Playing with Other(ed) Species

—Games, Representation, and Nonhuman Animals



Adam Brown & Deb Waterhouse-Watson




Can exploring fictional planets awaken a fascination of animals on our own planet? Why PETA Loves #NoMansSky.  #PS4



During the writing of this essay, the controversial nonhuman animal rights organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) sent out a tweet linking to an online article about the recent PC and Playstation 4 console game No Man’s Sky, in which players are positioned as explorers of countless virtual planets. Encountering the wide array of creatures indigenous to these worlds, players of this game are offered the choice of whether ‘to document them and name them or slaughter them en masse’ (Francisco, ‘PETA’). While an environmental agenda appears to be far from the game designers’ minds, PETA’s Marketing Vice President Joel Bartlett interprets No Man’s Sky as ‘counting on our natural empathy … we have a natural sense of exploration that has been important to human history’ (Francisco, ‘PETA’). Indeed, PETA has immersed itself in the gaming industry by creating its own simple online games in-house, such as the provocative Mario Kills Tanooki, which opposes what it sees as the unethical messages conveyed by Nintendo’s popular Super Mario Bros. franchise. These instances of the intersection of exploration, ethics, empathy, and play raise important questions regarding the potential role(s) of gaming in furthering (or hindering) the welfare of nonhuman animals. This issue becomes more and more urgent not only in a time of ongoing climate change, environmental degradation, and the continued endangerment of countless species around the planet, but also in a time when the gaming industry and the adoption of game design principles in many others grows apace.


While debates over the relationship between digital/video/online gaming and the actual natural environment have begun to seep into public discourse, academia is playing a game of catch-up and research into this crucial area has been lacking. Using the recent Pet Rescue Saga app released for Facebook, tablets, and smartphones as a case study, this article seeks to examine the representation of nonhuman animals in games. We argue for the potential value of gaming as a means to engage people of all ages in interactive ways that may encourage an ethical framework for sustainable living and work against animal abuse and cruelty. However, there is also a strong need to critique the problematic reinforcement of anthropocentrism and speciesism—respectively, the belief that human beings belong to the most important species on the planet, and the related discrimination or bias that this notion relies on. This critique must also take into account the general commodification of (virtual) nonhuman animals that stems from the dominant ideology of capitalism. Both the themes and mechanics of games depicting nonhuman animals often position them as commodities to be bought, sold, exploited, or destroyed. Even games that seem to construct a positive message in the best interests of other species (as the main case study of this paper appears to) can fall markedly short of their apparent intention through contradictions borne out through game design and gameplay.



The Tamagotchi is All Grown Up: Ideology, Power, and Gaming

When Christopher Ferguson blogged for The Huffington Post on the issue, ‘Do Angry Birds Make Angry Children?’, he summarised research findings to suggest ‘there is little evidence that games, whether violent or not, are related to negative outcomes in youth’ (‘Angry Birds’). Ferguson was principally interested in the psychological impact of games on child or adolescent aggression, although unmentioned in the article is the different though still important issue of representation. When one considers the immensely successful game alluded to in the title of Ferguson’s article, ‘negative outcomes’ may clearly be discursive and ideological. The Angry Birds games (now available in more than a dozen versions from Angry Birds Transformers to Angry Birds Star Wars, and having become a transmedia cultural phenomenon with the making of an Angry Birds feature film) require players to sling virtual birds into the air to crash into or explode on a structure of some sort in order to accomplish the game’s goals. Even if players don’t precisely replicate in-game activities in their ‘real’ lives (as many defenders of violence in video games stress), representations across all media always have implications for thoughts and actions in the non-virtual world. Similar concerns over the collision of video games and the welfare of nonhuman animals can be seen, for instance, in PETA’s condemnation of the popular culture franchise Pokémon, which it claims ‘paints a rosy picture of what amounts to thinly veiled animal abuse’ (Ewalt, ‘Animal’). We do not mean here to single out such games as exceptional cases that are particularly offensive; we rather point to instances that are not only unexceptional, but exemplify a commonplace trend in the often abusive appropriation of nonhuman animals for human purposes.


