Hanna Wirman

Hanna Wirman is an Associate Professor and Head of ‘MSc in Games’ study programme at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She studies unconventional ways of making and playing games and has studied animal play through her design experiments for and with Bornean orangutans. Hanna serves as the President of Digital Games Research Association.
Contact information:
wirman at itu.dk

Review: Game: Animals, Video Games, and Humanity

by Hanna Wirman

Animals in Games, Language, and Culture

It all starts with Nintendo’s Duck Hunt and then goes on to cover 150 other games of various genres and platforms that all touch upon the question of the animal in relation to games. Tom Tyler’s Game: Animals, Video Games, and Humanity explores how people are invited to encounter, understand and engage with animals through the games they play. As such, the book is not just about animal representations, or even simulations but about “animals in games.” The book is a collection of essays that traverses between personal accounts of gameplay and philosophical reflections on these. It covers human societal paradoxes and compassionate ethical ponderings related to animals. Halfway through the second essay of the book, the reader should accept that a human perspective on games is just one among many subjective viewpoints.

Tyler has written about animals in culture and society since 2003, for 20 years. The essays, while missing some interesting links to games research now and then, rely on a solid body of varying literature. The book is filled with references to not only digital games and academic resources but also to a range of examples from popular culture that go back centuries.

A constant theme throughout the book is an interest in language and its use. This is understandable and necessary because non-human animals are typically constructed through discourse and language by us humans. Given how little we directly interact with animals other than companion individuals today, language as well as media technologies such as games are where animals are construed. Hence, from the etymology of “bullshit” to the cultural history of “meat,” the reader is introduced to the intricacies of how languages operate in constructing animals, their parts and even what they leave behind.

In the first essay, the reader is provided with various examples of animals in games as well as an understanding of how the English, and to some degree French language, shape how non-human animals are seen as “definite singular generic.” I accept that animals are often left in the background and a uniform species rep finds itself replicated repeatedly as a background element, not unlike a cloud or a tree deprived of individuality. A sensible observation but not the full picture. In Sonic games it is important to elaborate on the character of the hedgehog while the cows of FarmVille need no names. A case where non-human animals are “just” part of the mise en scene -- objects for grinding teeth and hide, maybe jerky or meat -- are notably different from games where individual, albeit anthropomorphised animals are the titular hero and a playable character. From a game design point of view, it is a general assumption of a player to think that a difference in between game objects would signal a difference in their functions. Therefore, individualised decorative game “objects” could potentially misguide the player to expect differences in the interactions linked to them.

I thus came to wish that Tyler would have analysed the animals presented at the beginning of the essay from the point of view on how well they demonstrate the idea of “definite singular generic” in games. Moreover, if we agree that as the player we “interact in each case, then, with a single boar” instead of a “singular of boars” how could we interrogate this from the point of view of game rhetoric? What kind of rhetoric engages the player simultaneously with a flock of generic same-species animals and individualised relationships with each of them?

With all the questions remaining while entering the second essay, I realised that expecting more discussion on this particular approach was not productive. I would not get the answers I wanted but probably much more of what I did not know I needed. After all, the book is a collection of essays, not a continuum of fully aligned chapters. The best companions to this book are those that go a little deeper into the long-standing discussions about how video games themselves can “mean” something and how they carry values and ideologies within them.

Unexpected quarters

The introduction to the book promises rather than claims that the work “Prompts to risk new thought can come from unexpected quarters.” It is suggested that the book can, should the reader be “game” for it, change viewpoints and challenge customary patterns of seeing the world.

Perhaps every book aims at presenting arguments that expands the reader’s understanding of the world, but not every book about games aims at challenging something as fundamental as an anthropocentric worldview. What difference could a book about animals in games possibly make to someone like me who has put a lot of effort into reading about animals, the environment and human-animal relations? I even had a “Save the Murlocs” banner on my website for several years at the time when World of Warcraft was still a thing!

