Some early thoughts on miniatures and virtual pets

Small is relative and relational

I want to start from some ideas about the miniature.

In Susan Stewart’s On Longing, she explains that the miniature and the gigantic are both understood in relation to the body. The gigantic towers over us, envelops us, consumes us. The miniature can be contained within our bodies, is small enough that we can manipulate it. The miniature can be toyed with.

A miniature that can be interacted with is made cognitively smaller than its referent, as well as physically smaller — Stewart chooses a particularly poignant example in H.G. Wells’s articulation of the Great War as a game:

“Great War is at present I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion. Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but — the available heads we have for it are too small.”

The actual Great War out in the world is too large for the people who attempt to control it; the toy war that one plays in miniatures on a tabletop is just about manageable for the “available heads we have”.

In contrast, a miniature that cannot be interacted with — such as a dollhouse made for display purposes only, that you cannot touch — is “cognitively… gigantic”. The boundaries of time and space are fixed such that the relative scale of the body never comes into contact with the house.

Scale is therefore really about action in the body. The mobile game as a miniature is about a thing that can be contained within the personal space of the body (“it fits right in your pocket!”) and is closely connected with the idea of mobility as a kind of control and agency. The mobile fits into my hand, whereas the desktop is installed on the terms set by the furniture and I, for the most part, have to fit myself into it.

The tricky thing we will run into here is the nature of action itself. How far is the mobile game as manipulable as the toy? What agency have I lost in the design of an object that can respond to me? How does that complicate the notion of the mobile game as a miniature? But as far as virtual pets go, the nature of the action involved means that there is indeed a cognitive scaling from the unknowable inner world and biology of a real-world pet dog, to the much simpler demands of a virtual one.

In the visual design of a virtual pet, a small amount of visual space is being used to convey sympathetic images of the creature on screen. The animation of Snake II, a puzzle game for Nokia phones from 1999 onwards, is a good reference when thinking about the animation of miniature virtual pets; tiny flourishes such as an extra pixel appearing to travel down the length of the snake’s body after it successfully eats a piece of food, or the jaw appearing to open because a pixel in the head moves up by one square, create a compelling image of hunger and satisfaction. To some degree, there is an assumption when viewing an animation like this is that a great number of things are happening that I can’t see — an entire functioning digestive system — and this is a surface abstraction of the whole system.

Thinking of games as relationships between humans and machines challenges the idea that the abstract is different to realism — not only are all forms of animation abstractions, but all relationships are conducted based on limited information about the entire system at work. Just as I read a pixel-by-pixel shift in the snake’s body as an indicator of physical satisfaction, so I read subtle movements in the people around me as indicators of feedback from systems that I can’t directly access in their full complexity. Virtual pets are the same cognitive modelling shifted down to a smaller scale, both visually and mentally.

Snake II isn’t normally understood as a virtual pet, since it is also a spatial puzzle, but when distilled down to moments like this the game seems to be at its heart about caring for a tiny creature so that it can grow. The difference between Snake II and games more readily understood to be virtual pets is that one focuses on bodies, while the other also deals with emotions. Snake II is focused only on the physicality of its subject — has it eaten, has it grown, has it eaten itself and died — and on the physical prowess of the player struggling to keep up with the increasing pace of the snake’s movements. The only demand placed on the player is essentially an embodied one about having quick reflexes, though some tactical thinking is required as the Snake starts to take up more space on screen.

In contrast, a virtual pet such as a tamagotchi requires emotional labour of a sort. The skill required has nothing to do with your physical ability to manipulate the keys of the device, but rather is concerned with your ability to hold another being in your mind as you go about your life. It is a care simulator. You have to be aware at all times that there is a simulation of a living thing that at regular intervals will require feeding and cleaning. The information conveyed in the animation of the tiny group of pixels on screen is much more communicative of the creature’s emotional state and relationship to the owner — you watch it hatch from an egg, and then watch it bound around with excitement. You watch it bash its head against the ground in frustration, and bounce up and down when it is happy. A relationship of care is being animated here.

Lucy Suchman and Jackie Stacey explore a number of ideas around the slippage between the human and the machine, the natural and the mechanical, in the special issue of Body and Society on animation. They raise an argument made by Kelty and Landecker, that the animation of a brain cell is precursor to the generation of a functioning brain cell — that in fact, it is not the brain cell being animated, but a theory of the brain cell.

Perhaps the animation of intimacy is a precursor to the generation of a functioning intimate relationship between human and machine — or in fact, it is not a virtual pet that is being animated, but a model of pet ownership that is being represented in software; each game representing a slightly different model of what it means to relate to a pet.