Breath of the Wild – Vegan Run

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.

(this post contains minor spoilers of Nintendo’s Zelda – Breath of the Wild game)

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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?

More difficult scenarios occur as well. Do I want to sit on my friend’s leather sofa? Is my occasional painkiller tested on animals? Do I still use that old leather bag? What is my hairbrush actually made of? What if I accidentally kill an ant while I’m walking through the woods? Is it wrong to be madly in love with someone else’s puppy? AAAAHH! Life is hard (not really, I realize that I’m privileged, although please mind that veganism itself is not a privilege, the ability to make food choices is).

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?

me: fine.

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Cute little Bokoblin, right?

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.

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Link’s old clothes
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Nope, no thanks, there’s definitely leather in that costume

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.

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Tasty vegan dish!
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What do you mean perfect? If I could speak, you would certainly fail to understand my ideas about meat and seafood!

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:

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In this quest, I am supposed to find the chickens that were lucky enough to escape the farm, and put them back into the enclosure. I don’t think so!
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Actually, here’s what I did instead: I grabbed all the chickens that remained in the enclosure, and freed them as well. I felt lik a hero and I wish I could do this in real life too!

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:

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And no “Bro”, I am certainly NOT thinking about riding a horse, no matter how many times you try to convince me to:

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Wait, am I in a commercial for eggs that was subsidized by the Hyrule government?

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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!

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Dogscotch – Global Game Jam 2014

For the Global Game Jam 2014 we made a digitally augmented variant of hopscotch, called Dogscotch, that can be played together with a dog. In the activity of play, humans can form complex abstractions and embrace structured rules to experience games. We often use our imagination while playing games; dogs just perceive the environment the way it is. These two opposing perceptions come together in this game, created in 48 hours.

We interpreted the global theme of this gamejam from the perspective of a dog:

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” (Dog, 2014).

The question that remains is whether the dog-player is actually playing or not. Play in animals can be recognized according to different behavioral elements; some of these are clearly visible in this video (wagging tails, curiosity, and interaction with toys). However, the use of food as reward leads to an extrinsic motivation that highly influences the behaviour of the dog.

We are sure that the dogs had fun. They joined voluntarily and spent active time together with their owners. We believe this development in experimental games proposes interesting questions and explores new areas of play in non-humans.

Credits:
Alex Camilleri – @AlexColorblind
Michelle Westerlaken – @colombinary

music: Ratatat – Shempi

More details on http://globalgamejam.org/2014/games/dogscotch

Digitally mediated human-animal interaction with Sphero

I recently discovered a nice playful example of an artefact that could function as a digital mediator between human-animal interaction: Sphero. A durable robotic ball that you can control from a smartphone or tablet (supported on both Android and IOS). This video shortly explains it:

It already offers a large amount of functions and entertainment (think about gaming, light, music, and augmented reality apps) Sphero is engineered so developers can create applications themselves with the Full API and Mobile SDK for IOS and Android. This makes is specifically suitable for innovation in playful human-animal interaction. Furthermore, it could facilitate the development of prototypes for further research towards digitally mediated human-animal interaction.

Some fan-made and Sphero videos already show how Sphero evokes the curiosity and playfulness of cats, dogs, and yes, to some extent even bunnies:

(uploaded by Sphero official Youtube channel)

(uploaded by d2looo)

(uploaded by Sphero official Youtube channel)

Biotic Video Games

Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, a physicist at Stanford University, is doing research towards the development of ‘biotic’ games.

According to this article on the Stanford News website the research group developed a video game in which a player’s actions influence the behaviour of living micro organisms (such as paramecia) in real time – while the game is being played.

The goal of this project is to show the biological processes of these organisms and have fun at the same time.

Riedel-Kruse emphasized that these single-celled organisms do not have a brain or the capacity to feel pain. “We are talking about microbiology with these games, very primitive life forms”. However, these type of games could be a tool to stimulate philosophical discussions about where one could draw this line.

The full article can be found here.

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)

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)

Apps gone wild

Over the last few months several mobile/tablet applications intended for animal use have caught, not only mine, but a lot of people’s attention indicated by the amount of Youtube views and other buzz created by the videos mentioned in this post:

This Ipad game for cats created by Hiccup is one of the first applications intended for non-human use that got the attention of a large audience. In this very simple game the cat can chase either a digital representation of a mouse or a laser light. By tapping the object with their paws (or other body parts) the cat receives points. So far all the cats and kittens interacting with this application in my presence showed at least an interest in the moving object on the screen, most of them also started tapping the screen, and especially kittens got quite hooked in the chase after a while.

While this game, called Ant Smasher, is actually designed for human beings, the over 6,2 million viewers of this video could see how this bearded dragon interacted with the game. Other videos confirm that certain reptiles have an interest in screen interaction through this application or similar ones.

Next to these examples, there are apps functioning as tools for humans, such as dog whistles, GPS tracking, or training apps, that solely  focus on human needs and preferences, without the animal being aware of the (digital) interaction. Although these tools might come in handy for pet owners, they do not provide (human-)animal interaction or stimulate interaction through play and are therefore not part of the research I am focusing on.

The mobile applications shown in this post are commercially successful examples of how apps could facilitate ‘something’ for non-human species. However it does not provide us with a better understanding of the animal or its physical and mental needs. A lot of questions remain: is the animal actually playing? If yes, how is this form of play stimulated? How does the animal recognize represented digital objects? What does this interaction mean to the animal? Is the animal enjoying the interaction? What is actual enjoyment for an animal? Why does the animal play? How could human beings take part in the interaction? etc. 

I am convinced further research towards digitally mediated (human-)animal interaction can help us in finding answers.