Wait, Did My Dog Just Design a Game?

About six months ago, my wife and I adopted a dog, whom we dubbed Pixel. She’s a delight, she gets along famously with our sixteen-year-old O.G. dog, and most importantly to this story, she’s wicked smart. Like, too-smart-for-her-own-good smart. Her favorite thing in the world is to disassemble toys, and she does it in phases. She’ll spend an evening assessing a given toy’s structural weaknesses, then sleep on it, and then go to work on the actual destruction in the morning.

She’s neurotic as hell, true enough, but that kind of behavior goes beyond mere neurosis. It suggests a weirdly systemic mode of thinking.

I said that the toy disassembly thing is her favorite activity in the world, but that’s not quite true. Her very favorite thing is to be chased. She’s a born runner, and her greatest joy is matching her speed against other dogs’.

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So the dogs and I were at the park, and Pixel had hit it off with this dog she’d never met before—a Shiba Inu, as it happens. (I asked if he was a shiba mix, and in response I got a sour look and the word “purebred,” spoken in that arch, proud papa tone so common among dog owners discussing canine genealogy. There’s a sinister Linean taxonomy lurking in that tone, and indeed, in the very concept of purebreds—but all anybody ever consciously means by it is aren’t his ears so cute I love it when dogs’ ears look like that! I’d never berate someone for casually accepting dog eugenics, but I do find myself feeling quietly smug, and doubly protective of my two beloved mudbloods).

Anyway, when I snapped out of my musings, I saw that Pixel was perusing Purity The Shiba, who had a stick in his mouth. Pixel nabbed the stick from Purity, and then she was the one being chased. They went back and forth like that for a while, taking turns being It. Pretty standard dog behavior, at first glance. But as I began to pay closer attention, a few things stuck out:

      1. There was no Tug of War aspect to the game. Successfully grabbing the stick instantly meant becoming It, and the dogs seemed to have agreed-upon rules for what constituted a proper grab and what was close-but-no-cigar.

      2. The stick itself didn’t seem to have any intrinsic value or appeal. Each time one of the two dogs initiated the game, he or she did so by picking up whichever stick was closest by—and both dogs understood that the dog with the stick was It.

I thought about Julian Dibbell right then:

Two puppies at play, some animal behaviorists will tells us, are engaged in a structured simulation—building an imaginary dogfight shaped by simple rules forbidding only the too-sharp bite and the menacing growl.

Indeed, there’s a history of thinking of the games dogs play as games, or as simulations. They’re not actually fighting; they’re performing a mutually enjoyable activity that signifies or approximates a fight. They’re not actually biting each other’s necks, not actually meaning to injure one another or even, necessarily, to assert dominance. Rather, they’re doing something subtly but significantly different, something that simulates combat or hunting.

I knew all that, but I’d never seen dogs remix or invent games in quite so apparently intentional—or structured, or abstract—a manner. I’ll be fascinated to see whether Pixel maintains her interest in Stick Tag (as I’ve been calling it), and even more fascinated to see whether she tries to play it with dogs other than Purity, her co-designer. If that happens, will the new players remix the game? And if that happens, when the original designers play the game again, will they return to the original rules?

Granted, I’m not observing this in anything even remotely like scientific conditions, but nonetheless, I’ll keep you posted.

Stay tuned, fellow Stick Tag fans.

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