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Felino: The philosophical practice of making an interspecies videogame

Westerlaken, M., and Gualeni, S. (2014) Felino: The philosophical practice of making an interspecies videogame. Proceedings of  the Philosophy of Computer Games,(Istanbul, TUR, November 13-15, 2014).

Westerlaken and Gualeni review the development ethos and research methodology used to develop the game or “object for critical evaluation” Felino; an inter-species toy developed using underpinning research in philosophical anthropology and biohermenutics. The research draws on the work of Plessner and De Mul to attempt to develop a less anthropocentric design process for playful interactions. The paper outlines the same criticisms of existing work in the field proposed for the TRACE article, but solves these, not by proposing a new categorisation but by developing new methodologies and guidelines for design;

“It recommends the use of external stimuli in the form of technological artefacts: the natural curiosity of animals and their explorative behaviour can be used to stimulate their engagement with interactive technological artefacts in a research setting. This means that the animal is motivated by the artefact to engage in natural and voluntary ‘play’;

It analyses animal behaviour through ‘going along’ in a common praxis: the understanding of indexical semiotics and common traits in the way bodily signals are produced and interpreted allows specific species to understand others to a certain degree. This ‘going along’ could be achieved in a common and free praxis such as ‘play’. This objective unfolds itself intuitively in the course of the interaction;

It advises to digitally track metric and/or biometric data concerning the animal experience: in order to complement the subjective human approach that results from the first two guidelines, metric and/or biometric research can offer additional insights in the experiences of the animals that are studied. This includes methods that can provide a quantifiable analysis of the interaction with the artefact (Westerlaken & Gualeni 2013).” (p. 7)

This game then could sit as a piece of Critical Design which reflects on the failings of some of ACI’s key popular text examples, but is proposed by the authors as more of a design probe, using Grounded Theory as a mode of evaluation. There is however an interesting observation which alludes to not only the aesthetic encounters, but also the logical structures of technology being anthropocentric, based on Gualeni’s work (2014). The paper states “as argued by Gualeni, computers are “ultimately machines characterized by logics which are simplifications, extensions, distortions and repetitions of certain aspects of a human kind of sensibility and cognition” (Gualeni 2014). We argue, however, that there is no reason why the influences and the benefits of such technologies should be contained solely within the limits of our species. We share our anthropic world with animals and we are already arguably affecting their lives with technology in many ways.” (p. 1). If research points to new interface technologies and encounters as an important way to destabilize anthropocentric design in audio-visual media, would then a new coding syntax need to be developed to help programmers think past the logic processes of the existing machines.

Useful Quotes

“Our approach serves to better design playful artefacts (video games among them) that take the animal’s reactions and preferences into account in the research phase, the conceptualization phase, and the iteration phase of the design process.” (p. 1)

“The design and development of Felino is not only informed by advancements in the field of ACI, but is first and foremost a critical artefact that materializes our philosophical approach, making it an object for critical evaluation” (p. 1)

“Our approach involves the animal in the design process and regards physical ‘play’ as a free and voluntary activity that is pre-cultural and shared by both animals and humans (Westerlaken & Gualeni 2013).” (p. 2)

“An approach combining philosophical anthropology and biohermeneutics helped us adopt more aware perspectives on how to understand and evaluate the animal’s presence, its interactive capabilities in relation with the digital medium, and its response to aesthetical stimuli. It also made us more aware of our biases, our design process and several aspects of our own (to an extent inevitable) human perspective.” (p. 2)

“Rather than a game with structured rules and objectives, it aligns more to the tradition of digital toys, allowing both the human and the cat to experiment with the mechanics of the game and adapt the interaction to the on-going, shared and mutually constitutive activity of ‘play’ (Gualeni 2014).” (p. 3)

“Helmuth Plessner’s theory of positionality was helpful to gain insights in the differences between humans and animals in terms of their operational autonomy and their possibilities to establish relationships with themselves and with the world” (p. 4)

“Even though humans and animals perceive their environment in a different manner, one among the activities in which humans and animals share a degree of mutual understanding and analogue responses to signs, cues, and behaviours is physical ‘play’. Physical ‘play’ is a voluntary activity that is observed in many mammals and is recognizable by some revelatory behavioural patterns and indexical signs (Burghardt 2006). Its recognisability, on top of its being already pursued as an interspecies activity, made physical ‘play’ a suitable context for interspecies research in the field of ACI with the purpose of finding a more compromising and animal-inclusive approach for the design of technological artefacts aimed at mediating human-animal interaction.” (p. 5)

“Our research proposes the activity of ‘play’ as the context where humans and animals can ‘goalong’ and understand each other through the interpretation of bodily movements and playful signals” (p. 5)

