In his 1970 collaboration with Wilfred Watson, From Cliché to Archetype, Marshall McLuhan characterises the domestic dog as a “primordial” technology which functioned as an early extension of human sensory life, with important survival benefits for human society.1 Like the printing press and automobile that came later, the authors argue, Canis lupus familiaris made possible for Homo sapiens a new mode of living.2 McLuhan and Watson suggest that earlier technologies remain evident in modern times in the “verbal residues” of well-known phrases and idioms: “His bark is worse than his bite,” “Every dog has its day,” “A bone of contention,” et al.3 Any technology will imprint such clichés on the language, expressions that originally derived from unique and innovative practices but which soon became hackneyed and stereotyped through their endless repetition. Today they are employed through habit and convention, their origins largely unnoticed. McLuhan and Watson are keen not to confine this notion of the cliché just to language, however, which, they argue, is but one technology amongst many. All technologies serve initially to enlarge a culture’s scope of action and patterns of association and awareness, only to produce environments which subsequently “numb our powers of attention by sheer pervasiveness.”4 Like the pencil or the telephone, the most revolutionary innovations soon become ubiquitous and commonplace. The social and psychological environments which result, comprising the technological and perceptual media within which we exist, are overlooked, unacknowledged and effectively invisible. “[O]ur perceptions themselves are clichés patterned by the many hidden environmental structures of culture.”5
Throughout his work, McLuhan sought to focus on the far-reaching effects of technologies, and to highlight the invisible environments they created. In his writings and presentations he attempted always, by means of provocative [page 66] prompts, probes and jokes, to draw to our attention the perceptual and conceptual clichés we so often fail to notice. In this essay I would like to explore the ways in which an unassuming and seemingly frivolous digital game requires its players to confront a longstanding and deep-seated cliché, a distinct strain of anthroponormativity that quietly but persistently discourages perceptual identification with other forms of animal life. I wish to look too at a particular, innovative way in which this game engages its participants in the process of play, evoking modes of affinity and involvement that are unbound by questions of species identity. On this unlikely platform the technological and the animal meet, and play together, to educative, enlightening effect. It is often said—it is a cliché, in fact—that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and so I would like to suggest that we can best understand the game, and learn from its creative coupling of techne and animality, by boning up instead on a pair of established but largely forgotten conceptual ploys which remain, nonetheless, profitably challenging. In revisiting, and, perhaps, teaching to a new audience these old tricks, it is my intention to pursue thereby the essay’s twin themes of alterity and identity. Like many others, our digital game depicts varied modes of interaction between members of different species, but it also extends to its players an invitation both to appreciate a certain, striking form of animal otherness and to engage, at the same time, in interspecific identification.
Dog’s Life for the PlayStation 2, created by Frontier Developments and published by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in 2003, is a digital game aimed principally at a children’s market.6 Players control Jake, a young, carefree, mixed breed mutt, who, clearly without owner or primary care-giver, gets along by means of his winning ways, and by scavenging from trashcans and pilfering unattended food. At the beginning of the game, roguish Jake immediately finds himself called to adventure: “Hi, I’m Jake. Welcome to my world! Normally I’d love to stop and play ball with you, teach you a few tricks maybe, but my friend Daisy has just been dog-napped!”7 And so it begins. Players are able to enter Jake’s world and to engage in all manner of stereotypically canine behaviour, designed to appeal to the younger gamer: digging up bones, marking territory, farting, defecating, swimming and then, inevitably, shaking dry. As Jake himself says, “No school, no chores, no clothes! It’s great being a dog!” Canine life is not just a matter of tug-of-war and chasing chickens, however. Players must keep Jake healthy and well fed, lest he become tired and listless, whilst avoiding at all times the dog catcher and his Doberman. And, of course, there’s that matter of rescuing Daisy. Jake must track her down, searching first through the quiet corners of rural Clarksville, then on to Lake Minniwahwah ski resort, and arriving, finally, at the perilous streets of Boom City. Ultimately, he must face the elusive Miss Peaches, purveyor of the suspiciously-sourced Crunchy Cat Food.8
The narrative of Dog’s Life, though engaging enough, is far less interesting than a central, novel element of its gameplay. When the game begins, it is a bright, sunny day, and Jake finds himself at the edge of a flowering meadow, buzzing with insects and fluttering with butterflies (Fig. 1). As he enters, bounding after a young human companion, players are invited to switch to ‘Smellovision’ and truly step into Jake’s world. Smellovision has two key features. First, play shifts from a third person perspective which follows Jake from some distance, to a subjective, first person perspective that permits gamers to “see the world through Jake’s eyes.”9 The environment is depicted as if through a wide-angle, fisheye lens, and colours become noticeably muted, simulating a canine point of view. Secondly, players are now able to “see smells,” which are represented as brightly coloured clouds of scent, free-floating or billowing around the humans, parrots, pigeons, fox, and other animals whom Jake encounters, and who leave odorous wisps in their wake. Footprints glow and can be tracked, and the locations of buried bones are revealed by shafts of celestial [page 67] light (Fig. 2). The game becomes, in effect, an interactive manifestation of Jakob von Uexküll’s much-discussed monograph, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, as players are invited to step into the digital soap bubble that represents Jake’s Umwelt (self-world). Just as Uexküll describes, the familiar meadow is transformed, and a new world [page 68] comes into being.10 I would like, initially, to focus on this playful simulation, and to examine the variety of ways in which Smellovision seeks to reproduce a canine phenomenal world.11
