Wired: A pig of a problem

Wired published an article on designing human-animal interspecies games.

Playing with pigs or orangutans via an iPad might sound like a novelty, but could this kind of digitally mediated interspecies communication change our view of the animal kingdom, and our treatment of it?

“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.”

Read the article: A pig of a problem: designing human-animal interspecies games by Liat Clark.

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Pig Chase at TedX Brussels

Last November, Irene van Peer was one of the speakers at TEDxBrussels, where she explained to an audience of 1900 people how play can transform our complex relation with the animals we eat. She explains some of the design choices and what it is like to design for animals.

Watch a larger version of this video on YouTube.

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Video of playtest at farm

Watch a larger version of the video on Vimeo.

Here’s a video of a playtest we performed in October of this year with a first digital prototype. It features live videostreaming in realtime from a pig pen to an iPad app, and from the same app remote control of the projection in the pen.

We’ll post more on this soon, but for now let me mention the team that worked on this: Aduen Darriba Frederiks, Alper Cugun, Hein Lagerweij, Irene van Peer, Peter Robinett, and myself Kars Alfrink. We’d also like to thank Dick van der Vegt for his continuing support.

This video was first shown by Irene in her TEDxBrussels talk.

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The value of video

Producing a concept video can be useful for many reasons. Probably the most important one for us was to gauge the responses society would have to a game like this, before actually building it. That’s why we worked hard to make the video look as convincing as possible. Our intention wasn’t to trick people into believing it was real – we’ve always emphasized this is a concept – but we did want to enable the general public to respond to it as if it was real.

On the other hand, a video allows you to take some liberties with what’s technically feasible right now, and we did not shy from doing this. Without compromising the video’s believability we added some improbable elements, most notably the see-through screen. We wanted to get as close as possible to the image we used in our mock advertisement, a human hand touching a pig snout. It’s a gesture we observed with farmers, and with ourselves when visiting a pen. Looking back, this is something people respond to very strongly on an emotional level.

A piglet sniffing the outstretched hand of Mr. van der Vegt

To get this image right, we spent a lot of time on the material through which we would shoot the footage. Irene considered many varieties of frosted acrylate and I remember us sitting around holding samples in front of our faces to see at what distance our nose would come into focus. This semi-transparent view of the pigs on the one hand emphasizes the sense of closeness and on the other hand lends an air of mystery to the image. We imagine farmers would also be a bit more comfortable with allowing game players a realtime view of their pens when not everything is perfectly visible.

Irene's eldest son Rein demonstrating one of the materials we considered

Ultimately, this material offered some welcome benefits. One thing we had worried about a lot prior to shooting was providing a sense of motion on the iPad side. The idea was that the iPad screen would show a portion of the complete screen at the farm, and players had to feel like they were panning across it. We expected we would have to add some kind of grid or background in post production, but it turned out the acrylate window we shot the footage through got a bit dirty from the pig’s snouts, which gave just the right amount of texture.

Two pigs pressed against the dirty window

Another thing we – actually again mostly Irene – spent quite a bit of time on was the screen in the pig pen. We thought about what would be practical dimensions, at what height it would need to be fixed to the pen’s walls, etcetera. We also debated colors, first thinking about a white or otherwise lightly colored surface that would be practical to project on. But when we settled on adding all the graphics to the screen in post-production and working with a laser to guide pigs for the recordings, we decided to go with a dark material that would be more evocative of a large screen. We feel a white material is more suggestive of a healthcare environment, and black points more towards a high-tech material culture for pigs.

Irene conversing with the pigs during the installation of the screen, visible in the background

Ultimately we had the dummy screen made of three layers – cardboard, black foam and acrylate – for a perfectly black and satin-like effect. It was delivered to Mr. van der Vegt’s farm a few weeks prior to filming. We set it up in a robust, pig-proof way in the pen we would be filming in. We did this well in advance so that the pigs would be able to grow accustomed to it. We knew that we had to do this because new objects draw a large amount of attention from pigs, something that would be impractical for when we would be filming.

