine yourself as an ant, and it somehow creates a “weird” bond with them that you had not considered before.”
“No…Or maybe a little. We began to give them personalities.”
“It was very interesting to design for something that you have absolutely no clue about. I feel more close to the ants (feels like that). And I can identify more since I know more about them.”
“I think we view them as much smarter animals now.”
“We almost humanize them by saying things are ‘fun’ and all. I don’t know how much of this is true, but it does make me wonder!”
“You can design with/for ants to entertain probably mostly oneself.”
“I never thought that ants are playful. Not that I thought they weren’t, I just did not think about it.”
A frequently mentioned topic in their reflections included the designers’ consideration of ants being perhaps “more playful”, “smarter”, or “more curious” than they would expect them to be. Furthermore, most participants seemed to be interested in giving more thought to the idea that ants might do something, such as exploring or manipulating objects, for reasons that are not purely functional or done for immediate survival. Perhaps the ants do something, simply because they want to. A few months later, the participants shared stories about the ants they encountered after this workshop and mentioned that they viewed the ants differently and they were more willing to share their living space with ant visitors.
Also online, among people that watched the livestreams, sensitivities for the ants were shared in different ways through social media. After the first day of streaming, the platform Twitch closed the online broadcast of the ants interacting with the escape room prototypes and labelled it as “non-gaming related content”. This event generated mixed feelings among viewers that started arguing online about the potential paradox (and the irony) of designing escape rooms for captive animals and society’s concept of gaming understood as an exclusively human activity. This situation produced several online discussions and illustrated different degrees of sensitivity that people perceived in their relationships with these ants while watching them interact with the prototypes:
During the week the first prototype was connected, the ants followed the plan of the designers quite accurately. They did have some trouble pushing that tiny metal ball through the tube, but after I helped out with that they continued their path and escaped within a couple of days.
This gif shows the escape from another prototype. The ants found the exit of this room within the first day and spent the rest of the week exploring my living room. Because the queen ant always remains inside the nest, the escaped worker-ants always return to their original living space, even after their escape.
This is a capture from the third room they escaped from. Here the ants were supposed to build a bridge over a tiny river that separated two areas, but instead they found their way via the walls. In most of the prototypes, the designers used vegetable oil to prevent the ants from walking on the plexiglass walls (this makes the surface slippery). It seems like the ants still found a way around the oily areas.
How are the ants doing?
One of the questions I got asked very often during this year was “how are your ants?”. This was always an opening into new stories. One of these includes the fact that, during this whole escape-room-live-stream phase, the ants dug a hole directly through the top of their nest, bypassing the need to solve each of the prototypes as a way to get out (see the gif below). Of course I was happy about this, since this meant that the ants were not restricted in their behaviour every time I connected a new prototype.
After the live stream finished, I left this exit open, so that the ants could roam around freely. But in general they never went very far away from the nest. Over the summer I found that they moved closer to a water source after I came back from a period of traveling. In this case they moved back in as soon as I provided more water closer to their nest. However now, perhaps because of the changes in season, it seems like the ants decided to move out entirely. I haven’t seen them for a while and I am not sure where they moved to. Perhaps to a nearby water source, a dark area, the balcony, or the neighbours. I hope they are doing well, and I think that the ants themselves have clearly marked the end of this project with their final move!
A paper on this project, written together with Stefano Gualeni, was recently published at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference and can be found here.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. In Feminist Studies, 14(3), pp. 575-599.
Westerlaken, M., and Gualeni, S. Situated Knowledges and Game Design: A Transformative Exercise with Ants.Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, (Valletta, MLT, November 1-4, 2016). PDF, LINK
Together with Stefano Gualeni, we took a road trip to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach (California) last weekend. As I shared in a previous blog post, the Magellanic penguins in this aquarium are hooked on playing video games (originally designed for cats) on a tablet device. Since I was in the neighbourhood (I’m spending two months doing a course on Meaningful Game Design at Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach, taught by Stefano) I contacted aviculturist Sara Mandel, who introduced the games to the penguins, and planned a special visit.
We had an awesome afternoon filled with interesting conversations on penguin playfulness and curiosity and lots of opportunities for starting a new design project. In case you’re asking, of course we met the famous penguins too! I was amazed by how curious and playful these penguins are.
The Magellanic penguins of this non-profit aquarium are either rescued or born in captivity (including transfers from other zoos) and they cannot be returned to the wild. In captivity they can live up to 25/30 years (as opposed to 15 in the wild) and they are especially playful in their first years.
