A pig of a problem: designing human-animal interspecies games

I’m not sure if the line is bad, whether Willie Smits is speaking to me in German or if he’s just cooing down the phone to me. Turns out, it’s a mixture of all three, but I’m not his intended…

I’m not sure if the line is bad, whether Willie
Smits is speaking to me in German or if he’s just cooing
down the phone to me. Turns out, it’s a mixture of all three, but
I’m not his intended audience — Saima, one of 20 orangutans
surrounding Smits as he speaks from the canopied centre of
Jakarta’s 140-hectare Ragunan Zoo, has him captive. The mobile
range is impressive and the hooting of the primate, tender and
chatty like a puppy pleading for attention, is clearly audible down
the line.
“Really, they are like children who do not have a voice,” says
Smits. “If people understand that we’re so closely related [we
share 97
percent of our DNA] I hope they will become upset with the
destruction of their forest and realise we are actually taking away
their country; because they have culture, they have language and
they understand.”
Smits, who has dedicated his life to rescuing, rehabilitating and
releasing orangutans back to those diminishing forests, believes it
is possible — and essential — that we begin communicating with
these creatures in far more complex ways. Using technology to
mediate that conversation, he and Hanna Wirman of
the Hong Kong Polytechnic University are developing
tablet games in their Touch project that will
one day pit human users against their noble
“We could even create a virtual orangutan — by letting them play
thousands of times we’ll know scoring percentages and can let a
virtual version play anyone online,” says Smits. “People will see
they have better spatial memory than us — they have to remember
10,000 trees in the jungle.”
Interspecies online gaming may not be as distant a concept as it
sounds. Last year, US cat food manufacturer Friskies released
its You vs Cat
series of iPad games at SXSW. The idea is to flick
virtual treats across the screen your feline combatant then bats
back, much the same as they might scramble around the floor with a
ball, a mouse, pretty much anything to use in their general
annihilation of your home. It’s a pretty straightforward concept,
and one that leaves a cat — used to having a much larger surface
area to play with, confined to an area the owner controls. Sphero,
a robotic ball controlled using smartphone apps, has been trialled
with animals and iPet
Companion allows users to remotely manipulate toys
at US cat shelters to instigate play. Again, neither game feels
particularly symbiotic, despite their intent — rather, the human
is the controller, using the game as a bit of a tease, as one might
a toy mouse on a string. But what if a game could be truly
interactive for both parties — perhaps never perceived at the same
level, but creating a balance whereby both genuinely have something
novel to gain? What if games could be used to learn much more about
the animals we share this planet with — their thought process,
needs and desires, how they relate to human counterparts and, in
doing so, cause us to reflect on and question the constructs we
have over hundreds of years built around these relationships to
justify our dominion? When artist
Natalie Jeremijenko developed Beetle
Wrestler, an installation that put humans on a level
with one of the strongest creatures on the planet, the idea was to
form a level playing field across species. But what if animals
could beat us at our own game?
“When we introduced Playing With Pigs to
farmers, one said ‘humans will always win because we’re much
smarter’,” says
Clemens Driessen, cofounder of a Netherlands project developing
human-animal games to alleviate boredom in pigs, including an iPad
app that lets users direct a ball of light around a touchscreen for
pigs to catch. “He paused, and added, ‘well, maybe pigs can win;
they do have all day to practice’.”
The first empirical study to prove animals get bored was
published in
PLOS ONE in 2012 and demonstrated that
minks kept in small cages respond three times faster to (even
negative) stimuli than minks in “enriched” environments, and since
2001 EU legislation has instructed pig farms to provide rooting to
alleviate boredom, boredom which results in damaging tail-biting
and bar-chewing. When it became clear this would never keep a
confined pig entertained, Playing With Pigs asked if it
were possible to design a game that not only entertains the pigs,
but allows their captors — us — to interact with them in a novel
way that bridges the mechanisation of modern day agriculture and
the social and emotional divide that allows that mechanisation to
persist without challenge.
“The EU has some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the
world, but it’s a best of a bad bunch,” says
Richie Nimmo, Manchester University sociologist
researching animal-human bonds. “I think people will still be
appalled by what goes on in slaughterhouses.”
“Just playing the game will certainly make the concept ‘pig’ less
abstract,” Playing With Pigs designer Kars Alfrink said. “I imagine now
the only interaction people have with them is buying a piece of
meat in the supermarket.”
While Touch intends on enriching orangutans’ lives
and highlighting their plight through interspecies gaming, and
Playing With Pigs hopes to generate social commentary on
farming practices, both immediately faced the same problem when it
came to game design: how can we ever know what entertains a
non-verbal audience?

