What is the opposite of Speciesism?

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).

(a quote from Vinciane Despret 2016: 47)

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. 

(a quote from Richard Powers, 2018: 292))

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. [1975](2009). Animal Liberation. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

The Vegan Society. (n.d.). ‘History’, retrieved May 14, 2019 via https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history

Tsing, Anna. L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Design and Care – Nordes Summer school

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.

The starting point for the course content, excursions, and discussions were these three books:

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of Care. Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tsing, A. et al. (2017). Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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:

From the documentary “Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival” by Fabrizio Terranova

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.

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.


25% PhD Seminar: Imagining Non-Speciesism

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!

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 15.32.21

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.

Animals & Agency


A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (3/4)

Last two blog posts I discussed the term speciesism and the intersectionalities between speciesism and other forms of oppression. In this post, I will discuss a concept that I find inspiring in speculating about future scenarios with animals: the concept of animal agency.

The Problem of Backwards Ethics

We could describe our increasing body of knowledge about the lives of animals in two different ways. Either, animals are a lot more like humans, or humans are a lot more like animals than we have dared to think in the past. It seems like the more research towards the complexity of animals we carry out, the more we start seeing that all animals are sentient, they experience emotions, they suffer, and they like to live an enjoyable life.

The heritage of a Cartesian way of thinking, in which the animal was by definition excluded from the realm of ethics and protection (Gibson, 1967), has left us with a society in which the norm allows us to make animals suffer to the most horrific extends. Our animal welfare protection ethics and laws are built on the idea that animals are readily available for our use and we are allowed to make them suffer if we can justify our reasons for doing so (such as for food production, scientific experiments, clothing, etc.). Even though we obtain more and more insights in the capabilities for all animals to feel pain and enjoyment, every species first has to prove their capabilities and suffering to us, in order to then be granted ‘better’ treatment; or to be granted a mere extra daily hour of natural light in their cage. To me this seems like a backwards way of reasoning in which we try to undo some of the damage we have caused, without going to the actual root of the suffering.

Animal Agency

This has left me thinking, what if, instead of basing my ethics on species-specific hypotheses about animal capabilities and supposed intelligence, I could actually try to provide the animal with the agency to dictate her own life? What if I personally ask the animal what she likes? In this setting, I aim to provide the animal with a space to act independently, to influence her life, and to respond to her environment autonomously.

Throughout history, the concept of animal agency has often been ignored, because animals were not seen as independent agents. But even today, we often talk about animals as voiceless: “we have to speak for the animal, because they cannot speak for themselves”, we disregard the animal’s own capability to act. The animal is presented as a static character that can be used, displayed, abused, and exploited by humans (Hribal, 2007). But, if we actually look at the animal and observe her actions, it becomes clear that animals are actually very good at telling and showing us what they like, we just have to listen.

When we write or speak about animals, they are usually not seen as agents. We do not talk about the cow as a worker, the zoo elephant as prisoner, and the escaped lama as resistor. This passive portrayal is not only a disservice to the animals that we wrote about in the past, but also forms obstacles to the relationships we want to establish with animals in the present (Hribal, 2007). Hribal writes:

Donkeys have ignored commands. Mules have dragged their hooves, Oxen have refused to work. Horses have broken equipment, Chickens have pecked people’s hands. Cows have kicked farmers’ teeth out. Pigs have escaped their pens, Dogs have pilfered extra food. Sheep have jumped over fences.” (Hribal, 2007, pp. 103)

These are all very clear acts of resistance that have, in some cases, led to better treatment (such as in the form of animal rights), however in most cases it led to more punishment: higher fences, less motion, crude devices, clipping wings, blinding eyes, and physical abuse (Hribal, 2007). Yet, animals did not just continue their labour, they also continued to resist this labour and fought against their exploitation in any way that they deem possible (Hribal, 2007). And even though we are conditioned to ignore their resistance, they will continue to tell us that they suffer. They will continue to try and tell us that they do not accept the way we abuse them. And we do not need to wait for more ‘scientific discoveries’ to understand that they are suffering, we can just look any animal in her eyes and we will know.

Agency and Design

So, what if we could start over again on a more equal ontological footing? Starting in my own research project, not only by trying to avoid animal suffering, but also by exploring the alternatives that they propose themselves. What if we could acknowledge the fact that animals have agency and we could ask each and every individual animal what she actually likes to do?