Smellovision effectively captures something of the greater field of view of canine vision. The visual field varies from breed to breed, and indeed from individual to individual, depending on the placement of the eyes in the skull. Typically, a dog’s eyes deviate approximately 20° lateral to the midline, with each eye providing a monocular field of view between 135° and 150°, combining to create a total field of view of approximately 240° or 250°, allowing for overlap. A human’s eyes, by contrast, both oriented straight ahead, provide a smaller field of view of approximately 180°. The fisheye lens of Dog’s Life is thus a means of communicating Jake’s greater visual field within the constraints of a conventional television screen. Similarly, the significantly lower visual perspective that dogs normally experience is replicated by the game. In shifting to Smellovision, players find themselves just inches from the virtual ground, confronted in the first instance by car wheels, trash cans and the legs of humans: you must actively look up in order to see the faces that now tower above you. Further, although it was believed for a long time that dogs lacked all colour vision, this is not, in fact, the case. The retina of a human eye ordinarily has three kinds of photoreceptor cells that detect colour, called cones, each of which is especially sensitive to a different wavelength of light: red, green and blue. In combination, these three types of cone make possible trichromatic colour vision, the detection of a vast range of colours. A dog’s eye, on the other hand, contains just two kinds of cone, which respond most to violet and yellow-green wavelengths. As dichromats, dogs thus detect a much smaller spectrum of colours than most humans, and cannot distinguish, for instance, red from green, or blue from violet. This colour blindness is carefully simulated by the subdued palette of Smellovision, which provides the player with a reduced range of colours, in dull shades.12
As a full simulation of the alterity of canine vision, however, Dog’s Life ultimately falls short. The game does not attempt to demonstrate dogs’ limited depth perception, for instance. Precisely because their eyes are set further to the sides, affording a wider field of view, dogs have a smaller area of overlap in the middle, and thus less three-dimensional vision, which amounts to no more than 60°, and often much less, compared to a full 140° in humans. Dogs’ visual acuity is similarly poor. In a canine eye, multiple photoreceptors are attached to a single ganglion, the nerve cell that transmits signals from eye to brain, increasing overall sensitivity to light but decreasing the degree of detail that can be conveyed. Canine visual acuity has been estimated to be equivalent to 20/75 human vision, which is to say that Jake would need to be just twenty feet away in order to distinguish the detail of an object that one of his human companions could see at 75 feet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this aspect of canine vision is not explored in dog’s Life. Nor, indeed, is dogs’ relatively poor accommodation, the ability to focus on objects situated at different distances, which renders as a blur anything closer than 30 centimetres or so from their faces. A human adult, by contrast, can on average accommodate objects as close as 10 centimetres away, and a young child can usually see clearly at just 5 centimetres away. (This is most likely why dogs often seem not to notice objects that are right in front of them.) Finally, nothing is made during the course of the game of dogs’ impressive crepuscular vision. A range of physiological factors provide dogs with sight which is ideally suited to the dim light to be found at dusk and dawn. Whilst the central 25° of a human retina is devoted principally to cones, providing that glorious trichromatic colour vision, in dogs this area is largely given over to rods, photoreceptors sensitive to low levels of light. In addition, a canine eye contains a layer of cells at the back of the retina, called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects back light that has already passed through the retina, effectively [page 69] providing the photoreceptors with a second opportunity to capture each photon of light. Further, tapetal riboflavin may even absorb light in the shorter blue wavelengths, shifting it to a longer wavelength more easily detected by rods, and thereby enhancing the contrast between dark objects in the environment and the brighter night sky behind.13 The ability to see in the dark, when swapping to Smellovision, might perhaps have opened up interesting gameplay opportunities, but Jake’s adventures take place entirely during daylight hours.14
