Video game animals: evolving from killable objects to positive protagonists

Video game animals: evolving from killable objects to positive protagonists

In the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns, one of my children came to me with a confession. 

“I killed all my pigs,” they blurted out, distressed.

“You what?” I replied, shocked. 

Further disclosures revealed the pigs were digital – an animal mob in popular children’s video game Minecraft by Microsoft-owned Mojang Studios.

Having carefully farmed and bred hundreds of pink pixelated beasts, something had prompted the child to slaughter them all, invoking immediate feelings of guilt and remorse for their virtual crime.

Minecraft Pig / Credit: Microsoft Xbox Game Studios

Animals have long appeared in video games. 

From Nintendo’s 1980s arcade game Duck Hunt to Minecraft’s animal menagerie of chickens, ocelots, sheep and ‘mooshrooms’ – animal characters in video games can be everything from food to targets of violence, virtual pets, companions and sometimes protagonists.

Guilt and responsibility – you can’t feel that if you watch it on TV

Dr Lauren Woolbright

While further research is needed, ethicists and animal rights organisations are raising concerns about certain depictions of animals in games, particularly as killable objects or expendable resources.

Dr Lauren Woolbright, teaches game design and interactive media at Flinders University and is co-founder and editor of OneShot: A Journal of Critical Play and Games.

Woolbright says killing animals in video games can have an emotional toll on the player. “Guilt and responsibility – you can’t feel that if you watch it on TV”.

By way of example, she describes whaling as “one of the most disturbing things that ever happened in an Assassin’s Creed game.”

“It’s one thing to watch a documentary about whaling and quite another to be asked in a game to do it yourself, and to see the consequences of that.”

The fourth release of Ubisoft’s action-adventure game allows players to harpoon whales and sharks in order to earn crafting resources and income.

Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag / Credit: Ubisoft Entertainment

In many games, animals tend to be an “expendable item”, Woolbright says, usually fulfilling one of a few stereotyped roles. 

“Either they are cute little animals, running around the forest, and you’re not really asked to do anything with them. Or you can kill them.”

A player might kill an animal for resources – some meat, or maybe a bone. Sometimes they might even cough up a weapon or some gold. “I don’t know why animals are eating gold,” she says.

“Or they’re antagonistic. They’re big and scary, and they have teeth, and they’ll kill you. And so you have to kill them in self defence”

She says sometimes the storyline might provide justification, the context determining if the violence seems unjustified, or if there’s more nuance to it, some kind of emotional impact.

Woolbright says a game like World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment tends to be more self-aware about its representation of animals. For example, a moth might be corrupted by bad magic and you might have to kill 20 of them. Another animal might be an invasive species.

But broadly, she observes, “the treatment of animals – as disposable items in games – really shows a bigger cultural problem of ecophobia, where we are afraid of nature”.

Dr Simon Coghlan is a moral philosopher, with a background in veterinary science at the University of Melbourne and co-author of research with Dr Lucy Sparrow into the ethics of violence against animals in video games, published in Ethics and Information Technology.

The treatment of animals – as disposable items in games – really shows a bigger cultural problem of ecophobia, where we are afraid of nature

Dr Lauren Woolbright

He acknowledges at this stage there is very little research or hard evidence demonstrating that treating animals in certain ways within video games directly affects people’s attitudes and behaviours in the real world. But, he adds, “there are some good reasons for thinking the way animals are depicted in games may in some cases be problematic, and in some cases possibly beneficial to our attitudes towards animals.”

Coghlan’s concerns relate mainly to the ubiquity of violence against animals in video games, and the way animals can often be depicted as “killable objects”. 

It’s an area that has received little attention, unlike the decades-long history of moral panic surrounding violence towards digital humans in games, where despite extensive research, studies have found no strong evidence of a link.

Yet Coghlan believes animal violence in games to be more problematic, with negative attitudes to animals in games reflecting and reinforcing wider social attitudes. 

“Our central claim is that much digital animal violence runs a risk of reinforcing indifference and callousness towards sentient animals—attitudes which enable and perpetuate the fairly systematic mistreatment of animals by society.”

“Games can be really great fun,” he says, “so I don’t want to be moralistic or puritanical about it. I just want to raise the question of whether the signals and the messages that these games are sending us about animals — often very subtle, and unnoticed — might be another factor that contributes to our dismissal of animals as worthy of consideration.”

Our central claim is that much digital animal violence runs a risk of reinforcing indifference and callousness towards sentient animals

Dr Simon Coghlan

Animal rights organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says while it “believes in the power of video games to convey important social issues such as animal rights, there is still as much work to be done in this area as there is in the ‘real world’”. 

PETA prefers games that depict animals in more positive and compassionate ways, such as Sonic the Hedgehog in the Japanese series created by Yuji Naka, Naoto Ohshima, and Hirokazu Yasuhara for Sega. 

Sonic, PETA says, is “the original animal rights hero, saving animals from evil experimenter Doctor Eggman”. 

The organisation also highly rates video game Stray developed by BlueTwelve Studio. It’s a game where players follow a stray cat in a walled city populated by machines and mutant bacteria. The cat sets out to escape with the help of its drone companion, B-12.

In its efforts to change the game, the advocacy group has even created its own “animal utopia” Minecraft server.

Woolbright agrees games can – and often do – offer something different when it comes to animals and their environment.

“In real life, you’d be in awe. But in a game, it’s kill or be killed,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”

She is enthusiastic about games taking a different, less human-centric, approach where the environment is more autonomous, instead of a passive or reactive backdrop to the human action.

When it comes to animals, there’s an opportunity to “immerse a person in an animal’s real lived experience”, she says.

Shelter1 screenshot 1280x800 5 1
Shelter screenshot / Credit: Might and Delight

A game like Shelter, developed by Might and Delight is a great example, she says. Players take on the role of a mother badger or linx, whose main task is to keep itself and its babies alive and safe from forest fires or predator threats.

Games can also reflect the positive emotional bond between people and companion animals.

Woolbright says her son still talks about the first dog he tamed in Minecraft.

“It’s so hard to do as a little kid. You have to get a bone and it’s hard to get a bone because you have to get it from a skeleton, which will kill you. And you have to give it to the dog and then you won’t immediately tame it. There’s some process to it and then you put the little bandana on it. 

“But his dog was killed in combat when they were playing around together. And he still talks about losing that dog.”

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