Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
January 2011

The Lives of Rats

"Have you ever seen a grown man cry over a rat before?" I had asked the veterinarian, trying to lighten the mood if only to keep myself from crying.

It was a futile effort. I wept when they told me Butters was too far gone to recover. I wept when they brought the release forms for me to sign, and I wept when they injected him with the pink fluid that was now killing him. Snuggling on my chest he stared up at me with his tiny eyes, his chest still filling and deflating as he tried desperately to breathe.

"That's my brave boy," I whispered, tears streaming down my cheeks. Perhaps it was just biologic instinct but he was fighting on. Slowly though, his breathing began to slow. Weighed down by the overdose of sleeping medication, he began to drift away. His rapid breathing tapering off to a few stuttered gasps before he stopped moving and died. I held him for a few moments more afterward, both knowing and not being able to believe that he was gone.

A mere year and a half ago we had brought him and his brothers home. We already had two rats then, and though they initially fought over dominance, they soon settled into the lazy existence of pampered pets. But rats are short-lived creatures; most don't make it much past the age of two. This proved true with ours. Within a year and a half of purchasing our younger trio, four of our total were gone. The original two, Gus and Charlie, were the first to go. Charlie grew sick and Gus grew old. A few months after Gus, I came home to Indy lying dead in the cage. His demise baffled us. He had been eating like a pig as usual and seemed perfectly healthy. Butters died last night and now only his brother Leo remains.

"At least you gave him a good life," the vet told me in comfort. It's true; I can attest with some confidence that my wife and I spoiled our furry friends rotten, but that's often not the case. Animals, of all shapes and sizes, are generally treated as second class creatures. Some of this comes from the fact that they're simply not human. It doesn't matter how intelligent it is; a dolphin is still a dolphin, a dog is a dog, and a rat is a rat. At its best this attitude is harmless. Many animals are well cared for and loved. At its worst however, this attitude can lead to neglect and cruelty. It's easy for a person to feel small in this world, and even easier to feel big by hurting something smaller. And it doesn't get much tinier than something that lives in a cage.

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This attitude of "just a (insert blank)" is something you can partially blame on media, video games included. I'm not even going to try and argue that video games can drive someone to hurt animals. Honestly, the "games made me do it" argument is as close to crock as you can get. Video games are never going to influence anyone to violence that didn't have problems to begin with. That said, they can certainly help maintain a perception of things that is altogether too black and white.

Take Red Dead Redemption. It's one of my favorite games of 2010, and is decidedly one of the most immersive ever made. It builds a vision of the Wild West that is perhaps as real as any interactive medium has ever accomplished. The environments are lush, massive and utterly enthralling. I can't count how many times I stopped just to watch the sun rise over the virtual horizon.

That said, it also displays an incredibly simplistic view of wildlife. The animals included in the game range from raccoons to grizzly bears and they all follow one set pattern of behavior. Smaller creatures will always run from you while the larger ones will always, without fail, attack. Granted, wolves, mountain lions, boars and bears are dangerous creatures, but they're still more complex than the game makes them out to be. And while Red Dead Redemption does better than most games, it might have been nice to see not just the aggression of the animals but also some of their majesty. As it stands, you can't get within a hundred feet of a bear or wolf pack without it turning to attack.

This portrayal of the violent animal extends to rats, and they in particular tend to get the short end of the stick. If they do make it into a game, they're either an inconsequential part of the scenery or the lowest form of cannon fodder. For instance, if you play Dragon Age: Origins as a human noble character, your first introduction to the game's combat will be the wholesale slaughter of rats raiding the castle kitchen. They pose no real threat to you, they just throw themselves at you and die. One of the earliest enemies in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are rats. They're again harmless things, but they nonetheless charge at you as if you were a walking cheese wheel, all but throwing themselves on your sword.

I'm not contesting that rats can't be dangerous. My rats may have been sweet snuggly things, but that's due in no small part to their being domesticated. I'd never dare approach a wild rat, or even worse, one of those fabled sewer rats so large they eat cats. That said, media never portrays them as anything other than tiny, bug-eyed monsters. How are we to ever see them as anything else, if that's the only way they're shown to be?

None of this is to say that animals are only depicted in adversarial tones. As games have become more complex, their depictions of non-humans have as well. Dogs in particular have been getting more positive screen time. Fallout 3 and the Fable games both featured dogs as allies. Dragon Age: Origins, despite its unfriendly take on rodents, sported a dog as a fleshed out and playable character. That said, do you think said canines would have been included if they hadn't had some applicable use in combat? The Mubari war hound in Dragon Age has some great story moments, but he's still nonetheless a war dog. It's sad to me that the pre-requisite for including even man's-best-friend is that it be useful in other ways.

The joy of animals is more subtle than simple utility. Chances are my life would have been easier these past few years if there hadn't been a rat cage to clean every week. That said, I have been affected by my experiences with them. The intimacy of owning a pet is something sometimes hard to portray but nonetheless as valuable as the intimacy between people. I respect those games that have embraced that, and look forward to the day that more realize just how much more a dog, a cat, and a rat can be to the player.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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