Dogs, famously, have highly sensitive noses, and Dog’s Life works hard to explore the experience of living in a richly odoriferous world. In the first instance, with the change over to Smellovision, aspects of the environment that are entirely invisible to humans become apparent. Though the hues of the visible world are now muted and dull, representations of scents and smells are brightly, vividly coloured: objects as diverse as misplaced axes and wind-snatched sheet music emit swirls of vibrant scent; varied puffs of inviting odour float around every part of the environment, to be “collected” by the player; and humans and other creatures are surrounded always by a warm cloud of their own scent, a conspicuous current of oils and dead skin cells, evaporating sweat and bacteria. Dogs’ ability to locate hidden objects is similarly integrated into the gameplay, with periodic digging necessary to unearth coveted bones, whose location is disclosed by spectacular, unmissable pillars of light. Urine marking, the placement of canine calling cards, is ordinarily undertaken to indicate a dog’s identity, interest in mating, etc. Jake can be made to pee at any time, but in the special “pee marking” mini-game, initiated after collecting yellow scents, you must capture areas by peeing over your opponent’s marks, in a contest for territory. The capacity to track other creatures, long employed to human advantage, depends on a dog’s being able to detect when individual footprints were laid down: the odour of any given print will be fractionally stronger than its immediate predecessor, thereby revealing direction of travel. In Dog’s Life, trails of bright yellow shoe prints, including those left by a masked robber you must hunt down, clearly indicate direction by their distinct heel-and-sole shapes. Finally, Dog’s Life captures not just the passive reception but also the active pursuit of scents. Dogs’ enthusiastic, noisy sniffing, significantly more effective than the paltry human equivalent, is a complex process that simultaneously draws new air into the nose whilst expelling the old, and which in turn causes a slight wind current that facilitates further inhalation. Jake can’t help but stumble into a mass of floating odours when in Smellovision, but, by pressing the appropriate controller button, players can also have him sniff at will, which causes him to turn toward the nearest scent.15
Effective as these many simulations of canine olfaction are, however, they do not begin to capture the astonishing extent to which a dog is sensitive to the slightest of smells, and capable of discriminating between near identical odours. Each nostril of a dog’s nose draws in a distinct sample of odour, providing differential information, and research indicates that the canine sense of smell works with the exhalation as well as with the inhalation of air. The inside of a human nose contains approximately six million receptor sites, each with hairs capable of catching chemicals of a particular molecular shape. A canine nose, by contrast, contains two or three hundred million such receptor sites, and sensitivity increases exponentially. Dogs, as a result, are receptive to minute quantities of odour, the equivalent, for instance, of being able to detect a single teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water. In one series of tests, dogs were able to identify a glass slide by the scent from a solitary human fingerprint with which it had been marked three weeks earlier. Other research indicates that dogs can even smell the chemicals produced by cancerous cells: from tissue or urine samples, or the patients’ exhalations, dogs have accurately detected skin, breast, bladder and lung cancers, in one case when melanoma was present in only a fraction of cells and had been missed by pathological examination. Although Smellovision makes present odours that are [page 70] entirely imperceptible to humans, represented as distinct, unambiguous clouds, it does not explore the extent to which dogs can detect the faintest traces of scent. Similarly, the game does not address dogs’ celebrated powers of discrimination. Presented with T-shirts that had been worn by identical twins, dogs were able to ascertain the garments’ owners, provided the shirts were placed in close proximity during the test, thereby allowing them to be sniffed simultaneously. Although different species of creature within dog’s Life give off distinctive odours-- synaesthetic consistency within Smellovision ensures that humans are always purple, other dogs are orange or blue, parrots are green, etc.--individuals of the same species or breed are identical in terms of their scent.16
Dog’s Life, then, is an engaging and very effective simulation of canine perception, but it is certainly not comprehensive.17 Gameplay necessarily comes first, and the demands of the medium, genre and market prevent a more detailed or exhaustive recreation of contemporary research into dogs’ visual and olfactory capacities. Shortcomings in terms of verisimilitude, however, by no means detract from Dog’s Life’s unrivalled capacity to highlight and bring to the fore the alterity of this particular, nonhuman mode of awareness and apprehension. Despite its inevitable limitations, Smellovision embodies, as we will see, the digital game’s anti-environmental potential.
In welcoming us to his world, Jake expressed the desire to teach us some tricks. Caught up in his rescue mission to save Daisy, this activity seems to be postponed indefinitely, but in fact, over the course of the game, Jake is a very effective instructor. In this section and the next, I would like to explore two such tricks, two conceptual ploys, neither entirely new but both largely forgotten today, which Jake ably demonstrates if we take up his challenge and play Dog’s Life. The first of these is one of McLuhan’s lesser-known probes. As we saw, McLuhan argues that, like verbal clichés, although new technologies may at first be startlingly innovative and invigorating, they soon become, through repetition and ubiquity, numbingly environmental. These encompassing, involving environments, he argues, are not passive wrappings but active processes that structure our actions and awareness without our noticing them. The ground rules, the configurations, the pervasive patterns of these active environments elude easy perception; they are, for the most part, invisible.18 We are oblivious to our surroundings, immersed, like fish in water, in a medium whose significance remains unknown and unacknowledged. In order to discern the environments in which we habitually exist, to become aware of the enveloping “climates of thought and feeling,”19 we need to be exposed, McLuhan suggests, to what he calls anti-environments.
