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‘Can You Pet the Dog?’ Unites Gaming, Puppies and Labor Rights

This pet project (sorry) is shining a light on abusive employer practices and the necessity of unions under capitalism

I’m not much of a gamer — I have enough of a screen addiction and own too many unopened books to justify wasting time solving quests — but if there’s one thing that could inspire me to drop hundreds of dollars on a glowing box, it’s puppies. In-game puppies I can pet, feed and play with.

Sure, lots of video games feature animals. But what good are they if you can’t actually scratch a good boy behind the ears? That’s where Can You Pet the Dog? comes in. It’s a Twitter account that works kinda like the much darker, which warns moviegoers about potentially triggering canine deaths. CYPTD, however, simply tells you whether your game has a li’l doggo you can play with.

And there’s a higher purpose to the account as well: fighting for fair labor practices in the video game industry. As the anonymous creator of Can You Pet the Dog? tells me, many video game developers work on a per-contract basis, without benefits or protections against unfair treatment. Behind every pettable dog, there’s a developer who might have had to work extra unpaid hours to make it happen. “Video game dogs don’t program themselves,” the creator says.

So come for the puppies, sure, but stay for the workers’ rights. This pet project (sorry) is shining a light on abusive employer practices and the necessity of unions under capitalism.

Can you tell us a bit about who you are and why you created CYPTD?
I started the account after playing The Division 2 and becoming frustrated with the game’s unpettable dogs. Several strays roam the Washington, D.C., wasteland, obviously in need of food and comfort, but not one piece of your futuristic military loadout will allow you to pet the dog. I saw others voicing the same complaint, and so I decided to explore the games that, in my view, gave dogs the respect and care they deserve. (As far as personal details, I prefer to remain anonymous at this time.)

I’m not a gamer but I love dogs. What games should I try if I want to get into it?
For games that focus on the joys of dog companionship, I would say Nintendogs, but there has not been a new iteration in that series in some time. The next closest thing seems to be the recent Little Friends: Dogs and Cats, [which] seems to be carrying on the virtual pet tradition once carried by Nintendogs. Other options might include The Sims 4 with the “Cats and Dogs” expansion.

Why all the dogs in video games? Do they advance the plot, or are they just a fun aside?
I suspect many video game developers may miss the comfort of their dogs while at work, so this specific implementation might be partially due to subconscious bias. I have noticed that dogs and dog-like creatures are also common enemy types in games. I understand that adding an antagonistic dog to a game affords combat variety with an enemy type whose capabilities are easily grasped, but I would prefer not to be required to harm dogs to progress in games.

How can dog-loving gamers better support video game industry professionals?
If you asked me what the connection was between Can You Pet the Dog and union rights when I first began the account, I would have scratched my head. The issue of fair treatment in the workplace arose organically, and maybe inevitably, with the rise in popularity of the account. After developers began adding pettable dogs to their games in response to my tweets, I began contemplating my complicity in crunch and unreasonably fast update schedules.

When a pettable dog was added to Fortnite, I was faced with the very real possibility that my actions resulted in a person or persons staying late at work to add the feature, missing crucial time with family and friends; this possibility became even more likely after an initial public outcry of dissatisfaction with Fortnite‘s petting feature resulted in a patch to improve the petting, released one week later. Video game dogs do not program themselves. We can take pleasure in the pure act of petting a virtual dog, but we must acknowledge that our enjoyment is the result of someone else’s labor — and because the video game industry is not unionized, that labor may have been done in a harsh environment.

A pettable video game dog is such a small, joyful and frivolous thing that it can only have been made by human beings. They are fingerprints in clay sculptures, proof of individuality and life in even the largest blockbusters. It is vital that we recognize and cherish these vibrant morsels so that we better understand the human cost of the product at large.

Those who love dogs and games can help developers organize by supporting their local chapter of Game Workers Unite. On a broader level, I hope fans will come to realize that the current rate and scale of game development is likely untenable. Too many people are burning out and leaving an industry that only continues to emphasize rapid update cycles and seemingly never-ending crunch time. Something needs to change. If and when that leads to industrywide organization, fans will need to show empathy and compassion to the people who make their favorite hobby what it is.

How does dog-petting better help us understand or catalog video game history?
As long as people have made games with dogs, people have wanted to pet the dogs. The earliest pettable dog I have cataloged so far is in the 1981 text adventure Zork II, which was then followed by everything from FMV adventure games like Phantasmagoria to gigantic open-world franchises like Assassin’s Creed. When you allow a person to engage with an interactive medium, they will want to test the boundaries with the work. If they see a river, they will want to swim; if they see a car, they will want to drive; and of course, if they see a dog, they will want to pet the dog. Throughout decades of game history, this remains the same: If a game fails to sate these basic desires, players become upset and disillusioned with the virtual world.

We just want to pet the dog.