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.

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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.

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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.

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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