It was a great honor and pleasure to be interviewed by Stephen Dent for the Beyond Species Podcast. We had a very interesting conversation about imagining multispecies worlds, and we discussed, challenged, and speculated on several different stories of the multispecies bestiary that was a part of my PhD dissertation. These involve thought exchanges on octopuses, sheep, and monsters specifically. Here are the episode notes as well as a link to listen to the interview. Also make sure to check out some of the other episodes in this impressive collection of conversations on anti-speciesist research and activism.
Episode 29. In this episode, we hear from Dr. Michelle Westerlaken. Michelle explains her concept of multispecies-isms or multispecies worlding – a response to speciesism that looks for traces of how we humans interact with other species in our everyday lives, so as to imagine how relationships might take place in a non-speciesist future. Michelle’s work draws in strands from a range of disciplines, including interaction design, posthumanism and indigenous ways of knowing. Michelle finds the ethic of care a challenging but generative concept worth exploring. She also discusses the concept of the Bestiary in her thesis, which opens up spaces for nonhumans to “tell” stories, as well as to push our questions around speciesism into controversial territory. Gaming can also provide imaginative spaces for vegans to explore their ethics and enact non-speciesist worlding.
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.
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.