What can video games teach us about our relationship with animals? Hanna Hellesø Lauvli's review of GAME by Tom Tyler urges us to see life from the other side of the food chain.
There are a few works of note that delve into the intricate webs of interspecies and- interbeing connections. While the numbers are small, their impact is significant. Notably, in 1985 Haraway authored The Cyborg Manifesto which examines the narrow boundaries that distinguish humans from animals and machines. In 2003 Haraway furthered her exploration with The Companion Species Manifesto, digging deeper into the study of the co-evolution of the human and non-human, the organic and technological, history and myth (Haraway 2003, 4). These essays are provocative, stimulating lines of inquiry that pivot towards the notions of being-with and seeing-through others.
However, one could argue that these works often seem inaccessible for most people. Scholarly work can seem opaque for many, as the language and syntax can be perceived as too intricate and demanding, tiring the reader. Nevertheless, this process of co-evolution continues, and mediums like games and other facets of digital culture steadily rise in popularity. This amplifies the significance for ordinary users to reflect on and digest the media they are consuming.
Tyler's book GAME (2022) is an exceptional work suitable for both novices and experts alike who seek to broaden their understanding about questions and creatures, be they large or small. The book is a collection of thirteen essays written by Tyler, that provides thought-provoking introductions to questions that arise when aspects, representations, cultures, and cows collide. Tyler's point of entry lies mostly in games, and the essays invite the reader to engage with topics that are often present, but unnoticed. For instance, the frequently overlooked conditions and circumstances of animals in video games; how their experiences and perspectives have been considered, if at all, when designing or playing a game; or, how games address or suppress any being's differences and similarities in the name of entertainment.
These issues become increasingly relevant as video games become a part of the digital culture many of us are immersed in daily. And consequently, shapes the way the world is perceived. While many might consider video games exclusively as an interaction between humans and screens, Tyler adeptly demonstrates that there is more to the picture beyond those initial assumptions. Much like other facets of culture, the symbiotic relationships between games, animals, and humanity intertwine with the complex narratives of history, literature, art, and nature. The transmission of culture to and through digital mediums like games is not always apparent, nor does it consistently strive to present accurate representations.
GAME presents different approaches to questions on how games deal with animals, and how they shape our view of our connected world(s). It invites readers to start asking questions while concurrently considering the roles of different species in and out of a virtual world. It is a call to be aware of the generic, to welcome difference – in look, feel, status and more.
I first became aware of Tyler's essays as a student of Digital Culture at the University of Bergen, researching representations of animals in video games. It was delving into articles like How Does Your Dog Smell? and Playing Like a Loser that gave me the confidence to ask the questions that positioned myself away from an anthropocentric point of view. For instance, by highlighting a simple game employing visual cues to simulate smell and employing third- to first-person points of view to engage in identification, Tyler exemplified how video games can be a powerful perspective-shifting medium. This is not only true in the sense of physical perspectives, but also in hierarchies.
In the search for equilibrium, one is often left to consider two sides of gameplay: winners and losers. And as Tyler likes to point out, there is no loser without a winner. However, that does not necessarily mean opposing forces that result in a victor, with a defined winning and losing team. Instead, the focus is on the conditions required to accomplish certain goals.
Tyler explores the multifaceted nature of the term "game", a word that can be traced to an expression signifying amusement or a distinctive form of recreation. Conversely, this term has a secondary definition, referring to "a particular kind of entertainment that involved chasing, catching, and killing animals" (Tyler 2022, 2). It is this latter connotation that often bestows the role of animals in video games as the predefined loser.
When considering the winning conditions of any game, adopted goals and predefined conditions necessarily paint a picture of what the player or game-maker considers the definition of a winning goal, or the qualifications of a winner. When presented with an option of playing with goals that then are not necessarily human, say as a cow, one should then consider what a winning condition for a bovine might be. By doing so, we can begin to unravel rhetorical strategies, ideologies and values that are present in games.
I found a noteworthy aspect of GAME is its persistent emphasis on the de-identification of animals, even if it comes at the expense of comfort. While that sounds, and is, worrying, Tyler's writing style exhibits a blend of humor, playfulness, and approachability. When considering the three hierarchies of gamers, game and gameplay, Tyler places a lot of weight on how the aesthetics and narrative of video games often disregard significant issues. He presents his arguments by drawing from a seemingly endless array of sources, ranging from children's stories to the study habits of an Austrian philosopher.
"Although the cipherous [sic] animals of Aesop and philosophy and Cow Clicker are there, they are not there as animals, as particular creatures in their own rights. They serve a purpose, they make a point, but ultimately they are blank, entirely interchangeable placeholders whose arbitrary employment permits us to forget that, beyond and before the fable or philosophy or satire, crows and hedgehogs and pigs and asses and cows are independent individuals, each with their own unique existence and experiences." (Tyler 2022, 69)
This approach highlights who is inevitably implicitly or explicitly positioned as losers - losers not only in terms of survival, but also regarding status, stereotypes, and more. In changing perspectives, Tyler nudges us into a "prey perspective". That is, by illuminating how many games rely on the ability to either reset or redo a game, the prey perspective presents us with an insight into what it's like to be cast as object, resource or otherwise.
GAME encompasses essays that explore topics as diverse as the origin of the word Bullshit to investing in the values of a virus. Clearly, Tyler's essays not only prompt us to consider repositioning our gaze beyond an anthropocentric view that includes animals, but also to encompass any entity, characteristic, or facet that possesses, in the most comprehensive sense, life. Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading every article, most articles also hold the promise of becoming unique studies in and of themselves. That scope of exploration is not necessarily Tyler's purview. Still, this obvious need for more study underscores the work's potential as thirteen enlightening starting points for exploration and elaboration. I am hopeful that others will take up this challenge as I was left wanting closure with certain topics. After reading this book, you may also find yourself in an endless search for conclusions to his can of worms (which seems a fitting metaphor).
Scholars such as Haraway continue to affect how we perceive and position ourselves and others, making us both appreciate and shun the cost and consequence of different relationships and co-evolutions. However, the complexity of entry into asking related questions can sometimes seem daunting. Tyler bridges gaps, and makes the approach easy, enjoyable, and enlightening. If you've ever wondered about the ways in which culture, language, and history seep into our digital gaming sphere, look no further. This is a book that provokes a myriad of emotions, questions, and thoughts about how we could and should position ourselves relating to positioning others online as well as offline, in a highly accessible way.
Throughout this book, it had me stop and reconsider the history and significance of seemingly arbitrary symbols that are often taken for granted. GAME often shows the inherent depth and width with any singular subject matter. What becomes apparent in the end is that these essays are not simply various lessons on the impact of animals, video games and humanity, but also a lesson on rhetorical strategies to influence change in and outside of digital culture. GAME constitutes more than a haphazard amalgamation of essays. It is a coherent aggregation of ideas and observations that are presented with a consistent voice, coming together to paint a unified picture. I wholeheartedly recommend GAME. It stands as a work that not only captivates but also instructs – a remarkable achievement in its own right.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 2003. The companion species manifesto: Dogs, people, and significant otherness. Vol. 1. Prickly Paradigm Press Chicago.
Tyler, Tom. 2022. Game: Animals, video games, and humanity. U of Minnesota Press.