And there were many more things we considered, such as the best age of the pigs. We settled on 7-week old female piglets, so called gilts. Or the design of the visual feedback on the pig side, which was partly inspired by the image of an anthill being probed by an animal, with lots of small things shooting in all directions. So even though we weren’t building the actual game, you can see that we were still forced to consider a lot of practical aspects of our design because we wanted to produce a consistent, believable video.

Sketch of the “fireworks” visual feedback

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Thoughts on symmetrical human-animal play design

From the start of the project, we have been thinking of how to integrate scientific research into animal welfare and abilities with ethical debates on our relations to animals. A videogame – not just for pigs but also for humans to interact with them – could be a way to playfully involve the public to ponder the lives of farmed pigs while entertaining them. Thereby the difference between how we relate to pigs, invisible in their pig pens, and to other animals we have as pets or in zoos, could be actively explored from the comfort of one’s home. Will we be able to have an affective relation to an animal somewhere on a farm? Can we play with our food?

In this way animal science and animal ethics can be brought home. With a cross-species video game, citizen/consumers (and policy makers) do not have to wait for scientists and philosophers to decide on the mental abilities and moral status of pigs, but could actively participate in interspecies learning processes. With the immersion and embodied imagination that playing a game can entail, we could try to design a mode of responsive interaction in which human and animal minds could meet. Or perhaps even merge, as when humans and horses learn to ride together in the description of Vinciane Despret (PDF).

“Horse with the Little Jockey” aka “Jockey of Artemision”

In designing a meaningful interactive encounter between humans and pigs, it is important not only to make something suitably interesting for pigs, but also not to start by unwittingly assuming and inscribing essential differences in abilities and interests of humans and animals.

Some fine examples of interactive set-ups created for and with animals can be found in the work of New York based scientist/artist Natalie Jeremijenko. In one of her installations an elaborate interface is constructed through which a human can enter into a bodily struggle with the most powerful animal in the world: the rhinoceros beetle. Another set-up enables wild birds to communicate with museum visitors, by pressing buttons that produce pre-recorded texts to be played on the outdoor terrace. Depending on the button chosen by the birds, the visitors are informed about the relation between migrating birds and zoonotic diseases, or even urged to provide some bird food in order to reduce the risk of this occurring. This last button appeared to be used most often.

Beetle Wrestler

This work explores what happens when humans and animals are brought into a more equal form of contact and through a shared material culture engage in more interactive forms of communication. And it tests our assumptions about the motivations of animals and their relations to us. In the pig game design we planned to create a symmetrical interactive setting in which mutual adjustment and learning can take place and new modes of interspecies communication are developed in an experiential and embodied (albeit mediated) way. The design process involves active participation of pigs, since their response to the prototypes and play tests provide feedback on what they would be interested in.

Our aim is not so much to create some kind of IQ test by which to score pig intelligence, as somewhere between say dogs and apes. Designing for, and with, animals can be a way also to question the easily assumed abilities of humans. As one of the farmers involved in the project stated during a design workshop: “Well of course the humans will beat the pigs in any game. Or.., well, perhaps we can’t be fully sure, as the pigs do have all day to practice.”

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The discovery of light

When we were getting ready to start production on the video sketch, we were quite sure we would be going with touch as the medium for interacting with pigs. It made sense: a pig’s snout is its most sensitive interface with the world. It’s used for smelling and touching but also for grabbing, holding and of course eating.

However, it was still a question if the setup we had in mind would work: a touch-sensitive surface that would also be able to push back on a pig snout, remotely controlled by a human player using a mobile phone or tablet.

So we had no choice but to go back to the farm, and see what pigs really respond to. To see how we might draw their attention, and subsequently hold it.

We sat down and brainstormed a long list of things we would bring, ranging from a can of compressed air to water in a spray bottle, and from a Maglite to an old electronic keyboard.

The point was to open ourselves up to surprise. To consider as many pig senses as was practically possible.

Irene built a frame with a coated mesh stretched onto it, that we would be able to position vertically or horizontally. We could sit behind it to push against pig snouts on the other side using our hands, or we could use a long pole with a hook at the end to push from below at a distance.

Pigs on top of Irene’s mesh frame

Hein joined us to film everything, which was a good way of introducing him to the environment since he hadn’t been there before. This way he could figure out the details for when we would need to return to do the actual filming for the video.

