Human beings can be pretty terrible towards animals. We make them fight for our amusement, hunt them, force them into battery farms and abandon them on roadsides. In video games we are no more kind to our furry friends, and often animals become part of the training before facing the real challenge. One of the most recent instances of this was in the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, in which Lara Croft shoots an arrow into a deer, apparently in order to survive. Yet while the cutscene shows how seemingly difficult it was, physically and morally, to kill the animal, the video game’s mechanics tell a different story: as Lara, the player can happily shoot as many animals as they like – not for survival, as the necessity for food is never brought up again – predominantly for extraneous experience or achievements, as the game encourages you to kill mostly defenseless animals:
In an interview with Game Informer, Brian Horton said that Rise of the Tomb Raider will continue this theme. “‘In the last game, we had a lot of narrative wrapped around hunting a deer,’ Horton said. ‘This time, it’s more of a system. It really works into our upgrade system.'” This is by far not the only game that depicts animals in this way, uses them as achievements, nor as a means to an upgrade system; Overlord 2 has an achievement for killing baby seals, and the reboot of Alone in the Dark has an achievement for shooting goldfish. It is because of gameplay mechanics, and awards such as these, that animals in video games usually fall into one of two categories: ‘Animal as Enemy’, or ‘Animal as Utility’.
For a game to have animals fall under the ‘Enemy’ category, the animals must exist primarily as something to be defeated. Borderlands, Dragon Age, Shadow of Mordor, the Mario franchise all have beasts act as a relatively easy obstacle throughout their worlds. In contrast, games like Tomb Raider, Skyrim, Don’t Starve and Far Cry have animals exist to be killed in order to gain tools or resources; the necessity of blasting fireballs at rabbits in Skyrim is negligible for its reward, and is rather cruel too. Even Pokémon, despite its message of friendship, has battling at the centre of its socio-political society, its in-game economy, and even offers an alternative in Pokémon Black and White, where the character N trains Pokémon without using Pokéballs.
What is more notable, and more distressing, about being encouraged to kill animals in video games is that animals are inherently innocent. They have no allegiance to morality, no sense of right or wrong, and as such dispatching them in the violent ways that video games encourage seems at best, unfair, and at worst, brutal. Looking back at Tomb Raider again, while there is mention of the antagonists using trained wolves to attack the player, the wild animals only attack the player. Despite how stealthily you might be playing the game, wolves will not disturb the shotgun-wielding cult, but rather will attack the young woman hiding in the shadows. While under the surface both humans and animals have the same motivations for attacking Lara Croft – both species being ultimately nothing more than lines of code – the fact that they are made to look different means that they are different creatures. Moreover, an antagonistic human being, with a moral compass and the ability to defend themselves, is much more of a threat and will always be a greater, more rewarding challenge to overcome, simply because they can conceive the concept of mens rea. There’s a reason that human beings are ‘the most dangerous game’. That said, there are some games that do achieve this better than others; the wild animals in Skyrim or Shadow of Mordor are indiscriminate in attacking the player or NPCs, making them both an optional, situational ally and also a more realistic depiction of an amoral animal.
Video games have faced these criticisms before, most notoriously from the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who offer alternative arguments to how animals are used in video games through parody video games. Pokémon Black and Blue (2012) has a sympathetic Nurse Joy explain that Pokémon “must surely suffer terribly when they are … forced to fight”; Pokémon vs. McDonald’s (2013) depicts a McDonald’s customer that attempts to eat Pikachu and Miltank that have escaped the abusive Hamburger; and Mario Kills Tanooki (2011) is centred around a skinned but living raccoon dog that chases Mario to retrieve its fur. PETA’s video games were not particularly well received; the idea that Mario fans would be encouraged to kill raccoon dogs based on Nintendo’s gameplay was deemed a “ludicrous” stretch of logic, and Erik Kain argued that PETA’s neglect to address video games that are based on hunting, such as Duck Hunt or Big Game Hunter, destabilises their moral stand. However, because of my arguments above, it does seem that PETA has a point: video games do treat animals particularly poorly, and in a manner that can only be called ‘speciesist’.
‘Speciesism’ is a notion that arose in the 1970s from the moral philosopher Peter Singer. In his book Animal Liberation, he defined the term as:
“a prejudice or bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species”
Similar to racism and sexism, speciesism gives human beings superior rights over non-human animals, usually based on arguments of intelligence or self-awareness. However, should someone suggest replacing animal testing with testing on humans that have inferior mental functions in comparison to a dog, for example, most people would react negatively. The arguments that human beings use to justify actions against animals do not hold up when the roles are reversed, and are as such ‘prejudices’ – accepting a lower standard of evidence for an argument which you would otherwise reject were it applied to someone of your sex, race, or in this case, species. This is also a suitable criticism of PETA’s video games, whose own video games, as Jessica Conduit argued:
demonstrate … that while it’s terrible to punch, kick, cut or hit fictional animals with bats, it’s perfectly acceptable to electrocute humans.
And yet, there is a category of animals in video games that are not treated by the game with a speciesist attitude, because they are the game. Franchises like Animal Crossing, Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, Star Fox, Sly Cooper, Donkey Kong, or characters like the Khajiit in The Elder Scrolls games, offer a retort to the speciesist argument because those characters are not, strictly speaking, animals. They are anthropomorphised into ‘people’.
Shelley Kagan, the Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale, makes a similar argument against speciesism in relation to superheroes. Kagan argues that, in a fight between Lex Luthor and Superman, most people would support Superman despite him being from the planet Krypton, and not of the species homo sapien. Instead, the audience to this battle imbues Superman with the qualities of a human being that make him a ‘person’: intelligence relative to our own, or a sense of morality, assisted by certain physical features – his two arms, two legs, two eyes, and so on. This ‘personhood’ is what allows us to relate to the bestial character when playing as Shadow the Hedgehog or talking to one of your canine neighbours in Animal Crossing. Even playing games where the animals are not anthropomorphised, such as Frogger or the two games from the Shelter franchise in which the player controls a mother badger and lynx, there is an inherent sense of personhood due to the fact that the animals are behaving, within in the limits of the video game, as a human would – we know this because it is a human being controlling the animal’s choices.
Nevertheless, in spite of this style of video game, there are still many in which animals are treated as items, or easily-defeated enemies, when pitted against the human player. Much like racism and sexism in video games (and in media in general), speciesism is a prejudice that needs to be addressed for video games to mature as an art form.