And then, through the book's pages, I learned about the similarity of a goat and a giraffe as they both have “a stomach comprised of four chambers” the largest of them called rumen. I most definitely did not know before reading the book that the rest of the stomach chambers in goats and giraffes are called reticulum, omasum and abomasum (these I looked up online just out of curiosity prompted by the book). Looking at the pictures online, I recognise that I have at least eaten omasum dishes multiple times in my life. I also learned about fish nerve fibres and about how PETA creates their own games as reactions to popular games that are problematic from the animal rights point of view. I learned that there are seven thousand known species of dung beetle. As a reader, I was constantly reminded that while it is important to analyse how games represent animals, it is also important to reiterate how little most of us know about the basic biological facts of animals not to mention individual animals’ characteristics. I came to count how many (living) non-human animals I know. I did not get beyond one hand’s fingers. Among the five individuals I counted there were three species. Merely seeing the dog going about with their life next door would not count, I felt. I would not be able to mark the differences between the birds that frequently visit our balcony either.

Through the constant references to actual animal lives and characteristics, Tom Tyler grounds his writing in the space and time we share with them while discussing the various human perspectives on them. In most cases, the historical and cultural backdrop of animals in games is better explained than the actual representations and simulations of animals in games. The backdrop matters. I agree that more attention should be put to how animal representations in games relate to climate change and other catastrophes in the real world. The book illustrates that animals are in all kinds of games and all kinds of roles, while at the same time presenting pressing reminders of the contemporary relationships between humans and animals where they involve unimaginable exploitation and pain.

With its unorthodox -- and from a game studies perspective sometimes uninform -- approach comes great flexibility to talk bold and freely. The book posits insightful observations on how games tend to make us humans “meal,” how they remind us that humans are “prey.”

Tyler goes further in making insightful observations. He notes that Minecraft’s food bar is made of bird-leg drumsticks, for example. Prominently, he provides an account of looking at games through the logic of ruminant digestion. Here various versions of the same game result from the process of porting from one platform to another, a form of “rumination.” We are then encouraged to think of a game from the point of view of incremental changes partly ignited by technology. Tyler asks: “What of unfinished (partially digested) versions?” We rarely talk about those, and it was a look into another species’ bowel functions that got us there.

Later, when questioning the assumed “infinity” of endless runner games, Tyler suggests that, “In practice, however, and as a direct consequence of the games’ procedural generation, the precise opposite is true: given that there is no end to the playing area of an endless runner and no way to conclude the game by winning, it is inevitable and inescapable that every game will terminate with the player’s demise” (p. 46). Again, yes! We come to find nuggets of great insight into game design and theory from within stories about crocodiles and zombies. Tyler argues that we can see a parallel between the loser-producing logic of endless runners (and Into the Dead) and reading Nietzsche from the position of perpetual defeat as an underdog (cf. standpoint theory, anyone?). While games are aimed at varying capacities and skill levels and can be played on technologies that come with different configurations, we should think of these different instances of games as separate games, he suggests on the final pages of Chapter 4.

If less than two-hundred-pages-long book about game animals can teach so much new about animals, how immeasurable is the potential of video games to teach something about them through play? How much would be gained by portraying animals on the “same side” as humans instead of as age-old prey, resource, opponent, or as the occasional cute one? What if we left out all the unrealistic superpowers of game animals and revealed the species’ real unique abilities instead?

Game (Animals) Studies

While reading the orange-covered book, I sometimes wondered if calling texts “essays” comes with a discount from duly referencing peers’ work. To a degree it does. But there are also two good reasons for Tyler not to have established some of the relevant linkages to games research. First, the articles were published in a range of journals none of which are specialised in games research. As such, the essays are not primarily intended as contributions to the “field” of games research regardless of how insightful they can be for any of “us.” Second, the articles were written within the time period between 2013 and 2019 factoring in that one cannot expect the latest citations from them all. We can only hope for further research that brings together Tyler’s work with recent games scholarship, for example, that on food and video games (Waszkiewicz 2022), monstrosity (Švelch 2020), algorithmic animals (Giddings 2020) or “grinding” in relation to animals (Coghlan and Sparrow 2021). Unfortunately, Tyler did not engage with Westerlaken’s text about vegan runs (Westerlaken 2017) or Krzywinska’s exploration into zombies (Krzywinska 2008).

In terms of academic positioning, it would be an understatement to call the book cross-disciplinary as it combines approaches from fields including biology, linguistics, philosophy, poetry, game development, the study of animal behaviour and cognition, the animal rights movement, cultural anthropology, sociology, communication studies, Christian religion as well as science and technology studies. The book even engages with the development practices and motivations behind some of the games it touches upon. As such, Game: Animals, Video Games, and Humanity provides a great resource for continuing research to those who find overlaps between the presented approaches, games, or animals and their existing work. As many of the chapters in the book are originally published in disciplinary journals and books that do not specifically focus on games, a compilation book efficiently makes them more readily available for people like game researchers to engage with.

