Water Cooler Games served as the web's primary forum for "videogames with an agenda" — coverage of the uses of video games in advertising, politics, education, and other everyday activities, outside the sphere of entertainment.
The site was maintained at watercoolergames.org from 2003-2009, where it was edited by myself and Gonzalo Frasca. It is now archived here in full.
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Author's note: Nintendo has created a community at Gather.com to facilitate discussion of their "Touch Generations" series of games. I have cross-posted this article there, and readers may want to view the other articles in that series.
Nintendogs, as many of you already know, is a pet puppy simulator. You the player adopt a pet (actually you purchase a pure-bred one), then train and tend to it. As some of you may also know, Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to create Nintendogs after he got a pet puppy of his own. And as many of you also know, Nintendogs sits comfortably in the lap of Nintendo's "Touch Generations" strategy for the Nintendo DS, the company's attempt to appeal to broader player demographics.
What you may not know is that another puppy simulator beat Nintendogs to the punch by no less than a decade. In the mid-1990s, PF Magic created a series of virtual pets games for Windows computers called Dogz, Catz, and Babyz (collectively, Petz). Dogz was the first, released in 1995. The game--if it is even fair to call it that--sold quite well, with million copies running on the then-new Windows 95 operating system.
In Dogz, as in Nintendogs, the player adopted a puppy. As in Nintendogs, the player had to tend to the puppy through feeding, grooming and petting. Where Nintendogs uses the "innovative" touch screen interface to pet and interact with the dog, Dogz used the mouse for the same purpose. Unlike Nintendogs' strangely Japanese eternal puppy fetishism, one's Dogz dog actually grows from puppy to dog, and his progress is influenced by player attention. Ten years and several acquisitions later, Ubisoft released a version of Dogz for Gameboy Advance. Even though it is the direct decendent of the original PF Magic dog simulator, thanks to Nintendogs' successful marketing campaign Dogz for GBA appeared to be just a knockoff.
In later versions of Dogz (and first in 1996's Catz) the program made an important change in the way it ran. Catz and Dogz now lived on your Windows desktop rather than in a windowed playpen. They ran around seemingly outside the familiar prison walls of window frames, dashing to and fro to feed, retrieve balls, and interact with other custom-windowed objects. One could stow a dog in a sort of doghouse on the desktop or quit the program entirely. As much as Dogz did for rich interactive characters, it perhaps did as much to raise doubt in computer users' minds about how much of the power of their computers they really exploited. Advances in real time computer graphics like John Carmack's then-recent Castle Wolfenstein 3D and Doom 3D engines did the same, but Dogz seemed to trace the potential for computer software to bridge the chasm between productivity and entertainment.
My friend Andrew Stern was an integral part of the Petz development team. PF Magic was sold to Mindscape in the late 90s, and the products were quietly retired. Soon after, Andrew and my friend and colleague Michael Mateas began work on Façade, the first legitimate interactive drama. Michael's doctoral research centered around the expressive artificial intelligence and reactive planning language the two used to drive the two computer-controlled characters Grace and Trip. Andrew's experience creating Dogz, Catz, and Babyz provided instrumental experience for authoring Grace and Trip's convincing procedurally animated facial expressions and body movements. The techniques used on Dogz certainly influenced Andrew's approaches to these later believable characters. Alas, both go largely unsung.
Given Andrew's role in an arguably more sophisticated and certainly much earlier dog simulation, I must admit that I grimace a bit amidst the effusive praise heaped upon Nintendogs. Andrew is a modest and measured fellow, as you can see in his retrospective look at Dogz in the face of Nintendogs. In the face of the unsung ancestry of Nintendogs, I want to point out a few essential differences between the two titles, and their possible implications.
For one part, I think it's important to reconsider to Nintendo's decision not to age Nintendogs dogs. The reasons are clear, I think. For one, it's less work to simulate a puppy than to deal with the body and behavioral changes of a growing, then aging dog. For another, puppies are cuter. But this decision also turns the Nintendog into a perverse toy, and kind of infantilization of the growing, changing relationship one might actually have with a real pet. Certainly this design choice relates somewhat to the Japanese obsession with cuteness and youth, an obsession made clear in everything from toys to porn. And perhaps one might argue that a perennial puppy might be a more desirable pet than a full-grown dog. But in the absence of an aging and deepening character, Nintendogs dogs quickly feel plastic. After some time with my Nintendog, and not too much at that, I found myself feeling as though I were staring into the eyes of a resin doll or a tin robot. But worse, I imagined that a hypothetical "Nintendolls" actually might satisfy me more--the lack of convention for doll behavior invites imagined responses, a cornerstone of doll play.
For another part, consider the context for Nintendogs versus Dogz. As I already mentioned, Nintendogs is clearly a strategic title for the company. It's certainly a serious, legitimate title, and I don't mean to discount that fact. But Nintendogs is also intended to backdoor new players into a Nintendo DS. "I don't play games," a target buyer might think, "but I do like puppies." There is nothing wrong with this strategy; indeed we need innovative and unusual titles in the videogame business. But consider how Nintendo reinforces interaction with the dog. Nintendogs should be walked every day. One must pick up their droppings on walks. The player can teach the dog tricks through reinforcement and reward. Players must purchase food and toys and earn more money through shows and contests. As in many Nintendo titles, regular play activity is rewarded. Daily play is preferred. All activities cost money--from buying the puppy to providing it with food and water to acquiring toys to play with.
Conversely, Dogz attempted to make pet ownership a kind of sideline activity, something one might pick up as a playful release from spreadsheeting or word processing. The unwindowed pets shared the computer's workspace with the player. Petz could be stored away neatly, present yet backgrounded. This approach simulates an aspect of pet ownership that Nintendogs misses--the informal, casual companionship afforded by pets.
Perhaps we can locate Nintendogs' tendency toward the obsessive in the broader context of Miyamoto's games--games that frequently service obsessive search and collection (coins in Super Mario Bros., stars in Super Mario 64, treasure in Zelda: Wind Waker, etc.). And the need to perform--literally, to succeed in contests to produce income to continue to feed and shelter your puppy, or to upgrade its habitat, or to provide it with puppy friends--feels like a strange kind of violence against pet ownership. Nintendogs is a remarkably well-produced game. The use of touch controls is indeed satisfying and well-engineered. The dogs are indeed cute, and petting and playing with them does create real endearment. But playing it makes me wonder, is Nintendogs a simulation of the pets as companionship--or just of pets as yet another aspect of consumption.