In putting this proposal in a broader societal context, it can help us to think about a future beyond anthropocentrism and beyond the oppression of animals. The field of Critical Animal Studies is focused on emphasizing highly relevant and necessary histories, theories, and issues in our current society regarding animal exploitation, oppression, killing, use, entertainment, and domestication. In this, theorists, practitioners, and activists advocate for a non-speciesist approach, which means that we wish to abandon the view that the interests of human species are more important than the interests of animal species (as with racism, sexism, or classism, where the interests of another race, gender, or class, are considered more valuable than another) (Mosely, 2009). However, since we have not paid so much attention to the agency of animals throughout history, how would we be able to understand what the interests of animal species actually are?

We have obtained lots of useful insights in animals’ lives through observational research towards animal behaviour by carrying out ethnographic studies and biological, evolutionary, and ecology research. But these types of studies have a focus on understanding the animal’s behaviour and history. I suggest that we could complement our understanding of animal agency and interests with design based research. This type of research allows us to ask question, speculate about a future together, and experiment with different modes of mutual understanding between humans and animals. The process of design and shared agency allows us to get to know the animal and identify with their struggles. I think that this could be a significant and powerful force in eliciting social change.

In the following, and final blog post in this series I will discuss how playful design could be a helpful field of designing for acknowledging and listening to animal agency.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our camping trip last summer on a Dutch island called Terschelling, where we met some beautiful animals.


Gibson, A., B. (1967). The Philosophy of Descartes. London, UK: Russell&Russell Pub.

Hribal, J. (2007). Animals, agency, and class: Writing the history of animals from below. Human Ecology Review, 14(1), pp. 101-­‐112. Retrieved, March 23, 2016 from http://www.humanecologyreview.org/pastissues/her141/hribal.pdf

Mosley, Albert (2009). Expanding the moral circle: From racism to speciesism. Retrieved, March 23, 2016 from http://www.smith.edu/philosophy/expanding_moral_circle.html


Animals & Other Forms of Oppression

Little Bird

A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (2/4)

In my previous post I discussed the term speciesism and questioned what a non-speciesist approach in my research could mean. In this post I will suggest how we could use theories from other forms of oppression to think about our relationships with animals.


The term intersectionality refers to overlapping systems of oppression, discrimination, and domination, which are all interlinked. In other words, this theory invites us to think about how things like racism, sexism, classism, and speciesism are connected: they exist on the same premises, they are built on each other, and they are influencing each other.

In her 1988 book The Dreaded Comparison, Marjorie Spiegel illustrates a range of startling similarities between human and animal slavery. Comparing speciesism with racism might sound insulting at first, but then we see the examples: removing children from their parents, similar means of transporting, the unhealthy living conditions, the hunting down of escaped individuals, experimentation on their bodies, and the list goes on.


But the similarities between different forms of oppression do not stop there. If we look at systems of oppression based on gender (particularly regarding women), we see that in a patriarchal society both “animals, and women are objectified, hunted, invaded, colonised, owned, consumed, and forced to yield and produce” (Collard, 1988).

Furthermore, we can see that these different forms of oppression are interrelated and not separable. Meaning that the stereotypical image of the oppressor and the oppressed is shared between things like gender, race, or class. Some examples:

  • Trophy hunters are most often white males that aim to shoot the biggest animal, which is usually a male (Kalof and Fitzgerald, 2003);
  • Most meat and farm animals are females, while most butchers and farmers are males (Calvo, 2008);
  • 84-98% of the animal cruelty cases in the US are committed by men (Herzog, 2011);
  • Farm animals are usually bred specifically according to characteristics like docile, affectionate, good mothers, and dependent, which are often assigned to value women too (ibid);
  • Farming and butchering labour are usually considered as jobs for a lower class in western society and the culture of meat eating is deeply entangled in manifestations of class and privilege. (Here you can find a more elaborate essay on this topic)

Please note that these are statements related to extreme engagements with animal oppression. In society we can also find numerous examples that contradict with these stereotypes. However the most important insight for me here is that the more we break down different forms of oppression and their relationships with each other, the more we see this:

“Any oppression helps to prop up other forms of oppression. This is why it is vital to link oppressions in our minds, to look for the common, shared aspects, and fight against them as one, rather than prioritising victim’s suffering (the ‘either-or’ pitfall). For when we prioritise we are in effect becoming one with the oppressor. We are deciding that one individual or group is more important than another, deciding that one individual’s pain is ‘less important’ than that of the next.” (Spiegel, 1996, p.30).

In other words, if you are against the oppression of human beings, it becomes particularly appropriate and important to extend the field of concern to animals (Selby, 1995). Or perhaps as philosopher Albert Schweitzer noted (including my adaptation): “Until he [we] extends the circle of his compassion to include all living things, man [we] will not himself find peace.” (Schweitzer, 1987, originally published in 1923). I would even go as far as saying that in this logic, it becomes a paradox to say that you are against things like racism or sexism, while putting a burger in your mouth. Yes, I just said that out loud and I mean it.

Anyway… what does this have to do with my research?

I think that if we wish to aim for a non-speciesist approach and aspire to improve animal welfare with our own research, we should position our discussions in the same field of critical theory that has informed other forms of oppression. Since the topic of oppression is widely discussed and researched across disciplines, existing insights are very relevant in finding answers to some of the questions we raise and can help to advance our field.

While looking at animals, play, and technology in specific, we could regard how fields like games studies, human computer interaction, or design based research have critically engaged with the topic of oppression in the past (for example through fields like critical games/design, serious games, speculative design, and design fiction) and how they aim to contribute to a better future for the oppressed. Additionally, if the aim of our research is to include animals in our research in order to figure out what sort of design artefact they would want, it might help to learn from existing projects that similarly aim to give a voice to ‘the oppressed’ in other contexts. You can find some interesting examples here, herehere, here, here, here and here.

In the next post I will discuss more about providing the animal with their own agency, a voice that we can listen to.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our trip to Helsinki in the fall of 2014, where we met some beautiful city-animals.


Collard, A. (1988). Rape of the Wild. Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth, Women’s Press, 1.

Herzog, H. (2011). Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Kalof, L., and Firzgerald, A. (2003). Reading the trophy: Exploring the display of dead animals in hunting magazines. Visual Studies, 18(2), p. 112-122.

Schweitzer, A. (1987). The Philosophy of Civilization. (Translation of Kulturphilosophie). New York, NY: Prometheurs Books.

Selby, D. (1995). Circles of compassion: Animals, race, and gender. In Selby, D. Earthkind: A Teacher’s Handbook on Humane Education, p. 17-32. Stroke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books.

Spiegel, M. (1996). The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. New York, NY: Mirror Books. In Selby, D. (1995). Circles of compassion: Animals, race, and gender. In Selby, D. Earthkind: A Teacher’s Handbook on Humane Education, p. 17-32. Stroke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books

Virtual Reality: The Future for Chickens?

Imagine a farm in which the animals are living inside a shed but are tricked into thinking that they are roaming free. US company Second Lifestock is following the human trend to live in an increasing digital and augmented reality by proposing virtual reality headsets designed for chickens.

Second Livestock's virtual world for chickens

Artist Austin Stewart developed an idea for a living environment in which chickens are locked inside a small plexiglas cylinder wearing a virtual headset comparable to the Oculus Rift. The chicken is placed on a ball that turns in every direction and can be used to walk freely inside a virtual environment. They could also peck at small insects or water, which would be translated as real food and water on a sensor-controlled tray that follows the bird’s beak inside the plexiglas cylinder.

Chickens using the virtual reality in the battery farm

Technically, this would all be possible, however, according to Stewart it is currently too expensive to further develop. Another problem that prevents further development includes the differences between the eye-side of chickens and humans. Chickens can see a color that humans cannot: ultraviolet. In order to recreate a ‘believable’ virtual environment for chickens, existing digital screens will have to show this color. However, even with this implementation it remains difficult to find out what chickens would actually like to see as pointed out by Stewart in an interview. Chickens that are bred in captivation do not have any experience of freedom. Whatever species they came from is completely gone so there is no way to know what a truly wild chicken would want.

Even though this design proposal might sound unethical to some, according to philosopher and cultural geographer Clemens Driessen it could be a more welcome solution compared to existing proposals for improving the life quality of chickens including blinkers to narrow their eye-side or even breeding blind chicken (that are unable to see their living environment and peck at each other).

The main goal of this project is to start a discussion about the way in which captivated animals are treated. I believe it raises a lot of questions. Would it be preferable to design technology that allows for more captivation or better natural living environments? Is it realistic to think that technology can actually improve the lives of these chickens? What does it mean to improve the life of an animal anyway? What is the influence of a capitalistic society on these ideas? Who decides the appropriate context for new design that aims at improving animal welfare? What is the role of the animal in the design of these virtual spaces?

