Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) is an interdisciplinary centre for research/ creation in game studies and design, digital culture and interactive art


  back to blog

Nintendogs as Companion Species

Posted by Bart

So I have been scrambling to get my abstract finished for a conference I want to go to in May in Cardiff.  I am rather excited about this project after 48 hours of (re)playing Nintendogs, reading Haraway and looking at Nintendogs Youtube videos. I thought I would share in case any of you had two cents to toss in before I forget about this again until March.  Check it out –

Playing with Simulated Animals: Nintendogs as Companion Species

Bart Simon, Concordia University, Montreal

At the level of popular imagination it would seem that research programs in artificial intelligence, computer graphics, and robotics have demonstrated that believably simulating human beings is a difficult if not impossible task. This has spawned philosophically informed side programs aimed at the simulation and reproduction of lower orders of intelligence or if not “lower orders” than at least less fraught ones. No matter how advanced the neural network learning and fuzzy logic processing of artificial brains becomes a culturally situated “uncanny valley” separates humans from their machine pretenders. Machines pretending to be animals however, are an altogether different story.

This paper explores the case of machines pretending to be dogs not as a matter of ‘true’ AI or robotics but rather as popular interactive simulation. The machine platform in question is the ubiquitous Nintendo DS handheld digital game system and the animal simulation is Nintendogs, the best-selling pet simulator developed by Nintendo as a launch title for the DS in 2005. The platform and software together constitute a puppy-machine in interaction with a human player as owner and trainer. It is no accident that the assemblage composed of Nintendogs software, the portable DS hardware and player (as owner/trainer) bares a family resemblance to Donna Haraway’s relationship with the dog Cayenne Pepper in her accounts of agility training in When Species Meet (2008). My analysis is constructed this way in order to consider Nintendog agility training as an intriguing if not scandalous case of what Haraway describes in terms of a “becoming with.”

In this case the companion species in question is not the dog-human relation Haraway is concerned with, but rather the strange machine-human relation that obtains when the machine pretends to be a dog and the human pretends to be a dog owner and trainer. I am not ready to argue that the stakes of this are particularly cosmopolitical but it does raise questions about the possibility of forms of popular digital play to mess with the otherwise hyper-rationalized conditions of its production.