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Animal exploitation is all pervasive in video games. Not in itself a problem, this virtual exploitation is a reflection of speciesist reality. But by presenting exploitation uncritically, interactive media helps to normalize that reality.
This is not to say that, as a medium, video games are uniquely regressive or damaging. That’s an alarmist argument most often put forward by those who have little experience with video games. Film, books and music are equally anthropocentric. But I write about video games and will focus on those.
This is also not to say that the medium’s anti-animal content is a result of conscious speciesism. Video game makers and audiences create and play the games they do because they are socialized into society’s anthropocentrism, a value system so engrained it’s practically invisible. While video games play a role in this socialization, they are just one regressive influence among many.
One would be hard pressed to find a game that portrays animal exploitation while providing editorial signals the practice is problematic in its direct form, such as farming — let alone its indirect form, such as meat-eating. Uncritical representations of animal exploitation in video games are so ubiquitous that I will focus here on games in which direct exploitation is the defining element. I will highlight titles that belong to what have become genres in themselves: farming, fishing, hunting, riding, circus and zoo games.
While “pet” games are their own genre, and pet ownership is on the whole bad for animals, I will not examine these games here. The issues involved are more complicated because adopting companion animals is at the moment a progressive necessity since the non-humans in question have already been brought into existence and many will receive lethal injections if homes for them are not found.
Games centered on animal agriculture are a popular genre, of which the following are a few examples. In “Harvest Moon: A New Beginning,” released in 2012, players are encouraged to raise “livestock” who can be exploited for products such as milk, eggs, and wool. “FarmVille,” a similar 2009 social-networking game, boasted 84 million monthly users at its peak. In “Chicken Riot,” a 2010 shooter, players defend their farm with a firearm from what’s described as an “all out chicken rebellion.” “Farming Simulator,” released in 2012, attempts to portray animal agriculture in a less cartoonish way while still glorifying the institution.
The fishing genre, which boasts many titles, exemplifies the speciesism inherent in the industry’s rating system. For instance, games such as “Bass Pro Shops: The Strike,” released in 2009, “Fishing Resort,” released in 2011, “Reel Fishing Paradise 3D,” released the same year, and “Rapala Pro Bass Fishing 2010,” all received ratings of “E” for “Everyone,” the second-lowest category. One doubts titles with a similar premise, suffocating sentient beings, but in which the victims were humans, would receive the same rating.
Hunting games probably make up the most popular animal-exploitation genre. The following is a very small selection of these. “Remington Super Slam Hunting Africa,” which came out in 2010, encourages players to shoot exotic animals while on safari. “Bass Pro Shops: The Hunt,” which came out the same year, is a similar game set in North America. “In “Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts 2013,” released late last year, players kill wave after wave of what are described as “the most vicious beasts the animal kingdom has to offer.” The hunting genre is so large it’s even provoked parody in “Deer Avenger 4.” While deeply problematic in other areas, the 2001 game inverts the speciesist status-quo by imagining a buck who hunts humans.
Riding games also represent a perennial genre. “Champion Jockey: G1 Jockey and Gallop Racer,” released in 2011, encourages players to beat horses with whips to win speed competitions. “PBR: Out of the Chute,” released in 2008, places players in the role of a professional bull rider. Other titles, in which the use of non-humans as transportation is the central element, include “Horse Life,” released in 2007, and “Riding Academy 2,” released in 2010, among many others.
Developers have long viewed the circus industry as fertile ground for game making. Here are a few recent titles. “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus,” released in 2009, allows players to train animals to do performance tricks at the notoriously abusive company. In titles such as “Shrine Circus Tycoon,” released in 2004, “Circus Empire,” released in 2007, and “Circus World,” released in 2012, players take control of the entire business, including the exploitation of stage animals.
Zoo games also constitute their own genre. Business simulation titles, such as “Zoo Tycoon,” released this year, “Wildlife Pak 2,” released in 2006, and “Zoo Resort,” released in 2011, allow players to manage the imprisonment of animals for human edification and entertainment. Most Orwellian, in “Shamu’s Deep Sea Adventure,” released in 2005, players control a captive orca who attempts to stop the destruction of SeaWorld.
As we have seen, uncritical portrayals of animal exploitation in video games are omnipresent, so much so that genres centered on specific forms of abuse have flourished, helping to normalize exploitation. Video games are not unique in this when compared to other mediums and reflect society’s anthropocentric values. But because of games’ increasing cultural dominance we must examine them critically.
Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.