Tuesday, March 24, 2009

EXP Podcast #18: A Gamer's Best Friend?

Animals have a long history in video games, and continue to play important parts in the most recent titles. This week, we happened upon an article detailing the story of a high school student offended by the treatment of dogs in Call of Duty: World at War. Her efforts to petition Activision to change its ways got us thinking about how and why games are criticized, as well as the larger role of animals in games. Although we have a bit of fun at the article's expense, it is a useful tool for examining how people react to violent games, how different forms of violence are interpreted, and how animals fit in to the medium as whole. As always, we love hearing your responses to both the story and the podcast, so feel free to send us an email or jump in on the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- What memorable animal appearances can you think of? What role did the animals play in the game?
- While we were not exactly optimistic about Lucci's chances of getting Activision's attention, her efforts raise a good point: how should people display their disagreement with publishers and developers? Petitions? Essays? Response games (like the PETA example)? Voting with one's wallet?
- To what degree does the incorporation of animals succeed in games, and how would you like to see it improved?

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Show Notes:

- Run time: 25 min 54 sec
- Mike Fahey's (Kotaku) article and response: "Students Protest Call Of Duty Dog Killing"
- The original article from the Lowell Sun: "NDA students protest video game's depiction of cruelty to animals"
- Cooking Mama and PETA's response
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. While I think her time is not very well spent on a crusade for the rights of virtual animals since there is plenty of real-world animal cruelty to worry about, I don't think her point is any less valid than the people that complain about videogame violence against humans. In fact, since many people don't care much for the feelings of animals already, videogame violence against animals may be even more likely to be modeled and enacted in real life. That's an interesting thought because it would mean that we could be more likely to imitate videogame violence if it is a target we don't care for. I have often wondered if that is the case with war games in Iraq or Afghanistan and that is partly why the Army funded the making of at least one war game, "America's Army".

    Surprising that PETA would have you chop up a virtual turkey. I'm a vegetarian, but I thought that game was funny and enjoyable. Oops. I guess PETA lost the point again in yet another lame attempt to be edgy.

    As for my favorite animals in videogames...

    Agro, the horse from Shadow of the Colossus was the wanderers only friend in the barren world of colossi and saw him through his journey to save Mono.

    Ameterasu, the wolf from Okami was a brilliant mix of god and animal (and watercolor).

    And my favorite was probably the Blob from the 8-bit NES classic "A Boy and His Blob". The blob was like having a really cool dog, except instead of dog biscuits, he wanted jellybeans, and instead of doing tricks like shaking your hand or barking, he would turn into a ladder, umbrella, tire jack, or bridge to help you solve puzzles. Even though the blob was not technically an animal, this game best captured what it feels like to have a trusty, loyal pet by your side.

  2. The dogs in World At War struck me as more ludicrous than anything - and served as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the game (itself a poor WW2 total conversion of Modern Warfare). Not to mention they fact they're no even historically accurate - attack dogs were NEVER used to the extent portrayed here. I suppose we expected too much of a game which also features Zombie Nazis and where a Russian army (wielding Japanese weapons) faces a German army (wielding American weapons).

    The dog in Fable 2 is everyone's current favourite example, but I can't really say much more of its role for fear of spoilers. The sheer attachment people have felt for this dog boggles me. It does very little useful - pointless tricks, lighting up buried treasure or easily visible treasure chests, and getting hurt in combat and so limping around whining until you give it more medicine from your bottomless 'dog elixir' bottle. Much like the rest of the game, Fable 2's dog did nothing to endear me to it and as such I ignore it and wish I could shoot it dead like the attack dogs in World at War.

  3. @JT

    Point well-taken about the "America's Army" game. Properly contextualizing certain images in games (or film or literature for that matter), is important. What makes me crazy about petitions to ban things is that the energy put towards censorship would be so much better spent engaging with the people consuming the material in question.


    Sounds like we feel similarly about most animals in games being defined by their utility. Whether it is for scares or a glorified compass, a game animal seems more like a tool than a creature.

    Have you played any games in which you liked how animals were implemented?

  4. I can't believe we forgot about Ameterasu. Which I actually thing did a playable animal character pretty well. His movement through the battle and the environment seemed to be that of a wolf, not that of a humanoid in wolf form. Other playable animals: The Jurassic Park game?

  5. @Scott

    I'm not really sure. Even my horse in Oblivion was little more than transportation (though at least it could do some damage in combat), and was slightly distressed when it galloped off after we were attacked on the road and was killed in a forest full of beasts.

    The animal stars of Viva Pinata can't really count, both for the amount of new swear words I invented while trying to herd them and the fact they're independent entities you can only coax (or whack with a shovel)

    I suppose Dogmeat in Fallout is the closest I've had to a useful game animal... the crudity of the graphics and the lethalness of his bites endeared him to many people and many (myself included) felt horrible or went to great lengths to avoid his being incinerated by the force fields in the Military Base. Indeed, the diary of your character for Fallout 2 states this as the 'canon' death of Dogmeat, so I suppose it was inevitable. (you could save him with very skilled play)