To varying degrees (but always to some extent), human beings learn about other animals through the symbolic status attributed to them through cultural products, and this frequently involves the naturalisation of anthropocentrism. Even media depictions of violence toward nonhuman animals—many of which explicitly or implicitly claim to further their interests and welfare—have often been found to reinforce, rather than subvert, this dominant paradigm. Past scholarship has examined the historical and ongoing perpetuation of speciesism and nonhuman animal stereotypes across an array of media forms, including literature (Boehrer, Animal), radio (Nibert, ‘Origins’), newspapers (Cole & Morgan, ‘Vegaphobia’), cartoons (Minahen, ‘Humanimals’), historical writing (Hribal, ‘Animals’), advertising (Burton & Collins, ‘Mediated’), picture books (Heintzman, ‘E’), periodicals (Archibald, ‘Fierce’), television (Mills, ‘Television’), film (Murray & Heumann, ‘Hatari’), and so on. If we broaden the definition of ‘text’ sufficiently, we can even include theme parks such as Sea World, which have been interpreted as fantasy lands where money is the principal resource of concern and stories of destroyed habitats and extinct species have no place (Davis, Spectacular). The research published in the most recent collection in this area, Critical Animal and Media Studies: Communication for Nonhuman Animal Advocacy (2016), takes an interdisciplinary perspective to examine the media’s role in ‘manufacturing consent for the oppression and exploitation of nonhumans’ (Almiron & Cole, ‘Introduction’, 1). The volume highlights the way that critiquing the naturalisation of binary dualisms—such as ‘human’/‘animal’—within and through media representations of all kinds is of crucial importance. In addition to this collection, several other book-length studies have analysed the frequently problematic portrayal of nonhuman animals comparatively across different media (Baker, Picturing; McHugh, Animal; Molloy, Popular); however, all of this research exemplifies an overwhelming focus on ‘traditional’ media, with digital media broadly—and video games in particular—generally receiving limited (or no) attention.


Many researchers have emphasised the role capitalism often plays in positioning nonhuman animals as legitimate subjects (or, more accurately, objects) of numerous (ab)uses. As the editors of a collection of ‘Enviropop’ criticism note, the conceptualisation of nature within popular culture as a commodity for consumption engenders a dominant discourse with ‘highly anthropocentric associations that, in either words or imagery, link nature and environmental issues with economics’ (Meister & Japp, ‘Introduction’, 2). In short, a commonplace way of framing animals in Western hegemonic culture is as ‘commodities with profit value’ (Elise, ‘Anti-capitalism’, 32). From the early days of the portable handheld tamagotchi devices (first released in 1996 and selling in the tens of millions for years afterwards), the engagement with ‘digital animals’ of all kinds has been intertwined by their status as consumer items—a fact that cannot be swiftly laid aside. Yet the rise of Web 2.0 and its attendant innovations in more complex software programs, user-generated content, and ‘participatory’ communities has given rise to new questions regarding our relationship to/with nonhuman animals and how we negotiate this through narrative forms.