Anti-environments, according to McLuhan, can promote awareness and pattern recognition.20 They can provide new strategies of attention that train perception onto the unnoticed environment. McLuhan was fond of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the emperor’s new clothes as a means of illustrating this process by which environmental norms are disrupted and thereby brought to our attention. The “well-adjusted” ministers and officials, immersed in court culture, saw the emperor as beautifully appointed, he suggests, whilst it took an “antisocial” brat, unaccustomed to this environment, to alert everyone to what was going on.21 It is, McLuhan argues, most often the ill-adjusted individual, the outsider, even the criminal or enemy of society, who is best placed to draw attention to the environment. Beyond the delinquent child,22 it is to the artist, for instance, that McLuhan most often turns for anti-environmental observations. Pop Art, he argues, takes banal objects from our daily lives and reminds us that we are surrounded by a world of images and artifacts that are intended not to train perception and awareness but to produce effects for the economy.23 Such art can elicit a “sting of perception” or “shock of recognition.”24 Similarly, McLuhan suggests, whilst the professional will [page 71] tend to classify and specialize, adopting the ground rules provided by the mass response of his colleagues, the amateur, who works alone and can afford to lose, seeks instead a total, critical, anti-environmental awareness of the individual and of society.25 The sleuth or gumshoe of popular fiction, such as C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, Mike Hammer and Philip Marlowe, turns a self conscious attentiveness on the big city, “detecting the social environment by probing and transgression.”26 And, like the wisecracks and witticisms of Chandler’s private investigator, McLuhan argues that jokes more generally can be our most appealing anti-environmental tool, as the funny man, an outsider with a grievance, probes into the cultural matrix that plagues him, providing as he does so a guide to changing perceptions.27
In addition to these inquisitive, unconventional individuals, amongst whom McLuhan himself might well be included, all manner of processes and products, many of them more mainstream, can function anti-environmentally. McLuhan recounts how Ovid’s multiple plots and subplots, or succinct Japanese haiku, or successive literary movements from realism to the romantics to the modernists, can produce anti-environmental effects.28 Schools, in turn, have traditionally been designed as anti-environments, “to develop perception and judgement of the printed word,”29 though they are increasingly ineffectual, McLuhan argues, in today’s electronically-mediated milieu, which turns the whole world into a “classroom without walls.”30 Liberal studies have long been considered a means of providing orientation and perception, but when the arts and sciences themselves become environmental, new controls must be found.31 Diverse events and artifacts—from participatory happenings32 to the hard drugs of Burroughs’ anti-Utopian novels,33 from the jolt of bad news34 to the very Earth itself when experienced from a post-Sputnik perspective35—can produce anti-environmental effects in the right environmental context.36 Even a new technology can itself enjoy a “brief reign” as an anti-environment, highlighting through sheer novelty and innovation some features of the old environment, before it becomes, inevitably, environmental itself.37 Anti-environmental means of perception “must constantly be renewed in order to be efficacious,”38 as the soup cans that are appropriated for the gallery swiftly become postcards and tea-towels, before being redeployed, newly formatted, to sell soup once more.39 Environment and anti-environment alternate their roles “with all the dash and vigour of Tweedledum and Tweedledee,”40 performing an endless, cyclic, “technological fugue.”41 Even the most popular arts, McLuhan suggests, can serve to increase awareness, at least until they become entirely environmental.42 Games, in fact, by transforming the customary, working environment into model, paradigm form, can provide that anti-environmentalism indispensable to any culture seeking to avoid “complete somnambulism.”43
In the first instance, Dog’s Life engages its players in a typically environmental form of play. The third person perspective is the default point of view: it is the outlook from which players start when the game is first launched, and to which they always return after having saved their progress, or following the occasional cinematic cut scenes. The virtual camera follows Jake from above, capturing his actions and immediate environment as players guide him through Clarksville, the ski resort, and beyond. This third person perspective seems dispassionate and impartial, observing the characters and events from an abstracted, disembodied vantage point at some remove from Jake’s interactions on the ground. But the game’s third person point of view is by no means detached or neutral, as the shift to first person Smellovision retrospectively demonstrates. The explicitly subjective viewpoint of Smellovision is, as we saw, that of a dog. This canine perspective serves to remind us, however, that the ostensibly objective third person outlook is nothing of the sort. When playing in third person, the lack of a fisheye lens means that we have a smaller field of view, the broader palette of on-screen colours allows us to experience the world as does a trichromat, and, of course, the absence [page 72] of colour-coded clouds, glowing footprints, and spectacular bone-markers ensures that scents and smells are entirely unrepresented. Jake does not even take a swift, involuntary sniff as he passes through those areas that we discover, if we swap back to Smellovision, in fact contain rich deposits of appealing odours. Smellovision shows us, in short, that the default, seemingly impartial third person perspective is, in fact, a human perspective.44
