December 28, 2011

My interview on Wanderlust: video game playing animals, uplift, and cultural transmission

I was recently interviewed by Sebastian Alvarez of Wanderlust. If you're not familiar with this blog, I highly encourage you to check it out. Essentially, if you like the topics covered on Sentient Developments, you'll be right at home at Wanderlust.

In the interview, we covered such topics as video-gaming pets, the future of nonhuman animals, and cultural uplift. Be sure to check it out. Here's a sample:
Wanderlust: There has been a recent increase of Internet videos...that depict humans enabling their pets to “play” video games on smart-phones and video game consoles. Similarly, in order to gain new insight into animal behavior, scientists have been experimenting with multimedia-enabled devices in the last decades. Today, along scientists, game designers are trying to merge human spaces with pet spaces through pervasive computing interfaces.

Could these new technologies reduce anthropocentrism and blur the gap between different species?

G.D: There is no question that new technologies are allowing humans and animals to interact in more profound and novel ways. As a result, we are getting increasingly able to peer more deeply into the psyche of animals and gain a better understanding of how they perceive and engage in the world.

In some cases, these interactions re-enforce our suspicion that many animals are more intelligent and thoughtful than we have previously thought. We are finding that animals are quite ‘human-like’ in many respects. We share many traits, including the joy of play, applying skill, and winning games. No example captures this more effectively than the video of Kanzi, a bonobo ape, who discovers the sheer bliss of playing Pac Man. There is something intrinsically universal, at least among primates, about chasing and gobbling-up annoying little ghosts.

By showing that animals like to play as much as we do, our sense of empathy is increased. It helps us to relate more, and acquire an enhanced sense of the other.

But because we have previously suffered from a communications gap, and even a kind of interspecies disconnect, it has been all too easy for the dominant species to subjugate animals and belittle their capacities. By playing games with we are forced to interact with them in more intimate sort of way, which can only impart a stronger sense of their moral worth.

Now, that said, there is a risk that these sorts of technologies can be taken too far. In most of these cases, these are human games designed for humans. Or, they are designed for animals for the purpose of entertaining humans (take the iPad mouse game for cats — those poor cats are getting tortured!). It would be more interesting to see games that are strictly designed for a specific species. If we are going to do this right, we need to engage animal minds. Again, the challenge is to understand animal psychology, and cater to their particular tendencies and talents (including different sensorial bandwidths).

What I would like to see in the next generation of animal-and-human video games is a greater opportunity for collaboration between two players. The Pig Chase experiment is an early but unfulfilled attempt at this. For greater impact, game developers will need to learn about animal psychology and cognition. I am imagining, for example, a game in which success is dependent on the various strengths of two different species. It has been shown, for example, that some primates can perform memorization tasks better than humans ( And obviously humans perform a number of cognitive tasks better than primates. It would be quite profound to create a game in which inter-species co-operation is a necessary requirement for success (to increase sense of bonding and camaraderie), and at the same time, still be a lot of fun.
Be sure to read the entire interview.

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