Research has only just begun to peruse the variety of ways in which discourses about nonhuman animal welfare, rights, and activism play out online, with scholars beginning to look at media such as user-generated blogs (Wrenn et al., ‘Medicalization’), YouTube comments (Nekaris et al., ‘Tickled’), and online multimedia campaigns by nonhuman animal activist groups (Rodan & Mummery, ‘Make it Possible’). Given the prominent role(s) that play has in the lives of nonhuman animals and human interactions with them, the growing interest in ‘gamification’—or the application of certain game design elements (such as virtual currencies, points systems, achievements, and unlockable content) to engage people in diverse contexts—would seem to be a highly fruitful area of exploration. Games have already been shown to have immense potential value in areas such as veterinary teaching (Balogh, ‘Applying’) and the rise of (and growing scholarly interest in) ‘serious games’ underlines their application for educational and social justice purposes. The engagement of stakeholders through gamification in one form or another in public relations, politics, student learning, and other broad areas of society is bound to result in new and innovative virtual interactions with other species. Simulators that allow users to ‘experience’ the (perceived) everyday life of, for instance, a cat have long been in development (Grossman, ‘Video’), and the provocative use of games (including basic digital games) to keep captive nonhuman animals in zoos ‘entertained’ has been occurring for some years (Carney, ‘Playtime’). And while the simple Games for Cats designed by feline food producer Friskies is arguably a sales gimmick, the very notion of a game that might allow a person and a cat to ‘compete’ on a smartphone or tablet (Ewalt, ‘Video’) does raise interesting ethical questions regarding inter-species interaction and exploitation that could not have been imagined only a short time ago. Yet in the ever-widening variety of contemporary gaming environments, even the more ‘established’ questions of critical media and cultural studies have not been adequately asked of representations of nonhuman animals.



Maintaining the Natural(ised) Order: Portraying Nonhuman Animals in Contemporary Games

A number of scholars have highlighted what they consider more ethical approaches to representing nonhuman animals (which they rarely find) would entail. While conceding that depictions of other species subjected to extreme violence and suffering can ‘extend the perceived divide between “us” and “them”’, Nik Taylor nonetheless holds that ‘normative assumptions regarding species boundaries’ can be challenged. Taylor contends that this is only possible as long as appeals to empathy (through an image’s ‘shock value’, for instance) are accompanied by a contextual framework that critiques the speciesist assumptions that are structurally embedded within society and culture (‘Suffering’, 50, 42). Likewise, Randy Malamud points to a growing trend in visual art that seeks to ‘retreat from the anthropocentric omniscience that has traditionally characterized the human gaze’ (‘Looking’, 165-66). Reflecting on contemporary art forms that display both nuance and ambiguity, Steve Baker favours cultural representations that (at least attempt to) avoid ‘centring the human subject’ and ‘objectifying the image of the animal’, while at the same time ‘discourag[ing] complacency by remaining awkward, problematic, and provisional’ (Picturing, 232). In doing so, Baker argues, such depictions refuse to give the nonhuman animal ‘a fixed iconic form, keeping an open mind about the meanings it might carry, the better to contest those meanings which seem manifestly to work against what we take to be in its interests’ (ibid.). While the potentialities of play in the context of media forms depicting nonhuman animals have been largely overlooked, scholarship that has focused on select games has generally found them to adhere to and replicate the anthropocentric gaze, the objectification of other animals, and dominant ideas regarding the hierarchisation of species.


Previous research on nonhuman animals in games has ranged from an examination of player experiences of aggression and desensitisation evoked by the killing of nonhuman animals on screen (Chittaro & Sioni, ‘Killing’), to the use of ‘hunting’ arcade games as an ethically problematic form of public relations (Sawers & Demetrious, ‘Animals’). Kayla McKinney’s 2015 analysis of the sandbox game Viva Piñata reveals that not only does the game’s aesthetics construct value distinctions between ‘charismatic megafauna’ and apparently less desirable ‘pests’, but also reinforces this with the attribution of literal monetary worth as part of the game’s theme (‘Trouble’). On the other hand, Jin Kim’s ethnographic study of the Nintendo DS life simulation video game Animal Crossing: Wild World finds that the seeming flexibility and open-endedness offered by gameplay and ‘the creativity of developing plots and mastering strategies is accompanied by the naturalization of certain themes, such as a hard work ethic and consumerism’ (‘Interactivity’, 365). While animal ethics is not the focus of Kim’s critique, it is significant that the game involves players taking on the role of a human virtual avatar, while all non-player characters (NPCs) are depicted as anthropomorphised nonhuman animals (or those provided with human characteristics)—again creating the sharp distinction between ‘human’ and ‘animal’ categories common in so many other games.


