Go ahead, play with your food!

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Some people complain that kids don't know where their food comes from anymore. That urbanisation and the information age have alienated humans from animals. But what if video games helped us interact with livestock? It could be the start of a beautiful new relationship, Dutch researchers believe.

Picture this: pigs are rooting about in a sty, grunting, squealing and generally doing what pigs like to do. Except some of them are bored with being penned up, and start biting the others. Suddenly a small circle of light appears on the wall, and one pig notices. He scampers over to the light and sniffs it. The light brightens, and moves. The pig follows it.

Meanwhile, in a living room far away, a teenager has his finger on the touch screen of a tablet computer. Within seconds, the snout of a live pig appears. The finger moves to the left. And the pig follows it.

This is not fantasy. This is Pig Chase, an interactive video game being developed by an animal welfare specialist, Dutch game designers, and Wageningen University philosopher Clemens Driessen. The aim is to fulfill the animals' need for play and to discover whether people and pigs can forge a new relationship.

Boredom and aggression
"We were looking for a toy to distract pigs because they get bored and aggressive," Driessen says. "One farmer said why not give them a Wii?" referring to the home video games produced by Nintendo. "We asked art school researchers whether this was possible, and they said it was." The game designers from Utrecht School of the Arts took advantage of pigs' natural attraction to light.

Once the human player has a pig's attention, the goal is to get the animal to move towards a target which appears on the wall of the pen. When a pig touches the target, a virtual fireworks display is triggered. So far, tests are encouraging. Pigs seem keen to join in.

Games people play
This may be just for fun, but these days fun is compulsory. Since 2001, EU animal welfare rules require farmers to provide entertainment in pens to discourage pigs from biting each other's tails. This eliminates the need for the removal of pigs' tails. And for the people who play Pig Chase, the rewards are similar to those of popular online games like Angry Birds or Farmville, Driessen explains.

"People like to move their finger on a screen and see stuff happen. Which is similar to what pigs are interested in. It's pretty basic. We're not that different from them." Once Pig Chase is up and running, more games could be introduced on the same platform. "A kind of playstation for pigs."

Makin' bacon
Driessen thinks the game might even change the way people think about livestock.

"When we think of farm animals, we see them as victims. But by playing with them, we turn them into active partners who help us find out what they like to do."

Ultimately, he thinks, consumers may start reconsidering their relationship with the animals they eat.

"Over the past 50 years we have grown apart from the animals we consume. Traditionally people had close ties to the animals around them and the animals they ate. For them, the game would not seem so inconsistent. But now we think it's morally right to play with our pets and make our food animals invisible."

High scores
One problem Driessen and animal welfare expert Marc Bracke from Wageningen UR Livestock Research haven't yet solved, is the cost. Farmers are constantly looking for ways to cut expenses. An interactive game installation hardly sounds cheap. But consumers might be willing to pay a share. Driessen:

"In Dutch supermarkets, you already pay a higher price for better animal welfare. If shoppers see a pork loin from a pig that has played with a human, they might spend even more. You can trace every piece of meat back to the animal it came from, so just imagine: a package of pork that tells you what the pig's high scores were."