“This conception is different from a psychological understanding of an intention or an understanding of the meaning of a signal or gesture, but it is rather an understanding in the immediate bodily interaction (De Mul 2013). Even though there is no ability to interact with the animal on a linguistic level, or to imagine what is going on in the animal’s mind, the signs, cues, and behaviour both before and during the interaction, make clear what the meaning and purpose of the dog’s behaviour are (De Mul 2013).” (p. 6)

“In that paper, Mancini et al. describe how one of the three kinds of communication signs as identified in the theoretical work of Charles Sanders Peirce (who divided them into ‘symbols’, ‘icons’, and ‘indices’ depending on their semiotic functions) is specifically suitable for trans-species interaction. Where ‘symbols’ and ‘icons’ are merely abstract signs and require linguistic abilities in order to be decoded, ‘indices’ are directly and physically grounded in a bodily relationship with the world and other beings and thus neither preclude nor require shared mental or linguistic abilities (Peirce 1931-35; Mancini et al. 2012). In other words, if we are able to interpret an animal’s semiotic processes on the level of understanding their indexical signs, we can connect meaning to them in the context of human-animal interaction.” (p. 6)

“we noticed that technical artefacts aimed at interspecies interaction often adopted design principles that were invariably focused on the human perception and rationalization of the interaction. Furthermore, even though these artefacts are deliberately created with the purpose of engaging animals and providing more enriching bodily and mental stimulations, their design decisions are often based on anthropomorphic interpretations of their preferences and behaviour.” (p. 6)

“Another important philosophically-entrenched aspect of how we tied in theoretical work and practical design is the decision to approach the iterative part of the design of digitally-mediated playful experiences with the additional tool of Grounded Theory (GT).” (p. 7)

“Even though both the human and the cat have a fundamentally different perception of their environment, we wanted to create a playful artefact that facilitates mutual understanding and meaningful interaction between the human and the animal.” (p. 8)

“However, the existing games have an overly human focus and are not aligned to the cat’s perceptions and understandings. For example, they often include scoring mechanics, game objectives that involve time pressure, and they sometimes lack visual or auditory feedback. Next to this, these games often offer no progression and their mechanics are highly repetitive.” (p. 8)

“Not only does the game aim at the entertainment of domestic animals or at the enrichment of their living environment, but it serves as an artefact that plays a central role in mediating the interaction between the human and the cat by putting both the human and the animal in control of how ‘play’ unfolds. This allows the human to interact with the cat according to the theory of ‘going-along’” (p. 8)

“By using virtual controls placed at the bottom of the screen, the human player can alter game attributes, such as the size and speed of the fish, and regulate the movements of in-game objects in order to align the game to the specific preferences of the cat in real time, interpreted as the activity of ‘play’ develops.” (p. 9)

” By collecting these spheres, other small crabs are created behind the main one, generating a trail that the cat will be able to interact with (see Figure 5).In other words, the interactions of the cat with the game generate resources for the human to collect, which creates a gameplay loop in which both the cat and the human can simultaneously participate. As human developers, we tried to design a game that adheres to the sensory perceptions and playful behaviour of the cat. This means that rather than including conventional mechanics such as time pressure, high scores, or game-over states, we based our design decisions on our interpretation of available animal research regarding for example the eyesight, colour perception, and playful behaviour, of cats. We also decided to avoid human interface elements that could interfere with the cat’s gameplay, such as introduction menus, textual explanations, or buttons that could unintentionally be operated by the cat.” (p. 9)

“During the design process of Felino we aimed at continuously and critically reflecting upon our design perspectives and iteration processes in order to include the philosophical perspectives that we theoretically explored in our research phase and put them into practice. In this sense, materializing our biases and objectifying our theoretical framework, we embraced the development of Felino as an example of ‘critical making’.” (p. 10)

“The design of Felino is unique in the sense that rather than a game with structured rules and objectives, it allows both the human and the cat to experiment with the mechanics of the game and adapt the interaction to the on-going experience of the players. Furthermore, the game is designed according to our existing understanding of the sensory perceptions and playful behaviour of domestic cats.” (p. 11)

Further Reading

Burghardt, G. M. (2006). The genesis of animal play. Testing the limits. London: MIT Press.

Gualeni, S. (2014). ‘Augmented Ontologies; or, How to Philosophize with a Digital Hammer’. Journal article on Springer’s Philosophy of Technology. Ed. Luciano Floridi, Vol. 26, N. 2, 177-199.

Lamers, M. H., & Van Eck, W. (2012). ‘Why simulate? Hybrid biological-digital games’. Applications of Evolutionary Computation Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer, 7248, 214-223.

Westerlaken, M., & Gualeni, S. (2014). ‘Grounded zoomorphism: An evaluation methodology for ACI design’. Proceedings ACE’14 Workshop on Animal Human Computer Interaction, ACM Press



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