The commodification and exploitation of nonhuman animals is particularly evident in Microsoft’s popular computer game, Zoo Tycoon, first released on CD-ROM in 2001 and still available on the latest console platforms Playstation 4 and Xbox One. The game positions players as both zookeeper and zoo Chief Executive Officer as they build and upgrade exhibits, provide services to visitors, and fulfil the various needs of the creatures held in the zoo’s enclosures—all with the aim of enhancing the ‘happiness’ of both nonhuman animals on display and customers alike in order to maximise profit. Andy Opel and Jason Smith’s critique of the first version of the game considers it ‘a microcosm of the production process under capitalism, with animals acting as labor and product, receiving incremental benefits that add value to their commodified selves’ (‘ZooTycoon™’, 113). The omniscient gaze of Zoo Tycoon’s god-like ‘Tycoon View’ (similar to that of the third person perspective in popular 1990s war strategy games like Command and Conquer) has been adopted as a common means of depicting nonhuman animals in various smaller-budget gaming apps for mobile and tablet platforms, such as the similarly themed Wonder Zoo by GameLoft and Tap Zoo by Pocket Gems. As with other elements of Zoo Tycoon’s design, this feature sharply separates a gamer’s subject position from the species under their complete control.


Admittedly, later versions of Zoo Tycoon are more complex in their addition of an optional perspective that allows players to ‘get up close and personal’ with a customisable human avatar when traversing the zoo and feeding and playing with other species. Players also have the ability to periodically release some nonhuman animals from the zoo back to the wild. Overall, however, the franchise continues to subjugate ‘wild animals as menial laborers for our own entertainment and suggests that manipulating the environment [in] any way possible to achieve this is acceptable’ (Opel & Smith, ‘ZooTycoon™’, 117). Indeed, Opel and Smith end their article so disillusioned with the experience of playing and reflecting on ZooTycoon™ that they spend a few paragraphs brainstorming what they see as examples of what more constructive environmental video games might be, including the (rather dubious) idea of a first person shooter in which ‘players defend animals from poachers’ and the notion of a game where the focus is on ‘liberating animals from inhumane captivity’ (‘ZooTycoon™’, 116). In the decade since Opel and Smith expressed these hopes, a number of other games have been released that make explicit appeals to players regarding the welfare of nonhuman animals. One such example is Pet Rescue Saga by King Digital Entertainment.



From Invulnerability to Invisibility: ‘Saving’ Nonhuman Animals in Pet Rescue Saga

Pet Rescue Saga was released on 11 October, 2012, six months after the release of King’s most popular game, Candy Crush Saga, which hosts a very similar design. One study showed that the former game was easily the second most downloaded mobile game after Candy Crush throughout November 2013 (Kim, ‘Mobile’, 47). On one level, this is hardly surprising given Pet Rescue’s combination of some of the mechanics of the phenomenally successful Candy Crush and the general popularity of cute nonhuman animals online. Playable via Facebook and King’s website or (from 2013) as a downloadable app for various iOS and Android devices, Pet Rescue is a puzzle game that presents players with various patterns of coloured blocks, which can be clicked on when two or more adjacent blocks are of the same colour. This removes the tapped blocks from the puzzle and bring the blocks (and ‘pets’) from above closer to the bottom of screen. When a pet drops to the last row of a puzzle, it is ‘rescued’. In the majority of cases, when the player rescues the required number of pets the goal is completed and the next puzzle can be encountered. Pet Rescue currently has approximately 1,200 puzzles at the time of writing, although this can (and will likely) be expanded if the company deems there to be sufficient ongoing interest in the game—measured, of course, by app downloads and in-game purchases of ‘Gold’ (to be discussed further). That the game has over 26 million likes on Facebook and that the Android app alone boasts over 100 million downloads and a star rating of 4.2 out of 5 (as rated by over 2.5 million users) underlines its popularity. The version of the game offered as an app for iOS and Android has some slight variances in design from that available via Facebook and King’s website; here we focus primarily on the former, noting important differences where relevant.


