Designing games for pigs (and humans!): Interview with team behind the “Playing with Pigs” project

Pigs follow light (that humans move via tablet device) with their snouts on a touch-sensitive screen. If the pigs and humans move the ball through a goal triangle, it triggers fireworks.

By Yvette Wohn

Recently, researchers reported that they developed a game that humans can play with pigs (see their website for more details on the game “Pig Chase” and the larger project “Playing with Pigs”). To play this interspecies game, humans move a ball of light on a tablet computer while pigs chase lights on a corresponding screen in their pigpen with their snout. To learn more about the people behind this fascinating project, Play As Life interviewed scholars working on the project.

Question: I understand that the novel component is the use of a game played by both humans and pigs. What is the importance of having the pigs play with humans? (Why can’t they just play with the computer…or other pigs?)

Kars Alfrink: The practical reason for this is that we think humans can provide a continuously varying form of entertainment for pigs, who are bored very quickly. A more philosophical reason is that we are interested in using play to transform the relationship between pigs and humans.

Clemens Driessen: The way we relate to animals in our society tends to be strictly defined by them being considered either food, a pet, wild, or something to test medicines on. What we wanted to explore with this design project is whether this is necessarily so, or that more ambivalent types of relations could be meaningful as well.

Question: Do the farmers have time to “play” with the pigs? Can anyone in a remote location with an iPad play with the pigs?

Kars Alfrink: The game is meant for the general public. As shown in the video, humans can play from a remote location (i.e. a cafe) using an iPad. Farmers are busy enough as it is, we don’t presume they have time to play.

Question: We have traditionally not used technology to entertain pigs. Why is it now that entertaining pigs is important?

Clemens Driessen, researcher and applied philosopher, Wageningen University

Clemens Driessen: Since 2001 there is an EU directive requiring that: “… pigs must have permanent access to a sufficient quantity of material to enable proper investigation and manipulation activities ….” (EC directive 2001/93/EC; Art.4). But already before this date pig farmers have been concerned with aggressive behaviour amongst pigs, which leads to the animals damaging each other and makes the farmers preventively cut off their curly tails.

Calls to improve conditions for farm animals have been growing louder for decades now. After the EU wide ban on battery cages for laying hens and veal crates for calves, many expect the next requirement to be to stop bodily mutilation of animals such as ‘debeaking’ of chickens and cutting the teeth and tails of pigs. This all means there is a growing interest in developing ways to entertain animals in ways that are meaningful enough to stop them from hurting each other. Perhaps a better solution would be to let them go outside or at least increase the space they have to live in. Most people concerned with animal welfare tend to think in terms of an ideal of naturalness, which often means letting them forage outside or give them some straw to munch on. What we wanted to explore here is whether we can develop more high-tech environments that would cater to the exploration and play needs of pigs. This offers an opportunity to find out what these animals that were domesticated thousands of years ago could be capable of.

Question: What are your personal moral views on animal welfare?

Kars Alfrink: My personal view is that it is important to limit animal suffering (without going so far as to abstain from eating meat). I try to be conscious about the kinds of meat I purchase, and limit my meat consumption. I am willing to pay a higher price for meat that is produced in an animal friendly way.

Question: What do you think are the potential of games to increase pigs’ cognitive abilities? Do you think a situation like that in the novel Animal Farm is something that is probable in the future?

Clemens Driessen: I had a conversation with a thirteen year old avid gamer last year about this project, and he confessed he was a bit worried that pigs would become smarter than humans and might take over the world. What is interesting from many of the responses we are getting there seems to be an implicit notion of being good at computer games as a defining feature of intelligence, and even of what it means to be human. I personally don’t believe pigs when given their own i-pad will take over the world any time soon, but I do like the idea of not seeing the abilities of these animals as fixed. In their current confined conditions they already manage to learn amazing things like opening gates and cheating on their automated feeding systems, so who knows what they will reveal if given a more challenging environment.

I guess the way Orwell described pigs to be the devious and ruthless rulers in his Animal Farm novel comes across as realistic to many people’s imaginations of what pigs are like, as if these animals have a craving for world domination. Perhaps in an interactive game we can find out more about their character, this time in a setting that would make pig personalities emerge also in terms of curiousity and playfulness.

Designers Kars Alfrink, Irene van Peer and Hein Lagerweij at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands

Question: When not designing games for pigs, what kind of games do you personally enjoy?

Kars Alfrink: I personally enjoy a wide range of video games, board games and other kinds of games. My personal favorites are board games with a lot of social dynamics. Recently I have been very preoccupied with collaborative games such as Pandemic and Space Alert, but also the party game The Resistance.

Question: How important is the interactive aspect of the game? Would playing a game be different for the pigs than watching a movie?

Kars Alfrink: Watching a film and playing a game are two very different activities for humans. I believe this applies equally to pigs. Playing a game together is in a way an act of communication. It is an exploration of each other’s abilities. This is something film does not offer.

Clemens Driessen: One of the central features of what animal researcher Francoise Wemelsfelder has described as debilitating boredom for animals is the experience of a lack of control over their environment. So while some TV show might offer a bit of distraction, what we want to do in designing interaction for pigs is actually challenge their cognitive abilities and help them gain some sense of agency.

And by creating new forms of interspecies interaction we hope to also explore new ways of doing research into animal welfare. A large part of trying to define, measure and debate animal welfare involves interpreting behaviour and somehow taking the perspective of the animal. By creating a game this would allow a broad audience to participate in this type of research in an immersive and playful way.

Question: You seem to be incorporating an iterative design process based on feedback from the farmers and pigs. How do the pigs provide feedback? (One grunt for yes, two for no…?)

Kars Alfrink: As with testing designs with humans, we rely heavily on non-verbal cues. That is to say, we try to be sensitive to signs of enjoyment and base design decisions on what appears most successful.

Clemens Driessen: As it would be impossible to design something for pigs without them providing feedback in the process, it only seems right to credit them with some part of the result.

Pigs can touch an interactive screen in their pen

Clemens Driessen: Currently I am working at Utrecht University on a project in which we are exploring the possibilities to interact with fish in aquaculture. These are animals that have even less of a ‘face’ than pigs in the public mind, so if we could create some kind of meaningful interaction with them it would be thrilling. So far we have focused on the African Catfish, a pack hunter known to collaborate strategically. We hope to find ways to create a game set up in which we could collaborate across species and learn how to communicate with fish. Thereby we could develop ways to get closer to an organism living in a completely different medium.

Question: This may be a sensitive question, but do you think pigs that play games will taste different or have different nutritional values than those that don’t?

Clemens Driessen: Hard to tell, if the pigs get up and play all day they might become a bit leaner, but since domestic pigs are known to sleep a large portion of the day I don’t think it will make much of a difference. In general their taste seems mostly determined by the way they have been bred and the food they get.

Question: Can you recall an interesting or funny story related to this research?

Irene van Peer: While filming with Hein Lagerwij (shooting the footage) for the video sketch, there was this one piglet who preferred laying just in front of our view. She tucked herself nicely against the ‘screen’ blocking the field of action for the other piglets. It once again made us conscious of the differences in characters and behavior we are dealing with. As humans not everyone will be attracted to the same game.


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