We are not amused
“I tried to get rid of all the assumptions I might have about
users,” said Wirman, “because even though in some ways their
behaviour is close to children, they are so different.”
Wirman started out slow, putting peanut butter on reinforced
touchscreens to attract interest, then assessing the orangutans’
size, hand movements and sensitivity of vision and hearing, to
devise games. After bashing the screen around and chucking water on
it, the primates quickly learned it was impermeable, but did not
show immediate interest. It’s impossible to know how they perceive
what’s on-screen — when presented with the image of a predator
once, one orangutan approached with caution from the side the image
was not facing. They do, however, seem to enjoy looking at other
orangutans on-screen, particularly the opposite sex — something
Smits hopes will lead to better mate-matching: “You can use data of
how long they look at each one to find out which they should mate
So far the games are simplistic — touching items to make them
disappear, moving items and memory games. The latter would be the
most likely genre for an orangutan to beat a human at, considering
their excellent memories — but it’s the only one they don’t yet
seem to have grasped.
If the founders of Apps for
Apes are to be believed, touchscreens are key. The
group, which has been presenting orangutans in US zoos with iPads,
says the primates have been taking to it naturally, particularly
those games featuring bright colours and sound. However speaking to
University of Nottingham Malaysia neuroscientist Neil
Mennie, it seems these claims could be overblown. He has found,
like Wirman, that orangutans do not have a natural attraction to
“I use gaming apps, and Tsunami plays once or twice but gets
bored,” Mennie, who is using eye-tracking equipment to
study orangutans at The National Zoo of
Malaysia, tells us. “She knows what we want her to do. Sometimes
she drags the blob over the screen, drops it in the bin and looks
at me as if to say, ‘yeah, so what?’. I suspect it’s because of
their hand shape — the iPad has been designed for human hands and
they have longer ones. If they had more 3D objects or natural
colours it would be better.” Mennie suggests setting up a game
using webcams, whereby orangutans are rewarded for touching the
screen at the same time as humans on the “other side”. But it’s the
idea of sensory 3D smart objects that has Wirman excited.
“They like poking things with sticks and wires. I noticed one
female orangutan playing with an ant for 20 minutes in her mouth,
directing it on her lips — if we had tiny little smart objects, we
could do something like that.” They started out instinctually using
lips and tongues on the tablet, so moving away from a focus on
hands could be key. They are also not used to sitting still, so
anything they can take up trees that can survive the rough and
tumble of orangutan play would be best.
Simon Evans, cofounder of street game collective SlingShot,
says he can imagine bringing real animals into his games if the
focus were on physicality, rather than static touchscreens.
In Hounded,
his team already use scent and dogs in an artificial chase of human
players. “As a starting point, I think that would be powerful, a
really deep way of connecting with an animal. A dog likes to chase
you and I like to chase the dog — we’re two animals enjoying the
same thing in the same way at the same point. I might construct all
kinds of meanings and structures around that and that’s how we’re
different — my ability to hold abstract thought — but at a basic
level we’re the same.”
A focus on the physicality is of course quite tricky, particularly
when you’re dealing with 40 piglets “quite intent on destroying
anything physical”, says Driessen. So far, he and Alfrink are
focusing on “early adopters”; daring piglets that show interest,
eventually leading the group in a more deliberate pursuit.
At the end of the day, avoiding anything too artificial remains
the main challenge. “We should try to get into the mind of an
orangutan,” says Smits, “rather than manipulating them to use
unnatural ways of showing what they are doing.”Playing With Pigs’ creators tread that same fine line,
between enriching the lives of these animals, and simply
manipulating them — once again — to a human entity’s chosen
“We have to avoid creating a situation which emphasises how much
smarter humans are than pigs,” said Driessen. Even the question of
using incentivising treats is an issue, the danger being we end up
having them do tricks for treats. “Would the food reward detract
from it being play and intrinsically motivating as a game?” asks
Driessen. That would be too easy — to create a symmetrical form of
mutually beneficial play should remain the goal.