The game has only a very thin layer of theme pasted on more for aesthetic than for narrative appeal. The (implied) narrative’s vague nature, which dilutes the impetus to consider the game’s nonhuman animals as under any real threat, can be seen first of all in the design of the ‘Map’ screens that players navigate between puzzles, which loosely signify the quest or journey the ‘hero’ player undertakes (maps comprise a number of ‘Episodes’, which are themselves made up of several ‘Levels’). The screen for the ‘Animal Kingdom’ map, for instance (Figure 1), depicts a veritable utopian setting that the victimised creatures live in (and, despite being ‘snatched’ away, still seem to remain there). The map screen’s fantastical aesthetic incorporates a conglomeration of brightly coloured images of waterfalls, windmills, giant mushrooms, medieval castles, ancient pyramids, and modern skyscrapers. A series of larger-than-life anthropomorphised figures (from a gardening cat, to a peacock wearing a top hat and a timepiece, to a basset hound wearing a bow in its hair) are interspersed throughout the map, signifying that the nonhuman animals of this world are clearly its central focus. However, their static, monument-like presence seems not only to render them mere objects of beauty akin to the scenery surrounding them, but also lacks any signal of imminent doom for the ‘pets’ under threat. In fact, to obtain a clear idea of the background ‘story’ of the game before beginning play, one needs to go to the marketing of the product on the website or app stores to discover that players need to ‘save the pets from the evil Pet Snatchers!’. This is not clarified for players within the game itself until several puzzles have been solved. In the iOS/Android version, a short caption referring to the ‘Evil Snatchers’ appears after the completion of twenty-seven levels, and these demonic figures are never directly portrayed, either on the menu screen or puzzle pages. The map screen in the Facebook version of Pet Rescue does include a small image of two male figures (one holding a rope; the other a net) progressing from puzzle to puzzle ahead of the player’s current location, but any hint of menace is overwhelmed by the flora and fauna around them. The names of the eight maps currently available in the game, which include ‘Valley of Wonder’, ‘Fantastic Frontier’, and ‘Enchanted Pastures’, further highlight this utopian dynamic.


Figure 1. Section of the ‘Animal Kingdom’ map screen in Pet Rescue Saga (iOS version).


The dilution of the game’s (apparent) focus on ‘captured’ nonhuman animals can also be seen in the appearance and behaviour of the ‘pets’ themselves. Further to the marginalisation of the ‘Pet Snatchers’, the unspecified owners of these pets never figure in the game, meaning that the main (only?) ways that the dogs, cats, pigs, rabbits, fish, turtles, squirrels, and various birds needing rescue signify as stolen ‘pets’ is their ‘cute’ appearance. While avoiding the common binary of ‘good animals’ and ‘bad animals’ evidenced in McKinney’s analysis of Viva Piñata, Pet Rescue blurs all nonhuman species into somewhat of an amorphous mass. This is reinforced by using the umbrella term ‘pets’ to apply to a strange combination of domesticated and wild nonhuman animals, all of which have an identical physical size on screen. Additionally, a complete lack of physical or behavioural distinctions is made between members of the same species. More crucial than the lack of individualisation, however, is the captured pets’ contented state of being—even before they are ‘rescued’. While the player endeavours to solve the puzzle and bring the pets to ‘safety’ at the bottom of screen, looped animations of each creature accompany the game’s joyous soundtrack: wide-eyed puppies sit, stand, and spin around in circles with their tails upright and wagging; smiling kittens look around gleefully and clean their paws; turtles seem oblivious to their surroundings, much less how they came to be in them; and birds show no visible signs of being stressed as they wait patiently to be saved. Piglets differ slightly insofar as their facial expressions do at least reveal some concern about their situation, although their sadness is broken up (and contradicted) by their regular inquisitive glances in different directions.


