Pondering Pinatas

 Posted by (Visited 15056 times)  Game talk
Jan 272007
 
Viva Pinata X360
Viva Pinata

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.

  22 Responses to “Pondering Pinatas”

  1. s writing only when I have a full reaction to log (and not just a “wow, cool”). This should keep me from posting a link to everything. On using NWN for learning On consumer content (as opposed to user created content) On Viva Piniata On rich community tools for MMOs

  2. In “A History of Warfare” John Keegan makes the point that warfare used to bea fluid skittish affair, as can be seen in some tribal areas of the world today. He points specifically at pastoralism as the cause of this changing into groups of men murdering each other face to face.

    Hunter gatherers spend more time tracking and hunting than killing, and then at a distance. But keeping animals means the act of killing itself is the important part, and people get a lot of practice while up close.

  3. Buck up, Raph. It ain’t nothin’ compared to what “Katamari Damacy” has been teaching them for years. Drop some LSD and look into the belly of that psycho beast if you dare.

  4. Interesting stuff, Raph. I’ve been tempted by Viva Pinata, and now I might have to pick it up.

    I’m not sure, though, that you can compare Ramsay’s kids raising real animals that will eventually be slaughtered for food and your kids raising pinatas. One is a game and one isn’t. One involves taking real life.

    I’m wondering whether your kids are seeing the game for it’s underlying patterns which “train their players to ignore the fiction that wraps the pattern.” (p. 80, AToF) I guess the story of your daughter being upset contradicts that bit. Is there an age difference between your son (who seemed fine with sacrificing the ‘pigxie’) and your daughter?

    Also I’m curious if your reaction is more empathetic because you’re not playing the game, but experiencing more the story of it through your kids.

    Anyway, fascinating stuff!

  5. Scott, the kids are just a year and a bit apart.

    Obviously, it’s just a game in the one case. That’s part of what I was getting at — had my kids then actually eaten the pinatas, I think I would have been a bit more comfortable!

    I don’t think my kids know what the underlying pattern even represents. To them, it’s just a game — they do not have the life experience that makes them connect the dots and see it as a farm. My wife (who grew up on a farm) and I saw it this way immediately.

    As a player of the game, I tend to try to not cannibalize my earlier pet critters in order to feed new ones. I saved every one that I had named, and bred specific “meat animals” to feed to the newer creatures.

  6. Curse you Raph! Now I have to go shopping! FWIW, I think you are a sissy for raising meat animals that you don’t get attached to. 😉

    My last neighbors in Michigan raised animals for meat. The first year was pigs, and this last year was turkey. Their children (and mine) were involved in the daily feeding of the animals, and my son sat at their table knowing what it was he was eating. Then again, he’s the one who said “Hit it and we can have it for dinner!” when I spotted a wild turkey while driving.

    I think that the lesson in the game could be interesting as a talking point with kids, something you would have to bring up to make them think on it outside of unconscious play, but we aren’t all so far removed from looking dinner in the eyes before it’s made into dinner. I’ve always known people who got their entire meat input from hunted animals. Deer jerky tastes pretty good when you know how to make it. Yes, our friends who grew up in the urban cores don’t know about this, but it’s not that far off from any of us.

    Makes me wonder though, do the animals die in the Pinata TV show that I see advertised?

  7. If you want a fun and unique game, try volunteering at the live food block in a zoo. (The killing isn’t fun though. Being a volunteer, I refuse to do that.)

    Cockroaches and crickets –

    – Open the box and try to catch up 20 (or whatever) to put in a bag to feed the lizards. How many climb up your arm and into your clothes in the mean-time?

    – Open the box and try to clean out the cage (large plastic box with lots of egg crates for them to hide). While cleaning, they try to escape, or climb up your arms. (One nice thing about cockroaches: If you accidentally fling some on the ground, they run away and hide! No mess to sweep up!)

    Mice – Every week you need to transfer mice to a clean box. This involves:

    – Picking up the adult mice by the tail and moving them to the new box… some of them bite. Most of them are simply hard to grab by the tail. Don’t pick up heavily pregnant females by the tip of the tail or it might break.

    – Picking up the weaner mice and moving them to a seperate box. If you accidentally get mice that are too young, un-weaned, then they’ll starve to death, so you have to worry about their size.

    – Pick up the pre-weaners and move to the new box with the adults. They don’t usually bite, but they’re faster than the adults.

