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  •    Gerbils  
    Tuesday, November 15 2005 @ 04:51 PM UTC
    Contributed by: David

    I don’t know what it is with kids and gerbils. But I suspect it has something to do with videogames.

    If you’ve followed the various discussions on this site, you’ll know that I like to reconsider the question of “What is a game?” by comparing things that are obviously not games to the definition and seeing what shakes out.

    So, this time around, I’d like to ask the perfectly reasonable question:

    Are gerbils a kind of game?

    Before you laugh this off as a completely ridiculous, or maybe just a zen, thing to ask. Consider this: Putting a couple of gerbils in a colorful plastic habitat is an awful lot like keeping virtual pets—Tamgotchis, Nintendogs, Babyz, Petz, what have you.

    So, the question might as well be, “Are virtual pets a form of game or videogame?”

    As far as I can tell, both questions get to the same point.

    Before I give my answer, let me point out a few salient features of Gerbil ownership.

    • You go to the store, pick out your gerbil and then take him home.
    • You give your gerbil a name—like Gary or Gerbily Gerb.
    • You set up the “cage,” which is really a little gerbil playground with lots of features designed to make it easy to interact with/grab the gerbils. In our case, the coolest thing is a sort of sky wheel. The gerbils climb into this apparatus and get exercise while driving an contraption that looks an awful lot like a modernist revolving restaurant.
    • You can buy accessories to make your gerbils more fun, like those plastic balls from Super Monkey Ball.
    • You care for your gerbils by feeding them, watering them, playing with them and giving them snacks. The gerbils give you feedback on your progress by settling down and being cute if you do a good job, or biting you and maybe even dying if you don’t do a good job.
    • Most of gerbil ownership is just sitting there watching them scamper around.

    So, are gerbils a form of videogame? A form of not-so-virtual pet?

    I’d say, sure. If game are, as I have suggested a number of times, “algorithmic entertainment,” then I think that’s more or les what gerbils are. So are fish, for that matter. They are little bundles of systematic behavior that we observe, enjoy and play with. We get a kick out of watching them live and act. We interact with them as a way of better understanding the system of their behavior (I wonder what they will do if I show the cat to them?).

    Gerbils are also interesting because they have little hands and are morphologically close enough to people that we can see them as little proto-people. As sims. So, I don’t see the gerbils as much more than much messier and furrier sims.

    So what? Well, there’s at least one sort of unsettling direction this conversation could go.

    Assuming this is all true, and if you watch how my kids interact with the gerbils, I don’t think you’d come to much of a difference in your conclusion, then I would say this brings up some thorny ethical questions. Because it seems that a living creature like a gerbil deserves something more than what is given to a virtual life form. If gerbils are games, aren’t they different kind of game? Aren’t gerbils worth better care and attention than sims?

    Or maybe that’s what Alan Turing was getting at with his Turing Test. It’s not our place to make moral judgments about virtual life, or gerbils for that matter. Life is as life does. And, maybe, life is a kind of game.


    Gerbils | 19 comments | Create New Account
    The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
    Authored by: langley on Tuesday, November 15 2005 @ 07:40 PM UTC
    Yes, if you're name is Richard Gere.
    [ Reply to This ]
    Authored by: Weefz on Tuesday, November 15 2005 @ 08:01 PM UTC
    Odd question. Probably zen, yes. If I knew what Zen really was.

    Aren't many games basically things that you can do in real life, but removed from reality?

    So... gerbils are in reality - i.e. there are consequences that you can't just reload and pretend they never happened (death, starvation, cruelty). Therefore, not a game. Gerbils are born (created) with a consciousness and feelings that makes then more valuable than virtual pets - real pain. Pain and hunger in a Nintendog doesn't actually damage the Nintendog (unless the developers were a lot more thorough than I give them credit for), it just causes them to react in the same way that an injured dog reacts, so 'hurting' them is devoid of consequence since you can easily undo it.

    Hmm... one of my posits for an essay on 'what is a game' that I never quite get around to writing is that 'games are set in a self-contained virtual world where actions do not affect that real world', which was causing me no end of problems with MMORPGs and stories about people leaving their wives. Thinking about this gerbil thing, you've helped me refine that now. Thanks! :) I'm changing it to 'games are set in a self-contained virtual world where consequences are substantially different to those in the real world'.

    *wanders back to The Escapist mumbling about how she's gonna start that essay Real Soon Now*
    [ Reply to This ]
    Authored by: eben on Tuesday, November 15 2005 @ 09:17 PM UTC
    This question seems to illustrate the subjectivity of defining games.

    I am reminded of certain Calvin and Hobbes comics in which the two characters played Calvin's favorite pastime; "Calvinball". This game had rules, but none were fixed, it had boundaries that were in constant flux, and to anyone else watching, it surely must not have looked like a real 'game'. But the consensual participation by its players made it so.

    Monopoly was a natural game to appear at the time it did because property owners and successful businessmen had already made business a game. Or listen to seasoned traders talk achingly about the highs and lows of 'the game'. Of course in each of these cases there are real consequences in the real world, but since the participants abstract and objectify the rules and the game pieces, these consequences do not affect the player's notions of the game.

    By this definition, no game is a definitive set of anything, but rather a psychic contract on the part of the player to view everything (concerning the game) as abstract objects with discrete meaning and behavior (and suspend ignorance of all else).

    In other words, anything is a game as long as someone treats it like one.

    Just a sec... my sister's level two scout-gerbil just ran into the neighbour's level nine warrior-cat. Hey, if he survives he'll be level five!

    Oh, but he didn't....

    Hmm.. Now where's that respawn key?

    ...I think I'm in trouble.
    [ Reply to This ]
  • Gerbils - Authored by: Weefz on Wednesday, November 16 2005 @ 03:38 PM UTC
  • Gerbils - Authored by: eben on Friday, November 18 2005 @ 09:04 AM UTC
  • Gerbils - Authored by: Weefz on Friday, November 18 2005 @ 02:51 PM UTC
  • Gerbils - Authored by: eben on Tuesday, November 22 2005 @ 04:20 PM UTC
  • Gerbils
    Authored by: cfoust on Wednesday, November 16 2005 @ 03:51 AM UTC
    Here's an even more zen question for you: are your kids a game to your gerbil? Probably not. The gerbil is too busy with his rodent affairs. I have a mouse, and he only seems to see me as a bringer of food and water, and an occasional annoyance.

    Are you a game? Interacting with people can be fun.

    What I'm saying is the issue is your intent. You can play a game with almost any object, but there are also those objects which are specifically meant to facilitate a certain game.
    [ Reply to This ]
  • Cat-and-Gerbil - Authored by: eben on Friday, November 18 2005 @ 09:18 AM UTC
  • Gerbils - Authored by: Haarball on Sunday, November 27 2005 @ 01:16 PM UTC
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