With all our equipment collected, we headed to the farm. Upon arrival we shared our plans with Mr. van der Vegt, who was kind enough to allow us as much time as we needed to try everything we brought. We ended up spending a whole afternoon. By the end we were coughing from the dusty air typical of pigpens and of course we were very, very smelly.

Arjen, who assisted us during this trip, playing music to pigs while Hein is filming

But what did we find? Did the prototypical touch surface indeed succeed as we’d expected? As is almost always the case, things did not go according to plan.

Even though pigs were certainly interested in the touch surface, and we did succeed in pushing back on their snouts in both setups, it was kind of hard to establish a dialogue in this way. We simply couldn’t establish the reasonably clear back-and-forth of action and reaction we would need to build a game around.

However, when we tried the Maglite with colored filters, we saw pigs moving into its beam. It still wasn’t too convincing though.

We also tried a laser pointer. This was a different story. We’d brought it because we knew cats enjoy playing with it. But we didn’t have high expectations. Here’s a short video clip showing you what happened the very first time we tried it:

As you can tell from the video, this was a surprise to all involved. It also marked a turning point in our project. We decided to abandon the idea of using touch and instead focus on using light to interact with pigs. Looking back, an added conceptual benefit was that we were now able to establish a symmetrical play space between both species. Something we’ll go into a bit more in a next post.

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Exploring what the game should feel like through advertisement

After the first phase of the project, we took some time to think about a target audience for the game, and how to position it within the tech and eco market.

One thing we did was go through the magazine racks of our local bookshop and select a few titles that we felt might be read by potential game players. Amongst others these were Green and Bright.

We decided it would be a good exercise to produce a mock advertisement promoting the game for one of these magazines. This way we would force ourselves to think more about what kind of emotional response we were looking for, and what visual language would need to accompany that.

Leafing through Green magazine

As a magazine, Bright seemed most suitable. Its readers are open to new technologies and new gadgets. They are also drawn to the slightly strange. In addition, we liked the idea of presenting not just a “tech lifestyle” product for people, but also for pigs.

Below are two sketches for ads that would run on separate half spreads of the magazine. One is aimed at pigs, with the text “Have you played with a human lately?” and the other is for humans, reading “Have you played with a pig lately?”

Both mock advertisements aimed at Bright magazineBoth mock advertisements aimed at Bright magazine

On the human side, you can see we were already very much preoccupied with creating a sensation of closeness to pigs, as if they were right at the other side of a screen and you could almost touch them. The photo we used was taken during one of our very first visits to Mr. van der Vegt’s pig farm. He would kneel among the pigs and hold out his hands in this way and they would come closer and sniff or nibble on them. It seems people have a strong urge to get in touch with the animals like this.

In the advertisement for pigs, you can see them touching what looks like colored spots of light. We were actually still very much thinking about tangible interactions for pigs, and we hadn’t yet “discovered” that they responded to light. Here’s another sketch from around that time showing the kind of setup we were actually thinking about.

Sketches for the mock game advertisement

Sketches for the mock game advertisementSketches for the mock game advertisement

The colored spots ended up in the advertisement because we felt it communicated this idea of a high-tech material culture for pigs more directly. The fact that ultimately the pigs would be entertained by light can be considered a curious coincidence. Sometimes, keeping illustrations of a design a bit sketchy allows them to be closer to reality than a highly detailed rendering.

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Humans as a source of entertainment for pigs

During our very first visit to a pig farm we brought a football to for the pigs to play with

Pigs playing with a football during our first visit to a pig farm, the boldest piglet appears to be more interested in us and our camera

After Clemens got in touch with the Utrecht School of the Arts, we spent a number of days researching and designing a first instance of a game for pigs. It was during this first phase of the project that the idea emerged to use humans as a source of entertainment for pigs.

There were a few things that lead up to this. During our first visit to Mr. van der Vegt’s farm we were accompanied by Marc Bracke, who told us many things about pig behaviour. One thing he pointed out was their fascinations for all things new in their environment. As such, one of the most effective forms of entertainment for them is a hanging basket filled with fresh hay. They enjoy rooting through it and looking for small kernels or seeds to eat. A basket like this stays interesting to them for around a day. After which it needs to be replenished.