Reinforcing the lack of overall danger the pets find themselves in is their literal invulnerability to the ‘weapons’ made available to the player to assist in completing more advanced puzzles. As the player progresses, a series of ‘Boosters’ are unlocked that must be used at certain points. The first of these is the ‘Column Blaster rocket’ (Figure 2), which the game’s tutorial banner informs the player ‘can be used to clear a row of blocks, cages and pet carriers!’. In short, the rocket (which regularly becomes available by removing blocks, or can be purchased with gold before a level begins) destroys everything in its path, with the sole exception of the pets. In fact, they show no sign of noticing when a rocket passes harmlessly through their bodies. Likewise, when the game introduces Looney Tunes-style bombs that, when tapped, explode all adjacent boxes and cages, the tutorial banner emphasises that ‘Bombs do not harm pets’. The captive creatures also prove invulnerable to more powerful boosters, such as the ‘4-directional rocket’ and the ‘large-radius bomb’. While steel cages are only used in the game to envelop coloured blocks to add an extra layer of difficulty in removing them (such cages are obstacles for the player, but not threats to the pets), some levels have pets ‘trapped’ in what appear to be fairly standard plastic animal carriers. When these are colour-matched with blocks or other carriers, the devices explode and the pets within are sent sailing to land safely several blocks above.


Figure 2. Introduction of the ‘Column Blaster rocket’ in Pet Rescue Saga (iOS version).


The only time the captive pets are visibly anxious and physically vulnerable is when they have been left at the top of the puzzle, where they move quickly back and forth until some blocks below them are removed to return them to their passive and affectionate state. If a pet ‘drops off’ the top of the puzzle when the level scrolls down (which only happens occasionally), there is a subtle acknowledgement that the creature has died through a ‘Pet lost!’ screen that includes a comical drawing of a pig with a wand and angelic wings ‘flying’ with the assistance of a rope looped around its torso. However, the main purpose of this screen is to invite the player to spend nine gold bars to return the pet to the puzzle and have ‘troublesome blocks removed’. In essence, by spending the currency of the game (linked as it may be to actual money, depending on the nature of the player’s investment), gamers are given an ethically ambiguous choice between allowing the pet to ‘cheat death’—in a sense, by ‘cheating’ at the puzzle—and ‘sacrificing’ the creature to save their gold and simply replay the level from the beginning. Importantly, when a player fails to complete a level and the ‘Too few pets rescued!’ screen appears, a further attempt must come at the expense of a life. Symbolising the anthropocentric mode of representation at the heart of Pet Rescue Saga, the ‘lives’ belong to the player, not to the other animals reliant on her.


What transpires when pets are ‘rescued’ from the game’s puzzles is just as ideologically loaded, and this plays out differently in the Facebook and iOS/Android version of the game. In the former, the rescued pets congregate in the bottom left of screen as they are released from each puzzle, and they continue to smile and dance even as thunderous fireworks appear visibly and audibly just above them to celebrate the completion of a level. In the app for Apple and Android devices, on the other hand, a rescued pet simply disappears as it hits the ground, emitting one last gleeful species-specific squeal as a colourful ball of light floats from its last seen position to the level’s numerical counter of rescued pets on the left of screen. Curiously, the symbolism evoked in this process evokes even stronger connotations of death than when pets are not rescued. Therefore, in addition to Pet Rescue’s nonhuman animals being in many ways invulnerable, they are also—after being ‘rescued’—invisible. This invisibility can be seen no more clearly than in the inclusion of occasional levels that bear no relation to the game’s theme at all, but simply challenge the player to clear 100% of the coloured blocks to progress (Figure 3).


Figure 3. An alternative puzzle type in Pet Rescue Saga (iOS version).