When we entered the so-called “penguin back-stage area” (where the penguins are fed and taken care of, away from the visitors), a couple of penguins were already waiting for some interaction. Without being shy, they approached us, allowed us to pet them, and nibbled at our clothes, bags, and shoes. We soon opened a bucket of toys and the penguins started playing immediately with the rubber objects, squeaking toys, towels, and plastic bottles at their disposal. When Sara took the Ipad out, it was evident that they knew what was coming. Three young penguin players gathered around the screen and started to interact with the video game.
As mentioned, the game itself is actually developed for cats. Compared to my experience of cats playing video games, the penguins seemed to be much quicker at it and the touch screen reacted surprisingly well to the input of their beaks. However, the lack of physical components seems to be slightly frustrating for the penguins (similarly to cats) who visibly became more excited and jumpy the longer they played with the game. Two baby chicks tried the game for the first time during our visit and it took them less than 10 seconds to approach the game and start chasing the objects on the screen.
There is, to our knowledge, no environment enrichment or games that are specifically developed for penguins in captivity. In other words, here’s a great opportunity for a new design project, and I hope to find ways to contribute as part of my PhD research in the future.
For those that are new to this concept: an escape room is a physical adventure game in which players are locked inside a room and have to use elements of the room to solve a series of puzzles and escape within a set time limit (usually an hour). Let me explain how I got to the idea of trying this out with ants.
As mentioned in a previous blog post, in January I started a small ant colony on my desk at Malmö University. I wanted to try to get to know these ants and see if there was any way to explore how we could design for – and with – these small insects. My aim was to speculate on how we could change our relationships with ants (a species we usually don’t really relate to) by engaging in playful encounters together. By doing this, we could perhaps start thinking about future scenarios that are less human centred and more focused on what we share with other species on this planet.
Some surprising things happened since then. One of these was their remarkable escape story. Even though I promised my department head that I wouldn’t let the ants escape (sorry Sara!), after a few weeks of having ants on my desk I noticed that they were occasionally walking around on the desk, never really venturing out very far, because the ant-queen remained inside the nest. I could not figure out how they managed to escape, so each time I carefully picked up the ants and put them back in the nest, only to find them walking around on my desk again a few hours later. A few days passed and I noticed that the ants were ripping off small pieces of carton from a nearby source and carried these pieces back into their nest. Then I started following one ant around carefully and I discovered the amazing construction they had set up:
The ants had found a small opening between two walls of the Plexiglas arena and managed to stack some pieces of carton in between that crack, in order to make the opening bigger and escape comfortably.
After my initial enthusiasm over what these ants appeared to be capable of, I felt bad about having to close that opening again and I started to reflect on what this story could tell me about designing playful artefacts for – and with – ants.
The Escape Room Workshop
So apparently these ants wanted to escape their living environment. Even though we usually like to explain animal behaviour as purely functional, I refuse to believe that the ants only escaped because they needed something. Couldn’t it be possible that the ants escaped simply because they were curious? Because they wanted to know what is behind the corner? Maybe they smelled something? Or maybe they felt like experiencing a new place.
Using this as inspiration I organised an Escape Room for Ants design workshop at the 2016 Student Interaction Design Research conference (SIDeR) in Malmö. During this workshop, 16 interaction/game designers spent 2 hours developing prototypes for an escape room for ants. The goal was to develop a challenge that would not be too easy, and not too difficult, for the ants to solve, using a bunch of different materials I provided. We wanted to experiment with the idea of seeing the ants as actual players and design an interesting challenge that the ants could actually enjoy solving.
The Twitch Stream
During this workshop, five different prototypes were built. I am currently testing these with the ants and streaming the entire thing live via Twitch. Since it might take a while before the ants solve the escape room puzzles, I am connecting each room for about a week in order to see what happens and have some time to speculate about the experiment.
It might be difficult to see exactly what is going on, so perhaps these captions help you to understand the set-up and the desired challenge that the designers of the rooms envision:
Room #1 – See-saw Madness
Room #2 – Heaven
Room #3 – Dutch Canals
Room #4 – The See-Saw Circus
Room #5 – The Dilemma
Most importantly, now is the time I would like to hear from you! Does watching these ants play escape rooms make you feel itchy? Or uncomfortable? Do you think it will never be possible for ants to play games? What could the future of human-insect relationships hold? Do you feel bad for the ants being locked inside this room without informed consent? What are your thoughts on these type of speculations?
Please comment on this post below, or in the Twitch stream chat, or on social media, or send me an email with your thoughts. I really appreciate your feedback and your comments will be part of my PhD research.
These are the credits of the five different rooms that will be shown over the next weeks:
Title: See-Saw Madness(made by: Ralitsa Plamenova Retkova, Simon Nilsson, Eliel Camargo-Molina, Pak Lau)
Title: Heaven (made by: Marian Vijverberg, Nele Schmidt, Koen Wijbrands)