The Digital Lives of Animals, Part I: Invisible Creatures


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”

At any given time, there are about 1.5 billion “pieces” of cattle, 1 billion pigs, and 13 billion chickens in the world.

In 2014, 9.1 billion land animals were killed in the U.S. alone. That’s 1 million per hour, or 300 per second.

According to very rough estimates, there are about 500 million dogs worldwide, both domesticated and wild.

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.

Aliens and Animals

XCOM 2 is similarly disinterested in animals. Apart from birds flying by, there are no cows on rural maps, no deer in the forests, no stray dogs wandering about. The only reference to animals that I saw in my play-through of the game was a character wondering where the meat for the Advent Burgers comes from since they hadn’t seen a cow in a long time. And perhaps this disinterest is even less surprising than it was in City: Skylines. After all, what possible benefit could the inclusion of animal characters have in a military tactics game? And wouldn’t we have more urgent issues to worry about in the face of alien domination and the threat of total human enslavement and even extinction? Still, it felt strange to act as the one and only Defender of Earth when the game pretended that we are the only inhabitants of this planet – or at least the only sentient ones, if we include the trees we blow to pieces during firefights. Are most animals extinct, as is suggested by the Advent Burger comment and the absence of animals? Why? Were they purposefully exterminated or somehow ‘consumed’ by the aliens? Or was their disappearance a consequence of some ecological crisis caused by the alien invasion? And if we manage to win back a world that is a desolate graveyard of a planet, wouldn’t the celebration of our victory ring hollow?

There could be a multitude of ways to subtly remind us that the aliens aren’t the only co-inhabitant on this planet, or, if there are no animals left, to show us how they suffered alongside human beings. A dog that can be ‘equipped’ by a soldier and acts similar to a Gremlin drone. A frantic deer caught in a firefight, trying to escape. The desolate remains of a slaughterhouse on a battlefield. Or perhaps the aliens kill animals in their experiments, and you are tasked to extract endangered animals from a lab. If you fail, you’ll have to face elephant-muton hybrids, or other disturbing animal-alien Frankenstein monsters. If they’re doing the same to humans, why not to other animals as well?

The physical absence of animals is especially ironic because it can also be argued that they are ‘present’ in a more abstract form, namely in the way power relations are portrayed. Clearly, the alien invaders’ main crime – and the one that is discussed ad nauseam in dialogues – is that the aliens treat humans like humans treat animals.

Even though their regime at first glance resembles a totalitarian dictatorship, the role the average human plays is less that of a disenfranchised citizen than that of cattle. They are herded to their deaths and refined into products that benefit only those who set up the system. And just as significantly, almost all humans are utterly oblivious to this fact, which mirrors cattle’s inability to understand what is going to happen to them as well as the willing ignorance of humans in the face of pseudo-invisible horrors. We didn’t know how badly animals suffer in factory farms. We didn’t know that the Nazis were killing human beings by the millions in concentration camps. Like so many films or books about diverse horrors such as cannibalism or mass killings, XCOM 2 expresses humanity’s worst nightmare: to be treated in the same way we treat animals.

In a way then, humanity in XCOM 2 has taken over the symbolic role of the animal. And paradoxically, this might be a subconscious reason why animals had to be absent from the equation. In order to keep troubling issues invisible and unspoken as is usual in our society, humans cannot join animals in their suffering, but must displace them instead, thereby pretending that their position is unique in its horror and injustice. After all, the mere presence of animals might question the black-white ideology that depicts aliens as monsters, and humans as both victims and heroes. Also, while humanity as a whole is cattle-like, you as the commander of XCOM and your soldiers are certainly not. You may be depicted as victims, but you can never be like an animal. Your soldiers triumph as heroes or die as martyrs. The procedural language of the game does not allow them to be slaughtered ‘like animals’.

The position of the heroic commander, isolated in a mobile base flying over a globe devoid of animal life, distanced even from the cattle-like masses of indoctrinated humans, disallows the player to develop any real empathy. In that respect, despite a similar scenario, XCOM 2 is the polar opposite of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, in which the tragic irony of the situation is driven home again and again:

I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away.

Strangest in this, that so soon as dawn had come, I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding place--a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God. Surely, if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity--pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.

XCOM 2, City: Skylines and the thousands of other games that make animals invisible are not sinister as individual works. There is no malice, and there’s certainly no conspiracy or secret agenda. Rather, it is simple and understandable thoughtlessness when it comes to other species that has been taught to and internalised by most of us. The problem arises if this thoughtlessness becomes so systemic and routine that we don’t even recognise it; if we don’t see what we’re not seeing; if the invisibility of animals has become invisible to us.

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