The anthropocentric gaze and resultant objectification of other animals is evident in Pet Rescue on many levels, yet with the pets’ affectionate eyes peering constantly outward from the screen at the player, there is some degree of affective engagement at work. The nonhuman animals can be touched to evoke a standard reaction from them, with each pet making brief noises conventionally associated with their species (barks, meows, oinks, chirps, and so on) as they playfully raise their heads in the air and emit several red (love) hearts from their faces. However, interacting with the pets in this way has no bearing on the solving of the puzzle or points earned. Given that ‘touch-based enjoyment’ via tapping, swiping, sliding, or drawing has been found to be a primary factor in the success of popular mobile games (Kim, ‘Mobile’, 52), there is some irony in the fact that tactile interactions with Pet Rescue’s cute creatures has no bearing on gameplay and is unlikely to be repeated more than a few times considering the lack of ‘reward’ involved or empathy evoked. This highlights a key question in examining games; namely, what are its victory conditions, or (given that contemporary games are frequently designed to have no definitive ending) how is ongoing ‘success’ in the game achieved and measured?


In many ways, the player’s motivation to ‘save’ nonhuman animals and progress through Pet Rescue’s puzzles is not embedded in concerns over their welfare; the catalyst for gameplay rather pivots on the accumulation of points and the unlocking of new (and more difficult) levels, episodes, and maps. The base number—or ‘quota’—of pets to be rescued to complete a puzzle cannot be altered. Each completed level is followed by a results screen that summarises how many pets have been rescued, how many points scored (which can exceed the stated goal), and the star rating (out of three stars) for the player’s performance. Each rescued pet earns a standard 1,000 points, but extra points (which will make the difference in the overall star rating) are awarded alternately in different levels for clearing as many blocks as possible, clearing large groups of same-coloured blocks, and economical gameplay that uses less than the available number of turns to complete the puzzle. As a result, players taking the option to replay a completed level to improve their star rating cannot attempt to do so in order to save a larger number of pets, but to seek ‘perfection’ in the app’s characterisation of skilled gameplay, which is only tangentially related to saving the Pet Snatchers’ victims. Even more disturbingly, some puzzles host a number of pets in excess of the quota stated as the player’s objective, hence when such levels are completed (see Figure 4) several captive victims remain visible on the screen—and, of course, appear to be perfectly happy about their ongoing imprisonment. Put simply, this scenario suggests that in contrast to the value of gold and pursuit of points, the ‘pets’ to be rescued are of considerably less worth.


Figure 4. Completion of a level in Pet Rescue Saga (iOS version).


Another crucial element that figures in successful gameplay is the utilisation of ‘Gold’, an in-game currency that can be spent to resurrect lost pets; unlock new episodes; and purchase player lives, power boosters, and extra ‘moves’ to complete certain levels. A player is rationed 50 gold bars to begin with, though these can easily be used up within a few hours of uninterrupted gameplay, meaning that further gold must be purchased with (in the case of the Facebook app) a Paypal account, credit or debit card, direct mobile phone charge, uKash, NETELLER, or POLi payment. The cost of the game’s gold bars range at the time of writing from $1.49 for 9 bars to $67.99 for 500 bars, pointing to the considerable (and essentially uncapped) expense the game can involve for enthusiastic players. A ‘Holiday Sale’ over the 2015 festive season offered players the opportunity to ‘Buy gold bars and get at least 2 hours of UNLIMITED life!’ If by chance a player decides to cancel their payment before finalising, an unashamedly disappointed ‘Payment Cancelled!’ screen appears with an image of a saddened puppy (Figure 5). Pet Rescue’s facilitation of a limited amount of social interaction with other players—a non-essential though extremely popular feature of many online gaming apps—is also in large part focused on the non-pet related progress through the game. As one early tutorial screen tells the player: ‘You can ask your friends for more lives or buy a full set of lives now!’. Players can similarly request access to further levels from their ‘friends’. A simple ‘Messages’ feature labelled with an envelope icon alerts players when they have received such gifts. Given that this is the full extent of in-game interaction with other gamers (most, if not all, of whom will not be known to a player), the commodification of one’s ‘friends’ is only outdone by the game’s commodification and exploitation of nonhuman animals.


