As my stalkers know, my Xbox Live profile has come to be dominated by pinatas — not because I am obsessively playing Viva Pinata myself, but because my kids have been. Endlessly. Perpetually. Mind-numbingly.
(Let me take this moment to apologize to Matt Mihaly for the death of the critter he sent us. We locked it in a box because it was testy and kept attacking other pinatas. And apparently it starved to death in there.)
The interesting thing about Viva Pinata to me is that it isn’t what you think it is. It looks like yet another take on the whole pet thing — virtual critters, only this time you have a garden to keep them in. But it’s nothing nearly so innocuous. No, you see, Viva Pinata is actually a game about animal husbandry in the “raise ’em and kill ’em for food” sense, and all of the cute little hats you can buy for them and amusing nicknames you can give them are just ways to tug at your heartstrings in the moment before you casually put them to death.
This runs a bit contrary to what we expect a kids’ title to be. I am reminded powerfully of this because we’ve been watching Gordon Ramsay’s The F-Word, a cooking show from the UK. (Yeah, same profane guy who did Hell’s Kitchen, if you saw that. I got turned on to him when I was visiting Scotland and caught a few eps of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares). As part of this show, Ramsay decided to raise turkeys in his backyard, with his kids tending them, specifically so they could be slaughtered for Christmas dinner and served up to those self-same kids, as well as all the patrons in the TV show’s restaurant. This season, he’s doing the same, only with pigs.
We’ve grown distanced from this sort of action, most of us (which is exactly Ramsay’s point). We hunt in the aisles of markets, not in the woods. And even hunting is a vastly different thing from lovingly tending meat on the hoof, caring for it and keeping it healthy so that it will taste good. It’s just not something that kids today ever get to experience.
Not that pinatas taste good. No. But you do have to breed them. You entice a few wild ones to your plot. You get the right things in place to domesticate them (simple little goals like having the right trees or food around). Sometimes the food they need is other animals you have. So the first hour’s cute Whirlms are just food for your birds later, and eventually the multi-hour process of getting a Syrupent means nothing because he’s just a gambit to get something else.
In practice, then, unlike the virtual pet games, Viva Pinata is about learning to let go of empathy. You have to learn to harden your heart. To me and my wife, who are coming by only occasionally to ask how things are going, it’s startling and disturbing to hear the glee with which the cute pet of an hour ago is now dinner for something else. Despite the many steps involved in getting a Pigxie, I had to beg my son not to sacrifice him as food just to get a Mellowolf. “What’s the big deal?” he said. “I can always just order another one.”
This is reinforced by the constant interruption of your peaceful gardening process with things like invading diseases, external predators, and of course, even your own animals constantly getting into fights, resulting in the need to pay medical bills. Early on, you even spend most of your time hovering over events with a watering can or a shovel (whacking things to break up fights). Eventually, you can hire workers to do this for you. Some reviews even complained of this, commenting that their mellow treat was anything but.
It’s not that the lesson is not valuable — we eat, after all. And we give up things that we carefully tend for the sake of getting more and different things. But the process in this game is somewhat disconnected. You don’t eat the pinatas — instead, you just accumulate money, buy new ones, and keep moving your farm from lowly chickens up to exotic beasties like ostriches and elephants. Eventually, you get a dragon, and then what? I don’t know. There is no hungry mouth to feed other than the high score, so to speak. Subsistence is replaced with achievement and some Gamerscore.
Even Ramsay had to hide the actual moment of slaughter from his children. And he also spent much time agonizing and asking experts on how to handle the disappointment his children would feel when their pets showed up dead on their table. In the end, there were a few brief tears, then the request, “Can I watch when you electrocute them?” followed by “I think Ainsley was tastiest,” showing that we can get past all sorts of emotional bonds with surprising ease. My daughter cried when her first beloved pinata pet was eaten by a predator — sorry, made sick and sour by Dastardos — but she got over it. Fast.
So here are my kids replicating that with virtual candy-and-papier-mache . And to some degree, it makes me nervous about getting them a dog. After all, what’s the big deal? We can always order another one.
Don’t get me wrong — I am not that worried, and I have greater confidence in my children’s empathy than that. After all, they will be the first to tell me that the pinatas aren’t real. But I think it’s yet another chance to look deeply into what our games teach, and how they teach it. Viva Pinata is an excellent game — but sometimes I wish it carried a bit more of the stink of the slaughterhouse, and a little less jaunty music and colorful pastel artwork.