Early brainstorming results mentioning our desire to stay away from extrinsic rewardsEarly brainstorming results mentioning our desire to stay away from extrinsic rewards

When we went into the pens ourselves, we experienced the fascination pigs have for new things firsthand, as we were that new thing. All the pigs would first run away from us. Later on they would carefully approach as a group. Then a few bold individuals would start sniffing our legs. Soon enough we’d be surrounded by pigs chewing on our toes and trousers. We might just be edible, after all.

So we started thinking, what could be an effective way of creating a constantly changing play environment for pigs? We weren’t convinced a computer would suffice. Also, Clemens was already very much interested in the subversive potential of a symmetrical play space for pigs and humans.

A few sketches of various conceptsA few sketches of various concepts

So we pursued this idea further. After our visit to the farm we developed several concepts. We produced paper prototypes and tested those with people from various backgrounds Marc and Clemens were our first guinea pigs, later on we played with a number of farmers. Their responses told us a lot about what would be most appealing to humans. To some extent, it uncovered new insights into the controversies around playing with livestock. For instance, some farmers weren’t comfortable with the idea that a player might develop a bond with a specific pig that would later be taken to slaughter.

We ended up doing a rough video sketch of one idea, which was about remote play between a human and a pig. At this stage we were still very much committed to tangible interaction on the pig’s end. We were also thinking about a robust solution that could withstand the enthusiastic exploratory behaviour typical of pigs, sometimes informally described by us as “creative vandalism”. Finally, we were already trying to come up with an activity that would be intrinsically rewarding for pigs. We did not want to manipulate them into forms of play using treats or other kinds of food. We’re pretty sure you can get a pig to do almost anything for a snack, they’re certainly clever enough.

One of several paper prototypes, this one exploring remote interaction over streaming videoOne of several paper prototypes, this one exploring remote interaction over streaming video

The video that we ended this phase with involves a surface in the pig pen that is flexible. Pigs can push into it. In response, humans can remotely push on it from the other side, using an iPhone app. They can see where pigs are pushing and can also see a ball that is dropped on the frame in the pig pen. This ball is supposed to draw the attention of pigs by virtue of its sudden appearance, supported with some sound effects. The aim of the game is to collaboratively move this ball to a pocket in one of the frame’s corners. So pigs and humans score together on this pig pen pool table.

A series of frames from the first video sketchA series of frames from the first video sketch

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How the idea of a videogame for pigs emerged

Launching Pig Chase was a great way for us to end 2011. The enormous variety of responses has really impressed us. We’d like to start 2012 by wishing both animals and humans all the best.

Our plan is to start blogging some of the defining moments in the making of the Pig Chase video. As a start, here’s an anecdote about the origins of this project, which involves our team member Clemens Driessen, applied philosopher at Wageningen University.

It’s early 2009 and Clemens is sitting at a kitchen table with a group of pig farmers, discussing the ethics of their industry:

The main theme had been so called ‘enrichment material’: toys that are regulated by the EU as mandatory for each pig pen, in order to reduce the boredom of pigs and the associated aggressive behaviour. Farmers are to some extent free in their choice of materials and type of objects. Mostly this means the pigs get a chain with a small plastic ball, hanging from the wall. We were almost done discussing what type of enrichment materials would be more interesting to the pigs and would actually reduce aggression and damage to the animals. No clear alternatives that were acceptable to the farmers had come up. Straw is difficult for the farmer in the existing system as it costs money and time, both of which are scarce in the highly marginal economic reality of the intensive pig farm. When it became clear we were not really getting anywhere, the farmer in whose kitchen we sat started thinking more freely, and perhaps in desperation said: “Should we then paint a forest on the walls of the pens, would they like that?” We stared a bit at the watercolor hanging on the kitchen wall, an idyllic view of pigs lying in a field next to a pool of mud. Then she said: “Or give them what our children play with, they just got their Wii.”

Which was an idea Clemens decided to take seriously. So he approached us, a group of game design researchers at the Utrecht School of the Arts, to see if we could make this happen. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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