Figure 5. The purchase cancellation screen of Pet Rescue Saga (iOS version).



Conclusion: Bridging the Divide, Dividing the Bridge

Once the lines between animal and commodity are blurred, it is easy to make commodities, like video games, featuring animals that, in turn, perpetuate a capitalistic view that allows the player to buy, sell, breed and destroy digital animals that come to represent human-animal interactions outside the virtual world. (McKinney, ‘Trouble’, 210)


Debra Merskin writes that the power to represent another species is in itself ‘an act of domination’ (‘Media’, 11), and this dilemma applies to all who wish to advocate for the better treatment of nonhuman animals. Nonetheless, the thorny issue of ‘appropriation’ is not exclusive to efforts to portray the experiences of nonhuman animals, but akin to that encountered in diverse ‘fields’, from feminism to postcolonialism. Indeed, this connection may be seen as one more feature of what has been termed the ‘intersectionality of oppressive discourses’ that links the ideological structures, processes, and ‘Othering’ involved in speciesism to those at work in discrimination on the basis of gender, class, sexuality, ‘race’, disability, and age (Freeman, ‘Conclusion’, 266). Few would argue, however, that constructing images of nonhuman animals in complex, diverse, and ethical ways has no potential value in evoking what Jill Bennett defines as the combination of critical awareness and affect at the heart of ‘critical empathy’, which acknowledges that one cannot fully capture the experience of being the ‘other’ but at the same time involves a productive ‘encounter’ with that other (Empathetic, 10). Further research into the ethical potentiality of games is certainly needed given the increasingly diverse range of games that create different subject positions and represent nonhuman animals in various ways, with the video game Shelter (2013), for instance, placing gamers in the position of a female badger escorting her five cubs to safety. As we have demonstrated in the preceding analysis though, digital games can fall acutely short of evoking any form of critical empathy for nonhuman animals.


While we make no sweeping claims that our observations are representative of the vast array of depictions of other species across the burgeoning gaming industry (hundreds of examples could have been chosen here from an ever-growing number of mobile games alone), we have highlighted some key questions that require further exploration. As Claire Molloy notes in concluding her wide-ranging book on Popular Media and Animals, ‘the sense of our own humanity is perpetually structured through our relations with other animals’ (177). Digital gaming is certain to play an increasingly important role in negotiating these relations, and will demand more critical attention to both the potentialities for critical empathy on offer and the commodification of nonhuman animals. Setting aside the rather confused or confusing title of Pet Rescue Saga (as it is unclear if the pets indeed need to be rescued, or want to be), the political, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions of the representation of nonhuman animals throughout the game leave a great deal to be desired. Such games overlook the fact that the abstract, caricatured, or parodied images embedded within their design stand in symbolically for species that players may encounter directly or impact from afar. Even without constructing a complex hierarchy of more and less ‘desirable’ nonhuman species, Pet Rescue Saga replicates the most powerful value distinction of all: a ‘human’/‘animal’ binary that simultaneously depicts the latter as in need of being rescued and as worthy (and perfectly happy) objects of exploitation. Despite being highly susceptible to an anthropocentric gaze, the captured ‘pets’ of Pet Rescue Saga are by turns invulnerable and invisible. In the end, this immensely popular game assigns a very low value to the ‘cute’ and ‘innocent’ creatures that seem to be its emotional drawcard; the ‘pets’ may need to be ‘rescued’ for the game to exist, but they are also ultimately superfluous to its quest for points, enveloped by the overarching need for gold.




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Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy

ISSN 2200-8616


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