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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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!

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)