I'm a vegan, but no, you're not reading Munchies. I feel as strongly about my food diet as I do my gaming one – but I don't bring either of them up at dinner parties. Unless someone tries to sass me, and ends up with egg on their face, both literally and figuratively. Anyway, it's obvious that animals and games go together. Look at the canine companions in Fable and Fallout titles, the popularity of Goat Simulator, or everyone on Twitter losing their shit over Neko Atsume.
But here's something you might not expect: sensational vegan activism actually goes together perfectly with gaming too, like BBQ tempeh steak and a bottle of claret. At least, this is what PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) have discovered, due to the incredible popularity of their awesome parody games, such as Pokémon Black & Blue, Mario Kills Tanooki and Breasts, Not Animal Tests. The animal rights organisation's most recent game, Kitten Squad, is one that you can play, for free, on your PS4 right now.
"We launched Super Tofu Boy on December 1st, 2010," says Joel Bartlett, Vice President of Marketing for PETA US. "In the three months following its launch, Super Tofu Boy was played more than 1.7 million times." "Holy Shit, Peta made a Tofu parody game of Super Meat Boy. My dreams have come true!" tweeted Ed McMillen, one of the original game's creators, before adding a playable Tofu Boy to the real Super Meat Boy. (And whether that was in repentant solidarity or a fit of pique doesn't really matter.)
This kind of success, both in terms of traffic and games industry engagement, is hardly a flash in the pan. PETA's Cooking Mama parody, Mama Kills Animals, is still the third-most visited of their pages, serving up satirical slaughter more than 1.4 million times. And not only did the unauthorised game not provoke the wrath of the Cooking Mama series' corporate publisher Majesco Entertainment, the company loved it. Well, they used it to their advantage, at least.
In response to Mama Kills Animals, Majesco issued the kind of (admittedly incoming product-supporting) public statement that other massive publishers wouldn't dream of circulating: "While Mama is not a vegetarian, she fully supports the humane treatment of animals, particularly for her canine protégé Max who makes his doggie debut in World Kitchen." Majesco even pulled Mama from the kitchen to get her thoughts on the matter: "I would never put rat in my ratatouille," said the fictional cook, in a bizarre but kind of inspired piece of misdirection. But this speaks volumes about the place of love, for animals and for games, that PETA is actually coming from.
"We know that we need to make games that can stand on their own as quality, entertaining experiences," Bartlett continues. "It's valuable to build rapport with the game-makers themselves, so that when you communicate serious messages, they're more likely not only to be heard but also to be acted upon."
The quality of PETA's games can be seen in their production values, and how they play out: generally funny as hell while simultaneously delivering serious truth bombs. From Pikachu telling a Mudkip he rescues, "I believe all pokémon should be treated with respect… even Mudkips," to the OTT guts and gore of Mama stuffing a turkey, there's a definite self-reflexiveness to it all, and it hits the sweet spot.
As a result, "regular" game studios are taking notice. "We've made six games with the company ThisIsPop.com, the devs who make some of the Adult Swim games," Bartlett says. Kitten Squad was created in partnership with experimental designer Luc Bernard. All the PETA games are scripted by Bartlett himself.
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While sugar coating the message with humour and genuinely fun game mechanics is important, PETA's focus is on animal welfare, and it's important that their games don't lose sight of that. But the question is: do gamers actually care? Are they playing these short fixes of interactive entertainment and coming away with their opinions changed? "It's always a challenge to promote a serious message to our tabloid-filled and entertainment-focused society," Bartlett admits. "But what other vehicle could we use to communicate a serious message that keeps you engaged for 30 minutes?"
PETA has plans to collaborate further with the traditional games industry, and hopes to influence studios to think twice about how they're depicting the suffering of animals. "We're happy with our current role of acting as a kind of animal ombudsman," Bartlett states. "Games can do so many wonderful things. But they don't need to depict gratuitous animal abuse."
This kind of thing is endemic in modern games, often slipping by under the cover of humour or mechanics. Take the whaling in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag – "It's been estimated that for every animal a hunter kills and retrieves, at least two wounded animals die slowly from blood loss, infection, or starvation," Barratt tells me. The forthcoming Far Cry Primal invites the player to hunt and kill mammoths, and or the hilarious looking (but also incredibly disturbing, really) Thunderdome pits chainsaw-wielding bears against one another in cages.
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Despite video games letting you do awful things to human limbs, and your protagonist occasionally being able to turn a rotting marmot into a shiny new holster, actual animal cruelty is rarely used as a backdrop in "serious" games. So what would be the ideal, gritty, triple-A alternative to PETA's Pokémon parody, Black & Blue? Or its equivalent of Call of Duty's infamous "No Russian" level?
"A realistically portrayed slaughterhouse – complete with animals being shackled and hoisted up into the air, having their throats cut and being bled out, often while they're still conscious," would do the job, apparently. Imagine the impact that could have in a big-selling release: "It could lead to a huge spike in orders for PETA's vegan starter kit," Barratt says. And a few more people turning vegan might not be a bad thing, considering the world's cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the calorie requirements of 8.7 billion people. That's more than the entire human population of the Earth.
So the next time you squee over a cute or badass animal in a game, spare a thought for the real ones. You might not be in a hurry to swap DOTA for PETA, but the group is taking all the right steps to making increasingly enjoyable and more sophisticated games built upon very relevant issues. And that's something plenty of games trying to elicit crocodile tears could learn from.
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