When Lions Speak: Representations of Non-Human Avatars in Digital Games

In recent years, the field of Animal Studies has emerged to interrogate the ways in which people understand, relate to, and represent other species. This discipline has already begun to explore the treatment of animals in literature and philosophy. But what about videogames? When we play a game where the avatar is a non-human animal, how is this experience of otherness represented, if at all? This paper will take two games in particular, Might and Delight’s Shelter and Maxis’s Spore, as case studies in order to examine the ways in which digital games typically reinscribe a logocentric framework that posits animal ontology as inferior.

This framework has a long history in the Western philosophical tradition, and finds one of its most coherent articulations in the work of René Descartes. Descartes locates the center of human subjectivity in the possession of a rational mind, encapsulated in his famous statement “I think, therefore I am” (Discourse on the Method, 17). In denying this same capacity of reason in other life-forms, Descartes also deprives them of subjectivity, individuality, and, therefore, the rights of individuals. This line of reasoning leads him to claim that people are “absolve[d] from the suspicion of crime when they eat or kill animals” (“Letter to the Marquess,” 62).

While it is unlikely that either Might and Delight or Maxis are deliberately drawing on the theories of Descartes, the lack of nuance with which they treat their animal avatars leads these developers to both reflect and reinforce this problematic traditional representation of non-human animals. The ways in which the facets of this paradigm are reflected in these digital games are multiple and diverse, but some of the most prominent are the emphasis on visual perception, the lack of individual differentiation between members of the animal species, the symbolization of the avatar, and the use of traditional control schemes. It is important to note, however, that the anthropocentric approach to the relationship between humans and animals has not gone unchallenged. In particular, over the past 50 years, there has been concerted effort from thinkers working with diverse methodologies to challenge the traditional framing of this relationship, eventually leading to the development of Animal Studies as its own discourse. In my critique of Descartes and of Shelter and Spore, I will draw primarily from the Continental tradition of Animal Studies, especially Jacques Derrida, but also Giorgio Agamben, Cary Wolfe, and Brian Massumi.

Rather than simply using these theorists to inform my critique, however, I will also draw on their theories to suggest possible alternative approaches that would bring a different ideological framework to the representation of non-human animals as game avatars. Furthermore, I will look at how various developers have taken different approaches to gameplay in general that may also indicate avenues of exploration, from the anti-logocentrism of QWOP to the responsive, non-conflictual environment of Proteus.

A version of this paper was presented at the Games and Literary Theory conference, held at Loyola University in New Orleans. An expanded and revised version will be presented at DiGRA 2016 at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland.