Reflections on Zelda Breath of the Wild – Vegan Run

(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.

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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.

Representations of Dragons in Games

During my PhD exchange visit at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design, we organized the first GameAnimals seminar. On the day of the seminar, the 4th of October, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in Hong Kong, which includes dragon dances in several villages to bring fortune and prosperity to the people and the town. Dragons are amazing. So together with researchers Marleena Huuhka and Dr. Hanna Wirman we set-up a day of investigating and discussing the representations of ‘dragons’ in games.

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Poster made by Marleena Huuhka

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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.  

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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.


The Playful Penguins of Long Beach, CA

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.

Penguins interacting with video games

Today I read on Polygon that the Aquarium of the Pacific in the U.S. started to use iPad games as a form of enrichment for their Magellanic penguins. In an interview with Cool Hunting, Aviculturist Sara Mandel explains how she originally got an iPad game for her cats, and decided to try it out on the penguins too. To her surprise they found it interesting and different penguins from the group started to interact with it. For some of the penguins, interacting with the iPad became part of  their daily enrichment routine. By taking part in the interaction as human being as well, Sara Mandel found new ways to check upon the penguin’s physical and mental well-being while they interact with the game.

I think it would be great to see game developments that are specifically focused on these type of animals. Rather than interactions that are originally designed for cats, the design for penguins could open up for many different opportunities that might be even better suitable for penguins in captivity. It would be interesting to try out under-water interactions, bigger touch screens, multi-player games (for penguin-penguin or penguin-human interaction), and games with objects that are already familiar to the penguins. By looking at the Magellanic penguins’ natural curiosity and playful behaviour a hole new range of interaction design could become possible.

Animal Computer Interaction on National TV

Yesterday evening during the Dutch TV program De Wereld Leert Door (The World Keeps on Learning) game professor Marinka Copier from the HKU (Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht) explained more about the Playing with Pigs project I wrote earlier about on this blog.

The show is aired in Dutch but I wrote a summary in English below.


Game professor Marinka Copier is leading a research for new game opportunities on the HKU. This includes the challenge of finding a way to allow human an animal to play together. Since the Netherlands is a leading country in the field of game development, according to Marinka there is a logical connection with scientific research that provokes a change in behaviour through games. This is what the research on the HKU is focused on. This project is carried out in collaboration with multiple academic disciplines including applied philosophy (Clemens Driessen),biology, medicine, education, and entertainment.

The HKU is developing a videogame for pigs. This project was started because of the EU law that prescribes environment enrichment in the living environment of pigs. The farming industry is looking for ways to enable this with the right materials. Marinka shows different elements that are currently used in sheds, such as ‘Pig Chewing-gum’, a chain that resembles pebble stones the pigs like to chew on, or pinewood sticks, also for the pigs to chew on.

The development of videogames for pigs requires a different kind of approach. This has first been shown in the nineties by Stanley Curtis, who researched a computer game designed for apes on pigs (video footage of this is shown at 00:04:01 ). In this game the pig needed to use the joystick to move the cursor into a white area. The pig was doing this to earn a reward in the form of food (an extrinsic motivation). In this research the pigs were better at this task than dogs and also learned it faster than apes.

The idea for a videogame for pigs developed by the HKU came from a farmer. The goal of the game is to move the pig towards a specific area. This is done by showing light-bulbs on a glass wall that the pigs can follow with their nose. The player is in control of moving the light-bulbs and gains more points if he succeeds in bringing the pig to the target area. In this game the pig is motivated through intrinsic motivation to play. This means that the research (described as ‘research through design’) focused on finding out how the pigs responded to certain sensor triggers such as playing keyboard in the shed, showing moving images, providing contact with different objects, and finally offering play with laser lights. Then they discovered that pigs like to play with light in the same way that cats like to do this. According to Marinka, this was not yet discovered by animal scientists, which means that through design it is possible to get more insights into other fields of knowledge as well.

The game will be playable for people from their own home next year. The purpose of this game on the human side is to trigger questions. All pigs with which the player is allowed to play eventually go to the slaughterhouse and it is left open to the player on how to cope with this. Maybe it will provoke a change in behaviour? Or maybe the meat will taste better with pigs that have played this game? Or the score of the game can be displayed on the package of the meat? This might sound heartless, but it enlarges the impact of the game and the connection with different scientific areas. This project wants to trigger durable changes in behaviour with actual play.

The project can be followed online. Next to this the exposition Ja Natuurlijk will open on the 14th of March in ‘Gemeentemuseum Den Haag’ in which, next to Pig Chase, more projects related to humans and animals can be seen.

The program closes with Marinka giving a tweet about her research to the next generation: ‘Challenge: do you want a durable change in behaviour? Create a playful society.

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.

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)

Homo Ludens 2.0

Dutch philosopher and academic Jos de Mul wrote an interesting article published in the Volkskrant (November 2010) in which he reviewed Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens in the current experience economy, that is largely influenced by play – or the ludification of society.

De Mul writes that playfulness has become a life-long attitude and the entire world a playground in our post modern culture. The question this article proposes concerns the downsides of this development in the information society.

Huizinga promoted play as an expression of human freedom (and possibly that of animals), an ability to socially connect to others, and the fact that play seems to be ‘fun’. According to Huizinga, culture is played, in play, and as play. However, writes De Mul, Homo Ludens 2.0 does not only play with, via, and through the computer, but is also played by the computer through its highly addictive elements.

According to De Mul, examples such as propaganda through games, serious gaming, gambling, war games, or sensational and superficial media forms that include game elements show that we can neither encourage nor reject this ludification of society. Play is an expression of freedom, but at the same time overpowers us with its content. Playing is both pretending something as well as serious business.

Although this article is focused on play for human beings, it reminds me of my dog that is fetching tennis balls over and over again until I must decide that it needs to rest for its own good. Or a cat so much captured by playing with a laser light that it keeps on chasing even when the light is not there anymore. What about a dog running around in circles, repeatedly chasing its own tail?

When does play stop being completely voluntary and evolves in addictive, unhealthy behaviour?

(The complete article can be found here)

(Image by Alvimann)

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)