Playful Encounters with Ants

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How would you describe your relationship with insects? Specifically with ants? As humans we usually don’t relate to the kinds of animals we don’t recognize ourselves in such as snails, anchovies, frogs, or bees. However, ecological systems on this planet are dependent on these animals and we are currently investigating new ways to ensure that these kinds of species do not go extinct. Is our interest in caring for specific species solely based on their attractiveness and the amount of similarities we share with them? What if we can start to change our relationships with insects by exploring their playfulness together?

With these questions in mind I recently started a project in which I try to investigate the possibilities for humans and ants to play together. In order to do this I started a small ant colony at my workspace inside the Malmö University building. The first few weeks I am trying to get to know the ants and their preferred living environment. I will then continue to explore to what extend it is possible to engage in playful encounters together with ants through prototyping different (potentially playful) artefacts.

Part of this project involves a workshop at the 12th Student Interaction Design and Research conference (SIDeR), which will be held in Malmö on April 1-2, 2016. During this workshop we will explore and discuss this topic through the design of playful interactions with ants taking a perspective informed by posthumanism. We will use different materials to rapidly prototype playful interactions and games that aim to be of interest to both ants and humans. Then we will try out the prototypes we created with an actual Lasius Niger colony (the regular black ant) and discuss our experiences and the types of questions that these practices could propose.

(featured image from Flickr user Yogendra174)

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.

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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.

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_)