Us v. them: who is it for?
Good intentions aside, our relationship with the animal kingdom
ultimately remains a selfish one. It is, historically, built around
what they can do for us — in agriculture and industry — and
today, what they can bring us in domestication: namely
companionship. What we might learn from them is kept to the
confines of a lab and technology is only used to mediate our
relationship with them here, or in the mechanics of
concentrated farming — the positive aspects of technology remain
the preserve of humans. Touch and Playing With
Pigs’ may on one level be aimed at entertaining humans, but
the hope is they take away something more — questions that
challenge the social norm at a time when our view of animals is
already evolving.
“Previously, animals were regarded as asocial, outside the sphere
of society and culture,” said Nimmo. “In the 19th-century modern
pet-keeping emerged and people began to form relationships with
animals that weren’t centred on their usefulness as commodities.
People began to play with animals just for fun, and that led to
dramatic changes in the way some were perceived.”
For Alfrink and Driessen, the hope is to use technology to bridge
the gap between the two perceptions — pigs as supermarket
pre-packaged fodder, and real world pigs which are, just a few
miles from those supermarkets, biting their own tails out of
frustration and boredom in confined conditions. But what do the
pigs stand to gain, and can we ever hope to challenge long-held
perceptions through gaming?
“Absolutely,” says Nimmo. “Change is possible in the agriculture
system. It’s through play we’ve come to appreciate that animals are
social, not just biological machines. But there’s tensions with
using these technologies in the current agricultural complex. A
shift in perception of animals using this kind of play could
undermine the industry, and if that happened my suspicion is they’d
be modified or withdrawn.”
Already, Playing With Pigs has come up against harsh
criticism from the public, and even its creators. “It’s a mediated
interaction,” says Alfrink, “not a replacement for going to farms
and having a look at these pigs. But perhaps it can serve as a lead
up to people making that step.” On the other hand, says Driessen,
the game could inadvertently perpetuate the division: “it could
create a distanced form of interaction away from the reality of the
pen; or it could be a way to reconnect.” He also admits the game
can be misleading “because you phase out all the bad noises and
only hear the joyful [grunting] ones”.
Some argue it’s unnatural — even Wirman admits it’s not strictly
normal for orangutans to play (“it’s something they do in
captivity; in nature they only play when very young”). Likewise,
natural play for pigs would be frolicking in the mud, but Alfrink
argues caged farming is not natural either, and Evans that the
human-animal relationship has always been mediated through
technology, whether via a ball or a lead. We have already changed
the playbook of what is “natural” by taking these animals out of
their habitat — does this then mean anything’s game, or do these
projects distract from the more pressing question of their
“Playing With Pigs sounds like The Matrix,”
wrote one anonymous commentator when developers asked for feedback,
“as if we could make them believe through computer simulation they
have a nice life outdoors, while actually they’re crammed together,
stuffed with hormones and antibiotics in a meat factory.” Another
admitted, “being ignorant to how these animals live and get
slaughtered is what keeps me enjoying meat — I find the less I
know, the happier I am. Playing a game with them, only to kill and
eat them, I can’t help but humanise that idea, and how sick it
sounds. Then again I guess if you’re destined to death you might as
well have some fun.” And the most frank response: “I think it’s
kind of sick as it makes you remember these pigs aren’t stupid. And
yet, I love bacon.” These will be the concerns of farmers — do we
really want to humanise a meal? Interestingly, one farmer presented
with the idea of being a “gaming farmer” paid to play with pigs
rather than slaughter them said: “Sure, I’d love that. My aim is to
raise pigs, not to slaughter them necessarily.”
Such a reaction is, Nimmo would argue, a result of our continual
reassessment of how we understand ourselves as human. “Historically
we’ve defined human beings against other animals and increasingly
that’s not tenable. Playing With Pigs gives us a way to
understand how cognitively sophisticated and social non-human
animals are and how they can engage in meaningful interaction. It
raises questions about how unique we really are.”
Whether or not people agree with the reasoning behind
Touch and Playing WIth Pigs, both aim to
enrich animals’ lives. Yet the question remains as to how we can
ever know they are enjoying it. In Touch the play
enclosure is voluntary — orangutans enter and leave when they want
— while pigs probably wouldn’t do it if they weren’t receiving
some stimulation, argue the founders, just as toy balls are
discarded in pens.
“The only way to measure ‘happiness’ is if they continue doing it
and do it right, but it could be pure chance,” says Wirman. “Then
there’s the challenge, are they only coming because it’s new and
exciting? They return, they use the games and seem to be doing
alright, but it’s very hard to say what they understand or if it’s
bringing joy to their lives — how to understand that is a personal
It’s clear one thing does make them happy: bonding with real
people. “I can tell you Tsunami is desperate to interact with her
keeper,” says Mennie. “She loves him and always wants a cuddle off
him.” Whether technology could be seen as a replacement for that
kind of closeness, and for the lack of maternal care that has
ultimately brought this about, remains dubious. It may, however,
teach us to preserve their habitats, so no orangutan is separated
from its mother prematurely due to human intervention.

The future of human-animal play Enjoying each other on a base level, in a pre-cultural
space, is best explored through play — a practice we already share
with animals (a
January 2013 study revealed chimpanzees share the human
preference for “fair outcomes” in games). Asymmetrical games could
deliver this for orangutans, whereby animals uses smart objects and
human counterparts iPads, and Mennie and Smits want to see
orangutans having trans-Atlantic conversations via Skype (Wirman
already chats with her subjects this way). For Driessen and
Alfrink, making Playing With Pigs open source will pave
the way for other groups to explore ways to develop the
conversation, and crowdsource a solution to the question: what
makes a pig happy? How distant these realities are depends on our
willingness to change the status quo and face uncomfortable
realities about our unbalanced coexistence. The pay-off, argues
Smits, will be well-worth the battle.

“I’m due to visit the first orangutan I saved, Uce,”
he says. “She’s been living in the jungle for 21 years and just had
her third baby. As always, she’ll come down, give me her baby and
we’ll have a wonderful hour before I wander back into the forest
and she back into the tree. It will always be that way. She never