Play is an important part of animal development, as with child development: animals learn to hunt and fight just as children learn to perform tasks and socialise. And as with humans, animal play isn’t just limited to learning for future survival, but is a valuable part of day-to-day wellbeing. Providing adequate mental stimulation and engagement is particularly important for captive animals, confined in relatively small environments where normal behaviour such as hunting is very limited, and with feeding and other activities subject to external schedules.
The TOUCH (Technology to Orangutans for Understanding and Communicating cross-species for greater Harmony) project, based at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design, is working on the design of digital systems to enable humans and orangutans to play games together - and, in particular, games where orangutans will almost certainly beat their human competitors. Orangutans perform particularly well on games similar to pelmanism that rely on visual memory, and will almost invariably out-perform any human challenger.
The Hong Kong orangutans aren’t the first to engage with computer games: Samatran orangutans at Zoo Atlanta have been using them for several years as researchers attempt to understand their cognitive processes in order to help plan interventions to increase the survivability of the species in the wild. Where the TOUCH project differs is in looking at games primarily as entertainment for non-humans, and as a focal point for enhancing cross-species communication and interaction.
In both projects, as in others, tangible rewards such as food or ’social praise’ from their human playmates are provided to help train the animals to play within the rules or framework of the game, but many are content to continue playing even without such rewards: game play itself is ‘inherently rewarding‘ for them. Playing within the rules, or consciously transgressing them, is fundamental to a ludological view of games: construction of the fourth wall, acceptance of the ability to only go up ladders and down snakes and the impossibility of going up snakes or down ladders, is what gives play structure and meaning. YouTube is full of wonderful clips of all kinds of animals interacting with digital games, but not playing in the sense of following rules; the actual pleasure they get from them is also debatable.
Engaging cats in digital games, either solo or with a human partner, is the focus of Cat Cat Revolution, which is exploring the development of games on the iPad to enable this. The project’s video, below, shows some varying results, but it’s clear that the game captures the attention and curiosity of the cats, in particular the youngest kitten in the study. Similarly, iPad Game for Cats, a free game with paid-for additional levels available, clearly provides great entertainment for cats of all sizes. Unlike TOUCH, which found that many of the orangutans were very happy to play purely for praise and interaction, the extent of the engagement between feline and human participants isn’t clear: while it’s obvious that the humans are getting a great deal of pleasure from playing with and watching their pets, the cats seem interested purely in the game with the human interaction being incidental (but then, they are cats ).
These studies are fascinating. Positioning animals as digital gamers, and knowing participants within multiplayer, multi-species games can enable us to learn so much more about them, ourselves, and the nature and universals of play. Most of all, improving the welfare of captive animals and potentially increasing their ability to survive in the wild through skills learned through digital play would be the greatest outcomes of all.
Of course, like kids everywhere, sometimes it’s not the game but the box it came in that provides the most entertainment