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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Games Pigs (and Primates) Play

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 13, 2012

The notion of Dutch pig farmers being obliged to hang around devising ways to entertain their pigs sounds like something out of Orwell, or maybe PETA’s Kafkaesque vision of hell for factory farmers.  You can imagine some poor guy in overalls doing his best standup routine (“Two pigs and a priest walked into a bar …”), only to have the displeased or merely bored pigs declare, “We are not amused,” followed by 30 days in a box cage.

But according to a recent press release from The Netherlands:

Since 2001, European legislation has made it compulsory for pig farmers to provide entertainment in the pens to combat boredom, aggression and tail biting amongst pigs, which will hopefully eliminate the need for routine tail-docking. Farmers have been experimenting with all kinds of materials and games, but in practice it proves difficult to provide the animals with an adequate challenge.

And now, to the rescue, just as the impatient pigs are about to declare “Off with their heads,” come the amusing folks at the Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU) and Wageningen University and Research Centre, with a computer game that allows pigs and people to play together. “Pig Chase” employs what looks like a huge widescreen tv in the rearing pen with light effects that enable the pigs to interact with a human player, who uses an iPad.  The press release continues:

Not just people but also pigs like to play. It was already known that pigs are capable of mastering a simple computer game, for example. The innovative aspect of this research is the idea of getting people and pigs gaming together. Thereby they might offer each other an exciting challenge.

Over the past year, designers Kars Alfrink, Irene van Peer and Hein Lagerweij — who are affiliated with the HKU research group Creative Design for Playful Impact –the philosopher Clemens Driessen from Wageningen University and animal welfare specialist Marc Bracke from Wageningen UR Livestock Research have been working on a computer game for pigs. Their aim is to fulfil the pigsʼ need to play, and find out whether a different relationship can be founded with humans.Pig farmers and their pigs have also been closely involved in the design process.
This means they have been helping to create the game by reacting more or less
enthusiastically to gaming elements in the test phase. The farmers were charmed by the video images to be projected on the wall. The designers then found out that the pigs were also interested in light effects and followed them with their snout. On this basis, they made a video sketch presenting the set-up of the game. The game is called ʻPig Chaseʼ. The human players in the game can steer a light effect on the wall of the pen. The idea is to capture the curious pigsʼ attention and move the light towards targets.
The current game, Pig Chase, is primarily intended as a concept to be elaborated
upon to produce various versions. The value of the game as entertainment for pigs is unclear as yet.  Clemens Driessenʼs research, which is part of the NWO programme ʻEthics, Research and Managementʼ, focuses on ways in which the development of new technology can be used to increase the depth of societal debates on animal farming issues. Moral views on animal welfare, for example, can change over the course of time, partly under the influence of new technology. A computer game provides a playful way of finding out what is interesting entertainment for pigs and the role people can play in that respect. Could this be a way of improving pig welfare?
The field of human and animal interaction by means of information technology is in its early stages worldwide, but it provides opportunities for forging relationships with animals in new ways, while learning new things about the cognitive capacities of both animals and people.

You can watch the video sketch here

 

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