(Images from secondlivestock.com)

Felino – Videogame Playtesting with Cats

Finally the moment was there. After eight months of  design and development on Sunday afternoons the Felino prototype was ready for serious playtesting. Of course we did some small qualitative tests along the way to test specific elements of the game and to make sure that all cats would not run away instantly.

Game developers will know the great feeling of seeing someone enjoy the game you worked on, but for me this feeling multiplied by 10 as soon as the first cats started to become interested in what was happening on the tablet screen. In total we tested Felino with 19 cats in a period of two weeks. Most of these cats (15) were shelter cats that we could test thanks to the amazing and professional help of the animal shelter in Breda, The Netherlands (Dierenasiel Breda e.o.). During these tests we followed strict ethical guidelines designed for Human-Computer Interaction testing with animals to make sure that all cats joined our game voluntarily and were not harmed in any way.


These 19 cats were aged between 7 weeks and 12,5 years, 10 of them were female, and they formed a mix of appearances and characters. All user testing sessions were completely recorded using both audio and video, but the length of each recording greatly diverted depending on the interest of the cat. On average the sessions lasted 5 minutes and 51 seconds. However, the shortest session was 57 seconds and the longest session lasted for 15 minutes and 54 seconds.

As part of my first year thesis for the MSc in Interaction Design I am currently following in Malmö (Sweden) we conducted the play sessions and analysis according to a theoretical framework and guidelines that were first proposed in a paper in 2013 written by me and Stefano Gualeni. In practice, this included the structural analysis of video recordings, a time consuming activity that resulted in a total of 1666 annotations divided in eight different categories. This data was then combined with qualitative observations and analysed in order to find results that could lead to design iterations with the goal to improve the game.


Luckily most cats were interested in the game and we gained many new insights that are supported by this data. We noticed, for example, that the cats were very interested in the sides of the tablet as soon as the fish swam outside of the screen. Next to this, the human physical interaction with the game had a high positive impact on the interest of the cat in the game.


Next to the interaction with the game that we expected, some cats showed other amusing behaviour, such as rolling on the tablet, sitting on the tablet, and one of the kittens even fell asleep.


After the prototype testing with the 19 cats and the analysis of all data, it became clear how the physical interaction of the human and the cat’s interest in the sides of the tablet could become a larger part of the playful interaction. After delivering my thesis I therefore decided to expand the prototype into the physical space to explore this element further. I built a new prototype that we tested with a new participant:


This testing phase had a distinct focus on the cat-player. In the coming period we will implement the new ideas we gained from these tests and develop a new version of Felino. We will then continue to test the game with both human and cat players. So in case you have a cat, and you would like to participate in this next stage of our development and research, let us know!

For me, this has been the most fun research experience so far and I believe that it resulted in a valuable and useful piece of work. The thesis was received well and got the following feedback:

“The work is a fine example of advanced-level scholarship in interaction design. The work approaches and contributes to a in a timely and relevant field within interaction design, particularly in the way that that it connects theoretical discussions with methodological explorations. The strengths of this work in combination with some of the unanswered questions it raises shows great promise for future work within this area.” 

This project would not have been possible without the help of the animal shelter and the other cat owners that let their cats join the testing. Stay tuned for more Felino updates and have a great summer!

Announcing Felino, our game for cats and humans

After months of designing, drawing, animating, and coding, the prototype of a new form of digitally mediated human-animal interaction finally starts to take shape. Together with Alex Camilleri we are putting a lot of our free time into the development of a tablet game for cats and humans called Felino. We started to develop this game because we are convinced that we, as humans, can develop better tablet entertainment for cats than the applications that currently exist.

Felino is a digital toy that allows humans and cats to play together. The main objective of Felino is really simple: enjoy and share playful moments with your feline companion. No highscores, no time pressure, no game-over – rather an experience that is more understandable for a cat: time spent playing together.

Tijger, our first participant

We studied almost everything there is to know about cats since August 2013. This guided us in developing a digital experience that is based on informed design decisions that follow the initial guidelines proposed in the paper “Digitally Complemented Zoomorphism: a Theoretical Foundation for Human-Animal Interaction Design“, published last year by me and Stefano Gualeni.

