Countless virtual animals play a variety of roles in today’s video games. In addition to the named protagonists and characters who feature in games such as Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) and Animal Crossing (Nintendo, 2001), numerous anonymous creatures appear as pets and companions in games like Nintendogs (Nintendo, 2005) and Torchlight (Runic Games, 2009); as assets and resources in FarmVille (Zynga, 2009) and Angry Birds (Rovio Entertainment, 2009); and, of course, as adversaries and enemies, in games such as Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996) and Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011). More often than not, the individual instances of these creatures are identical: within any given game, a single character model is used, whose animation is confined to a restricted range of stereotypical movements, and vocalisations to a small repertoire of calls and cries, and whose physical statistics remain uniform. Titan Quest (Iron Lore Entertainment, 2006) permits players to venture through a finely detailed ancient world, stretching from Greece to Egypt, and on to Asia. Centaurs, harpies, undead skeletons and other mythic monsters clutter the landscape, but so too do more common creatures. Players can summon powerful grey wolves, familiars who will fight on the side of the questing heroes, perhaps against the strong, speedy and ferocious wild boar who roam the woods. The detailed graphic realisation of these beasts, like everything else in the game, is exemplary, but each wolf is indistinguishable from her fellows, and the boar are similarly interchangeable. These virtual animals are identical duplicates of one another, individuals and yet entirely generic.
There is a tradition of writing about animals, particularly within natural history, which also serves to align the singular with the general. The Encyclopædia Britannica says of boar:
boar, male of the domestic pig, guinea pig, and various other mammals; or both sexes of wild hog [page 36] species belonging to the family Suidae. The European wild boar refers to Sus scrofa, the largest of the wild pigs, distributed over Europe, northern Africa, and central and northern Asia. Long extinct in the British Isles and northwest Europe, it is still found in marshy woodland districts in Spain, Austria, the U.S.S.R., and Germany. From earliest times, because of its great strength, speed, and ferocity, the wild boar has been one of the favourite beasts of the chase. In some parts of Europe and India it is still hunted with dogs, but the spear has mostly been replaced with the gun. The wild boar of India (S. cristatus) is slightly taller than S. scrofa, standing about 30 to 40 inches (0.75 to 1 metre) at the shoulder. It is found throughout India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and Burma, where the spear is used in hunting it.[i]
The encyclopedia here characterises boar in what Derrida would call the general singular.[ii] The generic noun phrase “the boar” refers to the kind or class to which all boar belong, and it does so by means of that singular, definite article. “The boar” is at once both an individual, an unaccompanied creature, marked off by all the grammatical requirements of the article, and a collective of every boar that did, or does, or might exist.[iii] English collective nouns for animals, a notoriously eccentric mass of substantives, derive in many cases from a hunting tradition dating back to the late Middle Ages.[iv] The Book of Saint Albans, a set of texts on hawking, hunting and heraldry published in 1486, includes a catalogue of these terms of assemblage under the heading “The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys.”[v] Mixed in amongst a muster of peacocks, a murmuration of starlings, and a shrewdness of apes,[vi] we find a telling group term for that favourite beast of the chase: a singular of boars succinctly captures the ambiguity and concision of the discourses on animals to be found in the Encyclopædia Britannica and its like.[vii]
Accounts of this singular animal, “the boar,” this singular of boars, provide knowledge that goes [page 37] beyond the particularities of any identifiable individual. Their grammar insists on something like an ideal boar, a Platonic form that persists outside time and space, no matter that it has become extinct in one part of the world or another.[viii] The commingling of the singular with the general, the individual with the generic, effaces the specificity of distinct creatures who live and die, and privileges an enduring, unassailable essence. The particular boar becomes, if she is acknowledged at all, a mere instance of “the boar,” what Walker Percy called “a rather shabby expression of an ideal reality.”[ix] The corollary of “the boar” is the specimen, a sample of the species Sus scrofa. The “sanctity of the hic et nunc,” as Adorno and Horkheimer put it, gives way to “universal fungibility,”[x] so that individuals are rendered entirely interchangeable, bare exemplars of their species being. The mythic creatures we encounter in these texts, then, in which triumphs of artifice are consumed as triumphs of Nature,[xi] are abstract ideals. They have flourished not just in scientific discourse, but in widely varying texts, genres and media, from novels to nature documentaries, and they continue to recur today, like footnotes to Plato.[xii]
But not in digital games like Titan Quest. The term virtual derives from the Latin virtus, meaning strength or power or capacity, and has come to describe that which is so “in essence or effect, although not formally or actually” and which “(admits) of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned.”[xiii] We do not experience the essence or effect of an actual wolf or wild boar when we play Titan Quest, of course, but each of the identical, virtual animals repeatedly summoned or engaged throughout the game is encountered by the player not as a specimen of the species but as an individual. In the frenzied moment of battle, as combatants clash and the possibility of virtual death at the tusk or paw of a specific opponent presses hard, there is no sense of a transcendent Platonic presence. The effect or capacity of each animal, their personal strength, speed and ferocity perhaps, reveals them to be an ally or adversary whose particular powers work to our immediate benefit or detriment in the hic et nunc. We interact in each case, then, with a single boar, and not, even when several appear together in a herd or sounder, with a singular of boars.[xiv]
More essays by Tom Tyler are available at his Research page.