Chapter 10, the nineth after the introduction, is one of the chapters that have not been previously published and that were therefore most likely written specifically for the book. The chapter bears a tone and a structure similar to the rest of the book, as it combines game examples with a somewhat parallel but interconnected discussion around animal meanings in some specific word or phrase; in this case, “bullshit.” What seems to be the case, however, is that such a chapter goes a little deeper into game analysis and discusses more games in general. It is also interesting that Chapter 5 about “inklings,” which discusses Splatoon, is not a re-publication, for it is the shortest and least developed. The essay touches on squids and ink and Splatoon which all seem like excellent opportunities to talk about how unique animal features such as the ability to produce ink can be turned into game mechanics. Here I was left a little disappointed but swiftly moved on. Exceptionally, the essays of very different kinds form a whole that makes great sense and is easy to read with no sense of interruption in between chapters.

About structure

While Tyler talks a lot about counting animals and the human tendency to group animals in linguistics and literary tradition alike, a compelling aspect of the book is the lists it features. There is a complete list of smell devices on page 18, the names of Jeff Minter’s sheep little later on, the different “-lings” from oysterlings to storklings (page 40), a list of meanings for the word “bull,” more than 40 forms of play that have been observed in fish, not to mention the nine-line-long list of the book’s sources of inspiration on page 6. Is it a conscious decision from the author to present various lists as if to comment on the “countability” or even “uncountability” of things out there? Intentional or not, the idea of a list extends beyond the in-text instances. The book itself, too, reads like a list of different ways of seeing animals in relation to games.

To list is to acknowledge plurality and to recognise individuals one by one. By structuring the book as a list of approaches, Tyler seems to suggest that they are all just different perspectives -- none of them in any privileged position over the others. We can see animals in relation to games in numerous ways and putting a claim like this into a monograph makes no sense. Writing a chapter of conclusions would make even less sense. I fully accept that this book has none and, instead, swiftly after the last of the 12 essays has come to an end.

A list has no conclusion which suggests it can still be added onto. There’s space to re-enumerate and to ruminate (cf. p. 35). Well, Tyler’s book has a conclusion of a kind, not at all trivial, but that I will not spoil for the reader who is likely to be surprised when encountering it. I am glad I wrote the review while reading and almost entirely before finishing the book.

If the book as a list had a title, it could be “List of texts that Tom Tyler has written that relate to animals.” As such, the list is impressive and far-ranging. “One does not read but only uses a list: one looks up the relevant information in it, but usually does not need to deal with it as a whole ̶ and is happy about this fact” (Doležalová 2009, 1). As a list, the book can be read in sections like short stories even though the whole flows well.


This is where getting to know a person through the 152 pages and 12 essays of Game: Animals, Video Games, and Humanity got me: I have identified my perfect dinner guest. Tom Tyler knows games, culture, critical theory and animals. He is a great storyteller. I would already know what not to serve. In between bites I would ask Tyler: “How would an essay about dinosaurs, perhaps based on the famous Google Chrome Dinosaur Game (2014), be like?”



Coghlan, S. and Sparrow, L. (2021). The “digital animal intuition:” the ethics of violence against animals in video games. Ethics of Information Technology, 23, 215-224.

Doležalová, L. (2009). Charm of a list: from the Sumerians to computerised data processing. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Giddings, S. (2020). The achievement of animals: an ethology of AI in videogames. In: Spöhrer, Markus and Waldrich, Harald, eds. Einspielungen: Prozesse und Situationen digitalen Spielens. (Neue Perspektiven der Medienästhetik) (pp. 115-140). Springer.

Krzywinska, T. (2008). Zombies in Gamespace: Form, Context, and Meaning in Zombie-based Video Games. In: McIntosh, Shawn and Leverette, Marc, eds. Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead (pp. 153-168). Scarecrow Press.

Švelch, J. (2020). Player vs. Monster: The Making and Breaking of Video Game Monstrosity. The MIT Press.

Waszkiewicz, A. (2022). Delicious Pixels: Food in Video Games. De Gruyter Oldenbourg.

Westerlaken, M. (2017, November 28 - December 1). Self-Fashioning in Action: Zelda’s Breath of the Wild Vegan Run [Conference paper]. The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, Krakow.

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