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.