Inter-Species Play

One of the main elements I established in my research so far is that many animals (including humans) play. I emphasized that this is always a free and voluntary activity since we can never force an animal to play. It is therefore a very suitable concept to embrace when we want to design technical artefacts that facilitate human-animal play.

Next to this, it is discovered that animals use certain signals to communicate their intention to play so that the invited animal does not confuse playful behaviour with actions such as fighting or mating, which show overlapping types of behaviour (such as biting, mounting, or producing certain sounds). A very clear example of this is the play bow we can observe in social play among dogs. However, according to Pierce and Bekoff (2009), the social lives of animals have evolved many examples of communicative signals that help getting along with each other and remain close and generally peaceful relationships. In animal play this includes signals such as self-handicapping, where the animal compromises its behaviour patterns or role-reversing by, for example, a dominant animal that makes dramatic roll over on its back.

According to the same article of Pierce and Bekoff (2009) there are four basic aspects in animal play: “Ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you’re wrong. When the rules of play are violated, and when fairness breaks down, so does play.”

The question I am interested in at this point is how play between different animal species (including humans) can be facilitated. How could we communicate playful intentions according to the rules that make social play possible in inter-species interactions? What are the rules? And which animal species are most suitable in this case?

When looking at inter-species play, for example in the videos below, we can observe that, next to all the cuteness, in many occasions play interaction and communication of signals between different animals seem to be understood well enough to continue playing. Play facilitates a mutual understanding due to the shared interaction and response to signs, cues, and behaviour which allows specific species to understand others up to a level that enables them to perform playful activities together. This is exactly what we need for the successful design of playful technical artefacts for human-animal interaction.


(Image by _tar0_)

Fish “Play” Video Games?

Virtual reality and simulations created for animals could help scientists in studying animal behaviour using new research methods. Even though researchers can never be sure on how animals perceive the world, the environment, and therefore also the simulation of it, a virtual environment provides a certain amount of control and the possibility to exclude (potentially) influential variables.

An example of how virtual reality helps in animal behaviour research is recently published in the Science journal. At Princeton University, researchers have developed a digital application projected into a fish tank that simulates prey for the bluegill sunfish.

In this so called “game” the red dots (representing prey) moved in different ways and it was found that they were less likely attacked by the bluegill sunfish if they moved in group formation. This experiment provided the researchers with more control over the parameters and the coding enabled random formation and movement of the dots. New plans include the development of a 3D environment.

Other examples of digital simulations for studying animal behaviour include cockroaches moving in simulated forests, male moths tempted by virtual female olfactory cues, mice navigating in a virtual maze, and zebrafish chasing virtual objects.

The use of virtual reality and digital simulations for animal behaviour research brings up two main questions for me:

– How do these animals perceive their environment and is this somehow comparable with their perception of reality?

– And is there any reason for the connection of this experience for the animal with ‘play’ or (video) ‘games’ as exemplified in this BBC message or questioned in this article?

I think we should be very careful in connecting concepts such as ‘reality’ or ‘play’ to these experiments, since drawing conclusions based on superficial anthropomorphic statements, such as fish playing video games, could prevent us from actually acquiring a closer understanding of the animal.

(Image by Charles&Clint)