Alignment of the detached, dispassionate observer with an implicitly human mode of apprehension effectively normalizes the latter. This unacknowledged perceptual anthroponormativity functions as a McLuhanesque environment, an encompassing milieu that we fail to notice, but which nonetheless actively structures our actions and awareness. Whilst playing in third person, we do not recognize, or remember, that this apparently natural, normal point of view is but one amongst many. Indeed, when we switch to Smellovision, the zoom from an unremarked third person perspective, which is human, to an entertainingly odd first person perspective, which is canine, quietly normalizes the former by drawing attention only to the latter. In shifting to Smellovision, however, we are obliged at the same time to concede that the so-called third person perspective with which we started is just as partial and particular as first. We are reminded, and compelled to confront the fact, that there is no single, standard mode of apprehension: fields of view and orientation are simply different, trichromacy is as contingent as dichromacy, and the presence or absence of detectable odours is a function of one’s olfactory apparatus. Neither species-perception need be preferred to the other, or conceived as any kind of paradigm. Smellovision serves, in effect, as an anti-environment to pervasive assumptions regarding the pre-eminence of human modes of perception. By first modelling this anthroponormative outlook, and then providing a canine-centric alternative, Dog’s Life, even whilst normalizing the human perspective, works to undermine it. Jake, the roguish outsider, welcomes us to his world, and in so doing provides a counterpoint, a counterenvironment, to human perceptual norms. Smellovision’s perceptible odours and fisheye lens draw attention to the water in which we fish swim.45
By means of these alternate perspectives, then, the anti-environment that is Dog’s Life invites us to appreciate something of the overlooked alterity of canine perception. Jake is the game’s outsider, its alter, and, despite the necessary limitations of execution and inevitable concessions to playability, Smellovision underscores the fact that dogs and humans experience the world in radically different ways. The promise was to demonstrate two tricks, however, and the second, though it starts explicitly from this position of alterity, speaks at the same time to the identity that Dog’s Life manages to cultivate between player and protagonist.
Building on Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical analyses of social interaction,46 Eugene Weinstein and Paul Deutschberger published in 1963 their essay “Some Dimensions of Altercasting.”47 They open with the observation that “Among the most venerable notions in social psychology is the assumption that human behavior is goal directed.”48 Consciously or otherwise, an individual will pursue these goals during the course of interactions with others, both by presenting themselves in a particular manner, but also by projecting roles or identities onto interlocutors. Such altercasting is a technique, Weinstein and Deutschberger argue, of interpersonal control: if an alter can be manipulated or cast into a particular role, the responses one desires of them are more liked to be elicited. Modes of altercasting can be explicit or they can guide the alter by more subtle gestures of approval and disapproval, and the literature distinguishes between manded and tact altercasts. A manded altercast specifies more or less directly the role that is to be adopted by the alter: they will be told unambiguously that they are a “good friend,” perhaps, and thus expected to act accordingly.49 A tact altercast, on the other hand, solicits a role from the alter by adopting a complementary [page 73] identity. One might ostentatiously demonstrate the qualities of close friendship in the hope of evoking these in another; or, alternatively, one might adopt the role of needy neighbour in order that the alter step up to the complementary role of good Samaritan.50 Of course, the alter may well resist these attempts to manoeuvre him or her into a particular role, whether it be submissive and helpful, dominant and decisive, or something else again. They may endeavour to engage in an altercast of their own, in fact, which is entirely at odds with the goals and objectives of their colleague. The successful continuance of the social interaction depends, then, on individuals maintaining an ongoing, negotiated working consensus, “a tacit agreement as to the roles the several participants will play out in the encounter.”51 This working consensus does not entail the roles being equal, of course, but only that at some level all parties are complicit in the interchange that results.
