I was taken on a drive around Waltham this morning. It seems a pleasant enough town. I saw no horrors, no drug-testing laboratories, no factory farms, no abattoirs. Yet I am sure they are here. They must be. They simply do not advertise themselves. They are all around us as we speak, only we do not, in a certain sense, know about them. – J. M. Coetzee, “The Lives of Animals”
Even in our current age of urbanisation, environmental destruction and mass species extinction, non-human animals are a pivotal part of our lives. We use them for food, clothing, product testing and various fields of research. We use them for daily entertainment, watching cute animal videos on YouTube, and for comfort and companionship, keeping them as pets. We anthropomorphise them in cartoons for our children. Scientists, philosophers and animal welfare activists spend their lives thinking about animals. They are used as categories to help cognitive processes: animals, as Claude Lévi-Strauss said, “are good to think (with)”. We use them in our everyday language in metaphors or similes like “she’s a pig” or “he was treated like a dog”.
That is now. In the pre-industrial past of the Western world (which wasn’t that long ago), animals were ubiquitous even in the largest cities and lived in close proximity to humans. Cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats etc. roamed the streets more or less unsupervised, causing trouble reflected in extant texts. Pigs were said to attack and even kill children in the streets. “Traffic” accidents caused by riders on horseback were common. Some of the most popular forms of entertainment involved animal cruelty, such as cock fighting or bear baiting. Animals represented powerful families in heraldry. Opulent animal books, the bestiaries, straddled the lines between nascent “science”, religious edification and entertainment; a kind of luxurious edutainment of the middle ages. Animals have also been integral to the human imaginings of the world order. Devils and demons were believed to disguise themselves as animals and walk with witches as familiars. And further back, in ancient myths, gods and spirits interacted with humans in the form of animals. Animals are and have been pivotal to our lives and our history.
However, they are too frequently marginalised to the point of invisibility. This is especially true of the digital realm and video games. Most games suggest worlds that are similar to ours in many respects. There are human or humanoid beings. There are environments that are inspired by real spaces like cities, oceans, deserts etc. There are laws of physics that are at least reminiscent of ours. Games play with aspects of our world – they stretch, bend or omit – but they cannot escape them entirely. Even extremely abstract games such as Super Hexagon use physical concepts to let us know what to do; that our abstract shape shouldn’t collide with other forms that approach with high-speed is intuitively graspable, even if the game doesn’t project a ‘world’ per se.
Most games, however, do project worlds, and these worlds are not uncommonly devoid of animal life. In many cases, this isn’t very surprising. If you’re traveling through space exploring or dogfighting, you won’t be expecting to see birds when looking out of your cockpit. Even if you’re walking down a street in a digital simulacra of a modern city, you’d be surprised if you saw more than pigeons, and perhaps a dog or a cat. In that case, the lack of animals can be seen as nothing more than an innocent reflection of our real world’s tendency to push animals to the margins and into oblivion. Or it could be interpreted as something more insidious, namely an uncritical perpetuation and normalisation of the symbolic annihilation of non-human creatures.
Simulating Life Without Animals
Cities: Skylines by Colossal Order and Paradox Interactive is a compelling and intricate city-builder. It simulates and lets you keep track of a wide spectrum of interlocking issues: traffic flow, health, economy, crime rates and education among others. It is not a simple game. Neither is it a flaccid one; to borrow Ian Bogost’s terminology, Skylines uses procedural rhetoric to make arguments about our world. Notably, the game acknowledges the danger of environmental pollution through its systems. Progress, expansion and industry all come at a price that will impact the lives of your citizens, potentially killing them. You cannot build a metropolis without worrying about ecological impact. If you zoom out to admire your creation, you will see not only idyllic parks and shiny skyscrapers, but also the heavy, filthy-looking smoke of pollution that visibly infests the sky, the ground, the water; a necessary blemish in your paradise.
There are animals in the cities of Skylines. You’ll see a handful of cows and pigs in your agricultural districts. If you look very carefully, you might see dogs or birds. You can hear them too. But they are scattered among hundreds or thousands of humans, and outside of your city, the fields, hills, forests and waters are empty and lifeless. But take them all out, and it will make no real difference: animals are completely absent from the simulation and its systems, statistics and affordances. I know that there are 101,490 people in my city. I know that 49,398 are employed, that 19% are young adults. I know that there are 481 births and 387 deaths per week. I even know whether they are happy or not.
I don’t know how many cows and pigs there are on my farms, or how many pets my citizens keep. I don’t know how many animals are born and slaughtered per week for food. I don’t know whether they feel content on the farms before they are killed. And all of this information would be pointless anyway, since the simulation doesn’t account for any of it. There are no concerned citizens clamouring for humane treatment of farm animals or for the protection of animals in forests and oceans, and no way for the player to, for example, issue policies to regulate these things. You can decree that certain districts need to install fire detectors in every building at a certain cost, but you cannot tell your agricultural districts to ensure enough space for animals, to only employ humane ways of slaughter, or even to produce vegetarian food exclusively. Ironically, the only policy concerning animals is a “Pet Ban” with the description:
Tired of watching your step to avoid animal droppings? Banning pets is a sure way to get rid of that problem. Then again, you might be killing a fly with a sledgehammer here.
- Slightly reduces garbage accumulation
- Slightly decreased happiness
The concern for animal droppings seems so trivial in comparison to other animal issues, and its effects on the simulation so minuscule, that it only serves to remind you how strangely inconsequential and invisible a role all non-human species play.
So when I play Cities: Skylines I sometimes look at ‘empty’ land, untouched forests and the oceans, and wondered how many animal inhabitants will be endangered by my construction of apartments, harbours, streets and facilities for the lumber industry. I look at my city and wonder why there are no animal shelters for stray dogs or cats. I look at my many universities and I imagine animal testing going on somewhere inside. I look at my agricultural districts and speculate whether these buildings that are closed to me are horrendous factory farms or not, or what happens to the polluting waste consisting of animal faeces and body parts ‘produced’ by such places. I look at the happiness statistics of my citizens and ask myself whether they’d be as happy as they are if my magic city-building cursor could lift the roofs off of these farms and factories to reveal what’s inside for everyone to see.
Skylines is a highly anthropocentric simulation, but no more than most other games. Its myopic focus isn’t surprising or uncommon, and it’s therefore hard, perhaps even unfair, to judge it harshly. After all, it only reflects our reality, and it is true that many real people care as little about animals as the citizens of Skylines. It is also true that cities do in fact marginalise animals and push them away. However: at the same time, it helps upholding the lies and myths humans tell themselves and others to justify cruelty and indifference towards animals. It encourages wilful ignorance and thoughtlessness with regard to other living beings. It plays into the hands of those who profit from animal abuse and build the walls of factories around it to keep the pain and filth hidden from casual, uninterested glances. In the end, these lies and little acts of ignorance enslave and threaten not only animals, but humans as well.