With the current prototype the fun part starts: in the coming eight weeks, I will continue with user testing as part of my first year thesis project for the Master in Interaction Design I am following at Malmö University. Yes, this means that we will need to convince cats to voluntarily participate in my research. The aim of this study is to find out if structural analysis of video observations can provide additional value for user testing in animals and contribute to new design iterations for the game.

We do not have a specific release date in mind for our game. Eventually, we want to release Felino on both Android and iOS whenever it’ is ready.

I will keep you updated!


Co-Designing with Dogs – Open University UK

The Open University’s Animal Computer Interaction (ACI) lab organized a workshop on the 12th and 13th of April 2013 on Co-Designing with Dogs. This workshop is part of the More-Than-Human Participatory research project, led by the University of Edinburgh. This project has the aim to “explore how a broader account of community – one that recognises the active participation of non-humans – might challenge understandings of how research can be co-designed and co-produced“.

The objective of ACI research is described on the ACI Blog by Clara Mancini, Research Fellow and head of the Animal-Computer Interaction Lab at The Open University:

One of the aims – perhaps the most important aim – of Animal-Computer Interaction as a research discipline is to develop a user-centred approach to the design of technology intended for animals. Not only does this mean developing technology which is informed by the best available knowledge of animals’ needs and preferences. Crucially it also means involving animal users in the development process as legitimate stakeholders, design contributors and research participants“.

This workshop focused on assistant dog training and specifically aimed to explore how animals can contribute to ACI research and interaction design processes. The ACI lab is planning to design “a series of plug-on, dog-friendly computing interfaces for various domestic appliances to support assistance dogs in their tasks, thus improving their welfare and professional life”. This includes, for example, dog friendly interfaces for washing machines, light switches, and door handles: devices that are currently not informed by the perspective of the dog.

The video that summarizes this workshop can be watched below. The ACI lab follows a meaningful approach that, besides the play-element, is very much in line with the research I am pursuing. I am convinced that it will give a valuable understanding of the needs and preferences of assistance dogs. Furthermore the other workshops of the More-Than-Human Participatory research project could show new examples of participatory design with animals as the intended users.

Pig Chase

This project, carried out by the Utrecht School of the Arts in collaboration with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, researched the complex relationships between pigs and humans through game design. The purpose of this game was to provide pigs with their natural need to play, experience the cognitive capabilities of both human and pig, and facilitate new relations between species. Their next goal is to actually realize the project. The video in this post shows how the game works.

What makes this research project interesting to me is the collaboration between the research areas: game design, animal welfare, and philosophy. Next to this the social purpose to enrich the lives of the pigs through play and thereby improve the animal welfare is a very positive and valuable approach in my opinion. It would be interesting to get a broader understanding of the experience of the animals involved in this form of play and how the interaction with human beings takes influences their lives.

(video: www.playingwithpigs.nl, 2012)

TOUCH project

image by zachstern

One of the first projects I came across during my graduation research is the TOUCH project: ‘Bringing new Technology to Orangutans for Understanding and Communicating cross-species for greater Harmony‘. This project, carried through by School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University by Dr. Hanna Wirman, researches the possibilities for facilitating in cross-species interaction and enrichment for orangutans through digital games.

The focus of this project is centered around both human and orangutan and the potential for interaction between these two species. The researchers are aiming for the development of digital games in which humans might be defeated by orangutans through for example visual or short term memory games.

The blog that evolved around the TOUCH project, LUDUS ANIMALIS provides insights and updates on the research as well as an interesting collection of sources on animals, play and a few other animal computer interaction projects.

(Image by zachstern)

Graduation Project Delivered

After 10 weeks of full-time thinking, reading, and writing, I handed in the graduation documents for my Master in Media Innovation at the NHTV Breda (the Netherlands). Allthough the timeframe was relatively short, it was without a doubt the best and most interesting personal project I worked on during my study. I was able to extensively improve my capabilities as a student and researcher and it provided me with the encouragement and hopefully the opportunity to continue my research in the area of digitally mediated animal interaction.

The main part of this project includes the research thesis: Design Methodologies for Embodied Play in Canine Digital Interaction

This thesis proposes a theoretical framework based on embodied play, a phenomenological approach, and the avoidance of superficial forms of anthropomorphism. Furthermore it provides a critical review of existing literature in the area of animal computer interaction.