Weinstein and Deutschberger do not examine the question of interspecific altercasting, but it is by no means precluded by their account. The narrative that plays out during the course of Dog’s Life illustrates a good many instances of altercasting, and although it is humans projecting the identities, insistently pursuing their goal directed behaviours, it is the dog Jake who is altercast. Throughout the game, Jake is repeatedly cast as an itinerant, Lassie-like assistant, enjoined to complete a range of tasks and errands for polite but consistently inept humans. Submitting to entreaties or the promise of a juicy bone, Jake provides varied but characteristically canine support. In Clarksville’s rustic environs, a drill sergeant turned crop farmer has difficulty protecting his seeds: “Every time I try to repair the scarecrow I get attacked by birds. Well, this means war.” He addresses Jake as “Private Dog” in a direct manded altercast that effectively enlists him to scare off the crows by barking. Early in the game, Jake meets a benign, flatulent “Grandpa,” Daisy’s doting primary care-giver, who teaches him to sit and to lie down: “Say, Jakey, let's see what tricks you can do besides waking up a poor old man out of a lovely dream.” He encourages Jake with gestures and exclamations of approval—“Sit, Jake...good dog”—and presents him with a bone when he performs correctly. The interaction is effectively a tact altercast, with Grandpa adopting the role of pedagogue whilst Jake takes up that of dutiful student. In each of these cases, and throughout the game, Jake is frequently altercast as the obedient and helpful pooch, man’s best friend perhaps, a role or identity he is obliged to take on if the interaction is to persist and gameplay continue.52
Weinstein and Deutschberger’s account of altercasting addresses a key aspect of interpersonal power relations. In his own discussions of such relations, Foucault emphasised always that, properly considered, the alter is never merely a malleable, brute object: “a power relationship can only be articulated on the basis [...] that ‘the other’ (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts; and that [...] a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up.”53 Interpersonal control requires precisely that the alter be a person, capable of independent action, and the altercast comprises, in Foucauldian terms, a “complicated interplay” of interactions: “In this game freedom may well appear as the condition for the exercise of power (at the same time its precondition, since freedom must exist for power to be exerted, and also its permanent support, since without the possibility of recalcitrance, power would be equivalent to a physical determination).”54 Those occasions on which a party is subject to bare, physical determination evince the application of what Foucault designates not “power” but “capacity,” a means of direct control that “stems from aptitudes directly inherent in the body or relayed by external instruments” and which is “exerted over things and gives the ability to modify, use, consume, or destroy them.”55 Although he is engaged by a succession of demanding humans, Jake, the ownerless, uninhibited [page 74] canid, is never constrained or compelled by such capacities, and, within the power relations of which he is a part, a field of reactions and responses remain open to him throughout, including the option to curtail the interactions. As a canine alter, he is free, we might say, to the extent that he is at liberty to subject himself to the roles and controls of the human-initiated altercasts, or not.
Grandpa’s interaction with Jake exemplifies one of the most common forms of interspecific altercast, that of training. Jake learns how to sit and to lie down, manoeuvres that will be useful to him later in the game. Techniques of the most brutal and violent kinds are undeniably employed in the course of much animal training,56 but Grandpa is a benevolent teacher, using in his own programme only positive, linguistic reinforcement and feedback, and the final reward of a bone. There is more to the training session than simply teaching Jake these basic tricks, however. Grandpa’s objective, the goal he is ultimately pursuing, is to induce Jake into seeking out his beloved Daisy. Encouraging though he is, Grandpa cannot help making unfavourable comparisons: “Nice moves, Jake, but nobody moves like my Daisy. Say, Jake, I don’t suppose you could track her down? I don’t know what I’d do without her.” The training session is a means to an end, that of communicating Grandpa’s desire and making clear the role he would like Jake to adopt: canine assistant and rescuer of the doggy damsel in distress. Interspecific altercasting, like that between humans, engenders a working consensus to which the parties more-or-less freely subscribe, but such a consensus, as Foucault argues, is the precondition for the exercise of power. The issue of interpersonal control, of attempting to realise one’s goals for, or by means of, the other, lies at the heart of the animal training process, and even in those regimes where physical determination is lacking, and where direct violence plays no part, the nonhuman individual who is subject to the altercast will find the range of his or her actions channelled and directed. In seeking “to structure the possible field of action of others,” animal training altercasters like Grandpa endeavour to shape their subject’s conduct, where, as Foucault points out, both meanings of that equivocal term should resonate: a variety of behaviours are open to Jake, even whilst he is lead in a particular direction.57
It is not just the human characters in Dog’s Life who can altercast others, however. Grandpa’s instruction provides just the first of a series of moves that Jake picks up during the course of his adventure. In every area of the game he meets a local dog, each of a different breed, many of whom teach him new tricks. These increasingly impressive (and unlikely) manoeuvres can be used to coax and cajole treats from passing humans. Adopting the role of adorable performer, by sitting and begging or executing a hand stand, Jake can, without a word being spoken, tact altercast a passing human into the position of provider. Some prove immune to his charms, especially the jaded citizens of Boom City, and will send him on his way (“Get a job!”). But, provided that he is not too dirty, many will provide Jake with a choice morsel (“Ha ha, way to go there, little guy.”). Interspecific altercasting can work both ways. The fact that Jake is able to assume the part of caster as well as that of alter demonstrates the intricate and fluid nature of the interplay of power relations here. To suppose that it is the caster who ‘holds’ the power would be to fall into precisely the trap of reification, from which Foucault consistently recoiled.58 The power relation between Jake and his benefactors is asymmetric in varied ways. Although Jake successfully pursues his goals by directing the behaviour of others and casting them as donors, his position is, at the same time, subservient. Not unlike the bones that Jake must collect by completing chores in order to progress through the game, the “treats” he manages to wheedle from those around him are in fact one source of the food he needs to maintain his health: they are necessary nutrition as much as indulgent tidbits. Just as Jake spends a good deal of his time in the game helping others, so too he in turn finds himself dependant on the kindness of strangers.
