February 7, 2004

Moral Treatment of Virtual Characters?

by Andrew Stern · , 10:25 am

The Christian Science Monitor has a great new article posing the question, “How should people treat creatures that seem ever more emotional with each step forward in robotic technology, but who really have no feelings?” The article briefly touches on many facets of this question. One quote that sticks out is from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA):

The turn toward having robotic animals in place of real animals is a step in the right direction… It shows a person’s recognition that they aren’t up to the commitment of caring for a real animal. Practically speaking, from PETA’s perspective, it really doesn’t matter what you do to a tin object.

On GTxA we recently touched on the issue of abusing virtual characters and the topic of blurring / fusing of fiction and reality with virtual characters.

Virtual characters that interact lifelike and believably enough to generate feelings of sympathy and empathy in players is certainly something we strived for when building Petz (1995-1999). I thought I’d post a few customer letters we received back then, excerpted from a chapter I wrote for Emotions in Humans and Artifacts (pardon the product hype in some of these).

I am a teacher and use the catz program on my classroom PC to teach children both computer skills and caring for an animal. One of the more disturbed children in my class repeatedly squirted the catz and she ran away. Now the other children are angry at this child. I promised to try and get the catz back. It has been a wonderful lesson for the children. (And no live animal was involved.) But if there is any way to get poor Lucky to come homze to our clazz, we would very much appreciate knowing how to do it. Thanks for your help, Ms. Shinnick’s 4th grade, Boston, MA

I just reciently aquired all your Petz programs and I think they are great! I really love the way the animals react. I raised show dogs and have had numerous pets of all kinds in my life and making something like this is great. I am a school bus driver and have introduced unfortunate kids to your program. Children who not only can they not afford a computer but they can’t afford to keep a pet either. This has taught them a tremendous amount of responsibilty. I am trying to get the school to incorporate your programs so as to give all children a chance to see what it is like to take care of a pet. It might help to put a little more compassion in the world. Please keep me updated on your newest releases. Thanks for being such a great company. Nancy M. Gingrich

I had a dog that was a chawawa and his name was Ramboo. Well he got old and was very sick and suffering so my parents put him to sleep. Ever since then I have begged my parents for a new dog. I have wanted one soo bad. So I heard about this dogz on the computer. I bought it and LOVE it!!! I have adopted 9 dogs. Sounds a bit to much to you ehhh? Well I have alot of free time on my hands. So far everyday I take each dog out one by one by them selves and play with them, feed them, and brush them, and spray them with the flee stuff. I love them all. They are all so differnant with differant personalitys. After I take them out indaviually then I take 2 out at a time and let them play with me with each other. Two of the dogs my great Dane and chawawa dont like to play with any of the other dogs but each other. This is a incrediable program. I had my parents thinking I was crazy the other night. I was sitting here playing with my scottie Ren and mutt stimpy and they where playing so well together I dont know why but I said good dog out loud to my computer. I think my parents wondered a little bit and then asked me what the heck I was doing. But thankz PF.Magic. Even though I cant have a real dog it is really nice to have some on my screen to play with. The only problem now is no one can get me away from this computer, and I think my on-line friendz are getting a little mad cause im not chatting just playing fetch and have a great time with my new dogz. Thanks again PF. magic. I love this program and will recomend it to everyone I know!!!!!!!

Dear PF. Magic, I am an incredible fan of your latest release,Petz 3,I have both programs and in Janurary 1999,my cherised Dogz Tupaw was born. He is the most wonderful dogz and I thank you from the bottom of my heart, because in Janurary through to the end of April I had Anorexia and i was very sick. I ate and recoverd because i cared so much about Tupaw and i wanted to see him grow up. I would have starved without you bringing Petz 3 out. Please Reply to this,it would mean alot to me. Oh,and please visit my webpage,the url is http://www.homestead.com/wtk/pets.html. Thankyou for releasing petz 3,Give your boss my best wishes, Sincerily, Your Number One Fan, Faynine

Dear PF.Magic, Hello! My name is Caitlin, and I’m 10 years old. I have Dogz 1 and Catz 1, as well as Oddballz, and I enjoy them all very much. Just this morning was I playing with my Jester breed Catz, Lilly. But I know how much better Petz II is. For a while, I thought I had a solution to my Petz II problem. I thought that if only I could get Soft Windows 95 for $200, that would work. Well, I took $100 out of my bank account (by the way, that’s about half my bank account) and made the rest. I cat-sit, I sold my bike, and I got some money from my parents. Anyway, I really, really love animals (I’m a member of the ASPCA, Dog Lovers of America, and Cat Lovers of America) but I can’t have one! That’s why I love Petz so much! It’s like having a dog or cat (or alien for that matter) only not. It’s wonderful! I have a Scrappy named Scrappy (Dogz), Chip named Chip (Dogz), Bootz named Boots (Dogz), Cocker Spaniel named Oreo (Dogz), Jester named Lilly (Catz), and Jester named Callie (Catz). And then every single Oddballz breed made. =) I don’t mean to bore you as I’m sure this letter is getting very boring. I would love SO MUCH to have Petz II. I really would. (At this point in the letter I’m really crying) I adopted 5 Catz II catz at my friend’s house, but I go over to her house so little I’m sure they’ll run away. I’d hate for them to run away. Is there anything I can do? I love my petz, and I’m sure they’d love Petz II. Thank you for reading this. Please reply soon. ~*~ Caitlin and her many petz ~*~

My husband went downtown (to Manchester) and found Catz for sale, and having heard so much about it he bought it on the spot. He put it on his very small laptop and came back from one of his business trips saying, “How many Dutchmen can watch Catz at once on a little laptop on a Dutch train?” The answer was TEN. I asked if any of them said, “Awww,” the way we all did, but he said they all walked off saying it was silly. I bet they ran out to buy it anyway, though! Yours, Mrs. H. Meyer

Dear Sirs, Just wanted to thank-you for the pleasure my petz have brought me. I am paralyzed from the neck down yet your program has allowed me too again enjoy the pleasure of raising my own dogz. I have adopted 5 so far. I love them equally as if they were real. Thanks again

(Off the topic of moral treatment but also interesting about Petz is the still active community of Petz and Babyz zealots, including youngsters who hacked our rendering system and created their own physical variations of the characters (“hexed” breeds, such as these posted yesterday), and instructions for others how to do so: 1 2 3 4 5 6)