Why my future project will be supremely cute. You can see more of it by visiting the kickstarter campaign here.
When I first had the idea for Cosmic Creature (which is a mobile game where you raise a virtual pet by eating less meat and cooking plant-based meals), I was focused on a few of the core problems I felt many of the popular animal rights groups were missing.
Honestly? They weren’t cute enough.
I can divide the world into two distinct subsets: Most and Some. Most people do what they enjoy, and some people do what (they feel) is fundamentally right. I’d say that a majority of animal rights organizations use shock tactics in the hopes of reaching Most, but are shocked to discover they’re only gaining responses from Some. I am a Some, in that I was originally converted to vegetarianism at thirteen after watching an undercover reporter’s video of slaughterhouse conditions, and further converted to dairy-free at twenty-four after watching an undercover reporter’s video of milk farm conditions. The Some approach is viscerally horrifying and deeply moving, and I’m a very solid example of how it might work. I am also, generally speaking, part of a very small minority.
Most people I know are affected by the Some approach short-term. It’s hard not to be rocked by the visual assimilation of such pure, inarguable mammalian suffering. But I think this level of shock does something to the system long-term that ultimately backfires for most organizations. To put it simply, videos like these make people feel bad, and people don’t like feeling bad. They might agree with your stance on animal advocacy, but they probably don’t appreciate feeling guilt-ridden and uncomfortable for engaging in an activity (like eating a hamburger) that mostly registers as harmless for them.
So you get a combination of responses ranging from, “I feel sucky, but I do like what I eat,” to “Well it’s not my fault these conditions are so terrible,” to, “Uck I can’t watch it, never show me anything like this again.” This creates grey, murky clouds of assumptions that inadvertently hang over otherwise inoffensive words like, “vegan” or “plant-based.”
Blood-on-coat, all or nothing organizations like PETA, well-intentioned as they may be, have totally ruined the ability to unabashedly claim one’s status as an advocate for plant-based foods, because most people think vegans are unreasonable, coat-ruining maniacs with compassion for all animals except the ones at the food stalls they disagree with. And maybe… they’re not… entirely wrong?
I want to reiterate that ethically-focused scare tactics can and do work, and I feel it’s mostly reasonable to present hard truths, gruesome as they are, to those who are capable of taking them in, but I feel there’s a way to reach a wider audience, and it entails making people feel good, not bad.
If you think about the things that make you want a hamburger, they’re all positive. It’ll taste pleasant, you’ll feel comforted, you’ll feel satiated, and maybe you’ll have a nice conversation about gourmet aioli with the person making it for you. And if this experience brings you joy, perhaps you will do it again, and again, and again. Perhaps, you’ve even heard that the meat isn’t ethically sourced, but everything else about the ritual is pleasing enough to override any deterrent impulses. This makes perfect sense. What most die-hard vegans forget is that this makes perfect sense. The person doing this is not necessarily lacking in compassion, they are just hungry, and they like food.
My solution to the problem of the dissonance between enjoyment and impact is fairly simple: make ethical choices light, easy, rewarding, and fun. Activate the same emotional outputs of prior habits, but replace the inputs with more intentional ones.
In Cosmic Creature, your virtual pet likes you, and they like it when you do nice things. It is, first and foremost, an incentivised game. Flowers and vines grow up and around their legs when you buy animal-friendly products, they become more and more glamorous as you eat less and less meat, and they shimmer and wink and nod their little heads when you go outside, or conserve water, or have a positive conversation with a friend. Oh, you feel good when you cook? What if they gave you a recipe that might just beat your last meal? You like gourmet aioli? Great! Your creature may send you a coupon for a free plant-based alternative. You ate some meat because you’re a human? No big deal, you’re not a monster. Your cosmic creature still loves you.
Everything about the app will be cute. Every nook and cranny in the game will be filled with whimsical delight, rewards-based reinforcement, and positive encouragement. You will get the exact same treatment as any other thing you’ve ever eaten/done and thoroughly enjoyed. My suspicion is that you won’t feel bad, and if you don’t feel bad, you’ll continue to use Cosmic Creature, and if you continue to use Cosmic Creature, you might just make some casual short-term changes that could turn into long-term practices.
I suppose I have some fanciful hopes, like I’d be pleased if a user paired with a cow and had a teensy little thought of their precious, adorable virtual pet next time they walked up to the checkout counter with a steak in mind. Or if a person considered the beautiful dignity of their galactic, free-roaming elephant next time they visited a cramped and underfunded zoo. But this desire is relatively peripheral. I hope that my project, plain and simple, brings those who are interested in animal welfare joy.
Enough joy to convince them that ethical practices don’t need to be synonyms with fear, guilt or shame.
Which is to say, if you like cute things that make you feel good, I’d recommend clicking here to sign up for early access.