[page 75] With these interspecific altercasts, Jake demonstrates that Weinstein and Deutschberger’s approach need not be confined to the human realm, and that, in its application to the give and take of interpersonal power relations, there is no reason to assume, venerably or otherwise, that it is only human behaviour that is goal directed. Further, there is an additional form of more-than-human altercasting that Dog’s Life begs us to consider. Whenever a digital game player takes up a controller, or settles to their keyboard and mouse, or turns on their mobile device, in acquiescing to the solicitation that they press “Start,” or select a difficulty level, or undertake their assigned mission, they can be considered altercast by the game. Irrespective of the genre or mode of play, gamers must yield to appropriate forms of behaviour if they wish to continue. The player’s actions within the game are never entirely determined, as if controlled directly by the capacities and external instruments of the technology, of course. Rather, a whole field of responses, reactions, and possible inventions opens up, providing precisely the interaction and participation to which digital games lend themselves as a medium. The trajectory of a game, narrative or otherwise, may ultimately be as linear as any novel or film, constraining players to work their way through a succession of predetermined areas or levels. But, at the same time, players have a degree of freedom to choose how they wish to negotiate the game’s challenges. The successful continuance of the interaction depends on game and player maintaining an ongoing, negotiated working consensus, a tacit agreement as to the roles that the participants will play out in the encounter.
In Dog’s Life, then, you are altercast as a dog. The promotion and packaging take the form of an explicit, verbal cast—“It’s great being a dog!”—and the gameplay itself is no less manded. Grandpa’s training session does not simply teach Jake the first of his tricks, but begins to instruct you, the player, as to how you must adopt this particular identity within the confines of the game. The varied forms of stereotypically canine behaviour that you must take upon yourself—digging for bones, marking territory, tracking scent trails, begging for treats, et al.—comprise, in part, the game’s altercast of you in the role of a dog. Beyond these somewhat formulaic activities, though, your casting as a canid is facilitated by two technological innovations within the game. The first is Smellovision. The option to press the triangular button on the game controller and move to Smellovision is always available, and you must choose when, or even if, you will allow yourself to be so induced, in order not simply to control the avatar of Jake but to be confined to his perspective. Alexander Galloway has argued that cinematic convention most often uses the subjective shot to effect a sense of alienation, detachment or unease.59 The first person perspective breaks the spell of the authoritative and seemingly objective traditional camera shot, inhibiting audience identification: it is used most often to represent the vision of criminals, monsters, aliens, and “otherwise inhuman” characters.60 Digital games that make use of the first person perspective, on the other hand, are able to merge player and protagonist: the fact that you direct the virtual ‘camera’ yourself ensures, in this case, a significant sense of identification.61 With Smellovision, Dog’s Life utilizes this mode of subjective identification but adds to it a unique, other-than-human variation. Not only is the weapon of the traditional first person shooter replaced by Jake’s nose (Fig. 2), but as we saw earlier, when you shift from third person perspective to Smellovision, the wide-angle view and muted tones, together with the fact that you can “see smells,” imperfectly but effectively simulates canine perception. By means of this inhuman and yet entirely enjoyable identification, players are altercast as harassed but homely Jake the dog.
In addition to the distinctive visual dimension of the game, the PlayStation 2 also provides tactile feedback through the DualShock analogue controller. As Jake leaps over fences and gates, or simply bounds around the game’s locations for the sheer pleasure of the experience, the controller provides an indicative jolt when he launches and lands. Similarly, [page 76] whenever he strays too close to a precipitous edge, on cliffs, ski slopes or in warehouses, the controller will vibrate, cautioning the player to step back. The warning feedback on these high ledges effectively constitutes an instance of Weinstein and Deutschbergers’ “gestures of approval and disapproval,”62 which serve as signposts for the route that the game would prefer you to take. Players are free to persist as they wish, but those who do so and fall will feel the heavy impact of their landing, and Jake will become noticeably less healthy as a result, complaining about his sore head and moving more slowly. Like the first person perspective, the practice of providing indicative vibrations is by no means unique to Dog’s Life, and is widely supported by PlayStation games. But, again, the technology here takes a unique turn. Just as the shift to Smellovision alerts us, with hind sight, to visual and olfactory aspects of the third person perspective we had been employing, changes in our tactile experience now also prompt reassessment. Players receive haptic feedback at appropriate moments whether they are employing a first or third person perspective, but there is conspicuously more vibration when playing the game in subjective Smellovision than in dispassionate third person mode. Having experienced both, the game world literally feels more physical when playing in Smellovision: it is more immediate, more ‘real,’ when you are a dog. By this means of tactile feedback, Dog’s Life privileges a player’s subjective experience of the game as a dog over their time merely controlling Jake from a detached but anthroponormative, third person perspective. In addition to the visual and olfactory dimensions of Smellovision, then, this complementary form of technologically induced haptic altercasting helps affirm your identity as a dog during your interaction with the game.