    – Scoop up the pinkies and move them. Make sure not to leave any behind since they hide in the paper shreddings!

    – All the while, the mice in the new box are trying to escape… or are at least curious about seeing what’s in the outside world.

    – And add resource management to all of this, since you need so many adult, weaner, pre-weaner, and pinkies a week to feed the animals. If you take too many pinkies, you don’t have as many pre-weaners next week. The same goes for pre-weaner usage affecting next week’s weaners.

  8. No, the animals do NOT die in the show. In FACT, the animals don’t really “die” in the game, either, although they get hurt until they literally explode into pieces of candy, which all the other animals rush to eat up.

    If you look closely, the spirit of the “killed” pet flies away, and re-forms just outside the boundaries of the garden. The pet then slouches away, upset that it was “killed”.

    I’m certain this was added by a design team that wanted to sidestep, or cushion, the whole pets-killing-pets thing. I would think it a cop-out, except that the game as a whole (and the TV show) is really mixed up, complex, and arbitrary about it’s themes and concepts. In the end, I just reveled in the weirdness. 🙂

  9. Kids’ stories, games and play have been about death since forever. The wolf eats grandma and then the woodsman hacks the wolf open and grandma jumps out, mysteriously undigested. How weird is that?

    We anthropomorphize everything in this culture to an insane degree… and, at the same time, desensitize to real-world, real-creature suffering. It is truly confusing and weird. My favorite example recently was the whole “Save Toby” deal-i-o. “Give me money or the rabbit gets it. And then I eat the rabbit.” Hysterical.

    Except not to some people.

    I wonder if I could raise and ransom a particularly winsome pinata?

  10. That version is for adults, Andy.

    Older versions have no woodsman.

  11. Viva Pinata fascinated me from the first time I saw it at E3. Unfortunately I don’t have the correct console to be able to play it at home.

    This game sounds like it has captured the Buddhist philosophy that there is truly no birth, no death…just recycling. Maybe your kids aren’t reacting to the “death” in the game because they recognize it as a true reflection of the reality or impermanence and nondeath. From a video game? Who knew!

  12. Do not take away my vivid colors and fun music, goddam it. I watch the opening video every time I fire it up (every weekend…I’m not permitted to play during the week for fear of sucking up too much work time) just to watch the Fizzlybear go “Shakey shakey shakey shakey shake shake shake” as he dances. Mmm, Fizzlybear.

    –matt, currently ranked #58 in the world in Garden Value.

  13. Incidentally, get yourself a rainbow in the garden (from Ivor Bargain). It’ll help calm down angry ones that pick fights. Feeding them joy candy keeps them from wanting to fight too.

    –matt

  14. […] up a rough translation after the break. Source: MMODIG – unbeliever Categories: Bloggers 01:42 Pondering Pinatas Viva Pinata As my stalkers know, my Xbox Live profile has come to be dominated by pinatas — not […]

  15. […] Raph’s Website � Pondering Pinatas 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. […]

  16. The best thing about Viva Pinata is watching the worm looking pinatas do the ‘mating dance.’ That is sooo cute =)

  17. Not knowing too much about the earlier versions of Red Riding Hood, I looked it up on Wikipedia. I was surprised to see that two of the earlier versions were quite different – one with RRH escaping on her own by her wits (after eating her grandmother’s flesh), and another where both granny and RRH are eaten and never saved.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Red_Riding_Hood

    I’m sure others here know loads more than I on such things, but I found it interesting.

  18. I find I have to compromise with myself. I name my initial pinatas, and I only sacrifice their children, who I don’t name.

    Then I feel guilty for selling off/sacrificing my quackberries children 🙁

  19. […] title, but Raph Koster, one would imagine, isn’t a Bruce Dickinson fan – he is, however, slightly disturbed by Viva Pinata, which is a touch more interesting than being obsessed by Lord Iffy Boatrace or […]

  20. […] title, but Raph Koster, one would imagine, isn’t a Bruce Dickinson fan – he is, however, slightly disturbed by Viva Pinata, which is a touch more interesting than being obsessed by Lord Iffy Boatrace or […]

  21. […] post’s title, but Raph Koster, one would imagine, isn’t a Bruce Dickinson fan – he is, however, slightly disturbed by Viva Pinata, which is a touch more interesting than being obsessed by Lord Iffy Boatrace or […]

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