It started out as a way to stop pigs awaiting slaughter from chewing on each other. But video game design initiative Playing with Pigs quickly evolved to become something more than a simple video game that gets humans to play with their future pork meals.
A team of game designers, a philosopher and an animal welfare scientist hope to create something that also spurs people to reexamine the way they think about animals destined for the dinner table.
The idea for creating a video game that gets people to play with farm pigs through a computer tablet and a wall-sized projection screen came out of a study into the ethics of pig farming in the Netherlands by Clemens Driessen, an applied philosopher at Wageningen University.
Driessen was looking into the issue of tail biting among farmed pigs. Some pigs become so frustrated and bored with their captivity that they start chewing on other pigs' tails. The issue has become such a problem that farmed pigs in the European Union are required to have access to "enrichment materials" to reduce pig boredom and tail biting.
One farmer asked Driessen if pigs would enjoy the sorts of video games her kids play on their Nintendo Wii. The suggestion drove the philosopher to contact Utrecht School of Arts to suggest collaboration on a video game for pigs.
"Later, we decided to broaden the scope of the project to include the question of how we relate to pigs and how we might change that through a game," said Kars Alfrink, designer and researcher at Utrecht School of the Arts. "We therefore decided it would be more interesting to create a game that people could play with pigs. This also provided us with the opportunity to use humans to entertain pigs, which we thought would be an interesting twist."
Pig Chase is played with an iPad or other tablet device. Players will see a live video feed from a pig barn on their screen. By touching the screen, players move a ball of light around one of the walls of the enclosure of the barn. The goal is to attract a pig to the light and, with the help of the pig's snout, move the ball to a target shown on both the barn wall and the player's iPad. Early on, game designers discovered that pigs respond strongly to lights and will follow them.
The team is currently building a playable prototype using a "modest budget." Their ultimate goal is to create a system that farmers can integrate into their barns, but Alfrink says they still have a long way to go.
A panel of experts on enrichment materials for pigs were shown the game and weren't that impressed with it, said Marc Bracke, the team's animal welfare scientist from Wageningen University.
"They were only moderately positive about the game as such," he said. "Perhaps it is not immediately clear how useful this can be in practice."
But early tests show that pigs seem to enjoy this new type of play. Players, currently just the design team and some students, also seem to enjoy the game. Alfrink adds that over time the game has "changed the way we think about" the pigs.
It may seem macabre to be designing a game to entertain pigs destined for slaughter. Alfrink says his work on the project has made him even more consciously about the issues surrounding livestock farming. But he still eats meat.
Philosopher Driessen says he doesn't expect the game to turn people into vegetarians. But, he says, he hopes it will get people to think more about the issues surrounding farmed animals.
What starts out as an innocent invitation to play with a pig, Driessen suspects, could raise some mixed, unsettling emotions.
"I have a sort of dual hypothesis on what could happen," he said. "On the one hand this could be a playful and high-tech way to restore the proximity and perhaps bond that humans and pigs have had since the very dawn of civilization up until one or two generations ago. On the other hand, playing a game with a pig might intensify our latent sense of inconsistency in the way we treat animals based on the sole fact of whether they are designated a pet or food."
An outcome that leads to people spending more on pork to pay for better treatment of pigs, or people becoming vegetarians, is almost beside the point. It's the discussion, the philosophical and intellectual journey that seems most important to Driessen.
"I don't know what is best for pigs, whether to play a well-designed game with a prospective consumer, run around outside in the mud and then be slaughtered, or never having been born in the first place," he said. "This project for me is a way not to discuss these questions in the solemn and abstract language of moral philosophy, but to make it into something that everyone can explore for themselves, and in a way that not completely silences the pigs but involves their active participation."
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and the News Editor of Vox Games, a video-game website in development at Vox Media.