McLuhan suggests that the dog was, originally, a primordial technology that functioned as an extension of human capacities and thereby made possible a whole new way of life. There is, in McLuhan’s conception of all media and technologies as “extensions of man,” an anthropocentric bias which pulls against the elements of his work that, with equal force, emphasise the determining effects of the new environments generated by those technologies. In this instance, however, his equivocally humanistic probes hold the potential to highlight the means by which the technological innovations of Dog’s Life complicate and interrogate habitual understandings of animal experience. The medium, McLuhan insisted, is not just the message, but also the massage. Technologies, he argued, produce environments that “work us over,” that “leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered,” a characterisation that lends itself to the tactile, immersive, participative nature of digital games.63 Games, on McLuhan’s account, function as “live paradigms” of a society, encapsulating the cultural environment in model form. By simulating one situation by means of another, and inviting participation in that recreation, games make available a mode of revealing, anti-environmental perception.64 Participation in the particular technology at which we have been looking, in the Smellovision game mechanic that lies at the heart of Dog’s Life, can facilitate a greater awareness of and critical reflection on traditional, clichéd ways of thinking about both animality and subjectivity, human or otherwise.
In addressing the three senses of sight, smell and touch, Smellovision provides players with an inventive and surprisingly rigorous recreation of key aspects of canine perception as they are currently understood, even if the simulation as a whole remains necessarily simplified. The limitations of this model are, I would suggest, less important than its educative effect. During the course of his adventure, young Jake learns a number of impressive moves from his fellows, and, in turn, this new dog teaches us a pair of old tricks. On the one hand, as a ludic altercast, the game requires players to recognise dogs as subjects. The player of dog’s Life may not get to experience life as a dog (as we have seen, the game’s [page 77] simulated Umwelt and conventional narrative are inevitably schematic and stereotyped), but they are reminded that it is like something to be a dog. The key issue is not, pace McLuhan, that dogs should be conceived as technologies, augmenting human aptitudes and abilities and thereby generating new modes of social existence. Rather, this digital technology helps us to appreciate more fully the subjective dimension inherent to the interpersonal relations that pertain between the human and canine participants in any such social order, and, indeed, the asymmetric nature of those subjective interpersonal relations. The altercasts depicted and enacted by the game work to educate players, directing (but never forcing) us to acknowledge that such interspecific interactions, including training processes of all kinds, involve two more-or-less free subjects with their own perceptions and objectives who, at the same time, are engaged in an uneven, irregular, shifting power relationship.
On the other hand, as a disruptive anti-environment, the game requires players to reconsider the traditional, presumed primacy of the human subject. The player of dog’s Life does not experience events from a single, human perspective (as we have seen, our perception of the game’s settings and characters is not consistent or continuous), but switches repeatedly between a human and a canine viewpoint. Contrary to first appearances, the game does not set out to provide an impersonal, impartial, third-person perspective from which locations and interactions can be observed as if with dispassionate detachment. Rather, the engaged, subjective, first person perspective that belongs to Jake, the unruly outsider, undercuts the pre-eminence of what now turns out to have been an implicitly anthropocentric outlook. In shifting from a god’s-eye to a dog’s-eye view, the anti-environment established and enacted by the game works to educate players, challenging privileged, normalised notions of human perception, which is to say the perceptual anthroponormativity that would conflate an ostensibly objective with an implicitly human outlook, and reminding us that a human point of view is but one immersed, subjective perspective amongst many.65 Thus, by means of these two edifying tricks, altercasting and anti-environments, this digital game’s simulation of canine perception through its Smellovision technology complicates our understanding both of animal and of human subjects.
In terms of its narrative and characterisation, Dog’s Life may be conventional and even clichéd. Jake is both loveable rascal and faithful hound, and over the course of the game he runs the whole gamut of traditional canine conduct. Jake is not just cast but typecast as everyone’s best friend, and a universal everydog.66 In terms of the Smellovision technology which sets this game apart from the pack, however, Dog’s Life mounts a genuine challenge to customary thinking about the canine. Even whilst insisting on the significant alterity of canine experience, the game obliges players to identify with the subjective Dog’s Life of the title. Anti-environment and altercast here work together to emphasise that recognition of the otherness of different species does not preclude modes of identification. In troubling a tacit, uniform anthroponormativity, Smellovision entails a shift from an unquestioned, dogmatic identity to a disruptive, reflective alterity. At the same time, in casting players as an extraordinary, inhuman other, Smellovision involves the voluntary adoption of a projected, alien alter as an ongoing, relational identity. The anti-environmental altercast that is Dog’s Life, which is freely taken up by its players, invites and challenges us to rethink both human and canine subjectivity. Until, that is, the novelty of this innovative, inventive digital game is exhausted, and new tricks must be sought once more.
More essays by Tom Tyler are available at his Research page.