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.

Breath of the Wild – Vegan Run

Update: please find a reflective follow-up post on my experience of playing BOTW as a vegan here. Alternatively, the research paper on this topic can be found here.

(this post contains minor spoilers of Nintendo’s Zelda – Breath of the Wild game)


I find it seriously quite difficult to live a completely vegan life style in reality. Every meal or purchase involves another complicated decision making process. Most of the time it works out, but sometimes I make compromises or I lack the confidence to insist on my veganism when it requires some cooperation of other people. Maybe my friends want to go to a specific restaurant that doesn’t have any vegan options. Perhaps I’m traveling for work and I am in need of healthy food/proteins to keep my energy levels up, but all the vegan dishes include a collection of carbs, sugar, and a tiny leaf of lettuce. Or maybe I’m simply too weak to refuse the amazingly good looking salmon sushi (I know… it’s all my fault!!). And what?! Beer is not always vegan?

More difficult scenarios occur as well. Do I want to sit on my friend’s leather sofa? Is my occasional painkiller tested on animals? Do I still use that old leather bag? What is my hairbrush actually made of? What if I accidentally kill an ant while I’m walking through the woods? Is it wrong to be madly in love with someone else’s puppy? AAAAHH! Life is hard (not really, I realize that I’m privileged, although please mind that veganism itself is not a privilege, the ability to make food choices is).

It is actually quite hard, if not impossible, to imagine and live my life as a complete non-speciesist. BUT WAIT… WHAT IF I COULD LIVE A FULLY NON-SPECIESIST LIFE IN A VIRTUAL WORLD INSTEAD?

Zelda – Breath of the Wild

It was the first time I saw somebody play Nintendo’s new Zelda game. In the game, my friend walked around the forest, picked up a tree branch, walked towards an innocent red little Bokoblin, and started beating him to death:

me: NOO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! This creature didn’t do anything to you, why did you need to kill him?

friend: Well, because it gives me more resources and the game wants me to do it.

me: But that doesn’t mean you have to!

friend: I play however I want to, and you play however you want to ok?

me: fine.

Cute little Bokoblin, right?

So I started playing Zelda with the same non-speciesist intentions I have in real life in the attempt to do a Vegan Run.

Before you start getting angry, please note that here I do not claim that in playing Zelda, or any other game for that matter, we should abandon all forms of violence (although I fully support critical readings of oppression towards others in different media forms (particularly with regards to sexism, racism, and speciesism).

Instead, in a much more personal and carefully set-out thought experiment, I imagined that within this virtual world, I could perhaps get much closer to speculating and philosophizing about the non-speciesist lifestyle of Link (the main character of the game). In other words, I approached the game with the question: could it be possible to live a vegan lifestyle in a more satisfying way within this virtual world, compared to real life? Perhaps it would be easier, because there are significantly less complicated options and choices to make within Zelda’s virtual environment, as opposed to real life. And perhaps this experience could propose new ideas about our views on non-speciesism, living together with animals, or it might give us some new (non-oppressive) ideas about the design of future (virtual) worlds.

With a bit of background research, I quickly discovered that (as expected) other vegan Zelda players had very similar intentions. Interestingly, although the game encourages you to turn in to a violent masculist bully machine (like my friend quickly signed up for), the game also allows you to successfully live off apples, mushrooms, and other veggies, run away from anything that tries to attack you, and ignore any side-quests that try to convince you to abandon this goal and become part of the dominant masculist culture (sounds much like real life, right?).

Since I am still playing the game, I cannot share any final reflections or insights. Nevertheless I wanted to share some of the situations and challenges I got myself into so far:

What to Wear?

In the first minutes of the game, Link wakes up in his underwear, but the player quickly finds some old clothes to put on. They seem to contain some leather straps, but I figured that since they are very old, I might as well hold on to them. Throughout the game players can upgrade their clothes. Some of these contain leather or wool, but there are certainly some other vegan options as well.

Link’s old clothes
Nope, no thanks, there’s definitely leather in that costume

What to Eat?

Perhaps just like in real life, assembling a vegan diet is possible, but sometimes challenging. Here I am just running around in Hyrule, collecting apples, mushrooms, and other veggies. Happily ignoring the numerous attempts in which the game tries to convince me to hunt innocent forest creatures, kill for fun, and cook with animal ingredients.

Tasty vegan dish!
What do you mean perfect? If I could speak, you would certainly fail to understand my ideas about meat and seafood!

No, I Won’t Help You Out, Farmer

To progress in the game, it is sometimes necessary to kill mechanical monsters (made of machine parts), defend myself from creatures that attack me, and work towards restoring peace in the Hyrule kingdom. However, some of the side quests include speciesist practices that I’d rather ignore:

In this quest, I am supposed to find the chickens that were lucky enough to escape the farm, and put them back into the enclosure. I don’t think so!
Actually, here’s what I did instead: I grabbed all the chickens that remained in the enclosure, and freed them as well. I felt lik a hero and I wish I could do this in real life too!

Don’t Try to Lure Me into Becoming a Bully

Playing the game with these non-speciesist intentions, makes me much more aware of the numerous attempts that the game takes in convincing me to become a violent bully. These are some of the speciesist loading screen tips I got so far:


And no “Bro”, I am certainly NOT thinking about riding a horse, no matter how many times you try to convince me to:



Wait, am I in a commercial for eggs that was subsidized by the Hyrule government?

However I must admit, living a non-speciesist life in the worlds of Zelda is much harder than I expected it to be (but still easier than in the real world). As an example, some questions I’m currently struggling with include:

  • What do I do when I receive an unwanted gift or reward that contains an animal product for completing a challenge? (for example a costume that contains leather)
  • If a creature attacks me, and I had to kill it (which I consider to be within the boundaries of non-speciesism), do I pick up the items they leave behind, even if they contain animal products, or do I leave them lying around in the forest?
  • Are the strings of the bow (a weapon in the game) made of horse hair?
  • Should “evil” creatures made of mechanical parts be considered as species?
  • If I am required to kill an “evil” animal (one that bullied other beings or stole items) as part of the quest to restore peace to the Hyrule kingdom, is this speciesist?

Let me know what you think or if you have any other questions I should include!


Update: please find a reflective follow-up post on my experience of playing BOTW as a vegan here. Alternatively, the research paper on this topic can be found here.