An Interview with PETA: Game Developer

PETA Pokemon Red, White and Blue

While you were reading through the hype for Pokemon X and Y, you may have stubbled across the strange, funny, and extremely violent parody Pokemon: Red, White and Blue, a game created by PETA (yes) to protest the cruel treatment of animals by the American fast food industry. 

“Video games” is not the first thing you may think of when you think about PETA, but they have apparently been making games for over ten years, though it’s more likely that you’ve heard of their more recent parodies such as Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals, Super Tofu Boy, or Pokemon Black and Blue. As one might gather from the titles, PETA’s game division is not known for being subtle, but their relationship with games is more than casual, with a joke about Nintendo’s tendency to rerelease special editions of Pokemon within a year of initial release.

Stunned that a heavily didactic news game seemed to have been designed by someone who had played at least one video game before, we asked PETA’s head of online marketing, Joel Bartlett to tell us how PETA entered the unlikely field of game development, with games seemingly targeted specifically at gamers. Are gamers the best target for conversion to veganism? We will let you decide. Along the way we discuss Call of Duty Dog, how Sonic The Hedgehog is PETA’s favorite game, and an idea for a game about PETA’s scandals with euthanizing animals.

AVB: Tell me a little about PETA's history with games?

Joel Bartlett: When it comes to the internet PETA's always been an early adopter. We had a precedent setting court case to get our website domain, we had a video site long before youtube, and similarly we were making online games more than 10 years ago. Our early games include Revenge of the PETA Tomatoes and Lobster Liberation.

AVB: oh wow! I didn't realize that you had started that long ago.

Joel Bartlett: In recent years our games have become more involved and we've gotten better at reaching more people with them.

AVB: What changes with your approach to games lead to that shift? As you mentioned, I only became aware of PETA's games division within the last few years.

Joel Bartlett: We've found that parody games are extremely popular. By connecting our message with something people are already interested in, we're able to create more buzz.

AVB: On that note, can you tell me a little about your development process for these games? A bit of the "making of" if you will?

Joel Bartlett: Sure. We develop the concept for the games in house. That's my responsibility, but I bounce ideas off of clever people who get our strategy and are into games. We then work with a third party on the game development. We've done some games in house, but recently have worked with thisispop.com. We love them. We work closely together to work towards the final project and split responsibilities. I'll write the script – they work out the game mechanisms, and of course, code it all. This Is Pop, who've worked a lot with Adult Swim, is no stranger to over the top games, so they've been a great fit for us.

AVB: Ah, yes! I can see a lot of visual similarity now that you point it out. Since you brought it up, can you talk a bit about that over the top aesthetic?

Joel Bartlett: It's far easier to avoid thinking about animal rights–to not think about the suffering that went into your bacon and eggs, than it is to face the cruelty of the meat and egg industries. PETA's responsibility is to make thinking about these things unavoidable. We need to do what we can to get attention for something that's more convenient to ignore. While we wish we could be more straightforward and just present information to people, we've seen time and time again that to compete with all the clutter of tweets and twerking we need to create a spectacle.

AVB: Do you play video games yourself? I've played through PETA's latest game, Pokemon Red White and Blue, and there are some fairly amusing jokes not just at the expense of the food industry, but at the pokemon games themselves—like the tendency to release an enhanced version a few years after the first two versions.

Joel Bartlett: These days I play more Angry Birds (Seasons, Space, Star Wars, etc) than anything else, but I'm a Zelda and Mario fan. And I've played Stacraft, Warcraft, and Diablo consistently for 15 years. I've just played through one Pokemon game.

AVB: While playing through some of PETA's games, I noticed, "oh, they at least know enough about games to make fun of them." Which I thought was interesting since a lot of newsgames, serious games, edutainment typically takes itself too seriously to make jokes or be silly. But PETA's games often do—why take that approach?

Joel Bartlett: We inject humor into our games because we think games should be fun. If you want to learn about animal rights without the humor you can go over to our YouTube Channel and watch our undercover investigations. Those will just make you cry.

AVB: I ask because I think humor is an effective approach in persuasive games, but it's not one that I see used very often. To gamers who are used to frequently inaccurate and tone-deaf outcry against controversial games, it's interesting to me that PETA actually understands them?

Joel Bartlett: It's certainly a lot more fun working on a funny game. We have a great time on these games – and we love it when people get the humor. We had a particularly good reception when we made Zerglings Have Feelings Too posters and crashed Blizzard's Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm launch. People really appreciated that we were fans as well.

AVB: PETA is not the first place I'd think of in terms of an organization that “gets” games, so to revisit an earlier question: why games specifically? What do you want to accomplish with these games, and who are you trying to reach with them? I mean, it's very cool that PETA understands games and gamer culture, but it's surprising!

Joel Bartlett: Time and time again we've found our games to be the most popular pages on our site. And people who visit those pages stick around longer than they do on any other pages on our site. Giving people an immersive experience that causes them to stay around on the site is a unique experience offered by games. You might not go vegan after playing Pokemon Red, White, and Blue – An Unofficial PETA Parody, but we hope we've planted a seed. If you played through the game you hopefully watched our Factory Farming in 60 Seconds Flat video. And the next time you sit down to eat a meal we hope you'll give even just a moment's more thought about who you are eating. "Free Me”, the video featured in PETA’s previous Pokémon parody game which, has received over 600,000 views by those playing our game.

AVB: That's really interesting—I realize my stereotyping is unfair, but gamers are rarely the group I first think of when I think of groups associated strongly with animal rights advocates. But many of your games seem specifically aimed at, for lack of a better word "gamer" culture, or at least have elements particularly resonant with them.

Joel Bartlett: For every gamer who fits the stereotype (like this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIIqlZi0LoM) there are probably 10 people who just like to play games. The more hardcore gamers are the bloggers, the youtubers, so it's important that the games specifically resonate with them as they'll carry the game to so many more people. And maybe those people won't get all of the jokes, but I hope they still enjoy the game–or at the very least have a seed planted.

AVB: So how would you say these games fit into PETA's overall PR strategy?

Joel Bartlett: PETA loves finding new ways to get people thinking about animal rights, whether from undercover investigations, celebrity ads, or quirky media stunts. We often have a sense of humor with our work, such as our recent proposal that the Washington Redskins keep their name, just change their logo. Our fun parody games fit right in with the rest of our work. We'll definitely keep making games.

AVB: I've noticed a lot of PETA's parody games are pretty violent—as you said, in an over the top sort of way—but it feels different than most other violent games. What are you hoping to convey with that sort of imagery?

Joel Bartlett: What animals go through on factory farms or animal testing labs is extremely violent. Our games, which comment on these abuses, sometimes have cartoonish violence – a bit of spattered red color for cartoon blood. With our Cooking Mama parody, which walks you through preparing a turkey dinner, we really wanted people to think about how disgusting turkey is. We had players chop the head off the turkey – to remind people this actually happens (just usually before you buy the turkey). We didn't have to embellish how gross it is to put stuffing up a turkey's butt. That's just plain gross already.

AVB: haha, gotcha. A great games are very violent, but they are glorifying that violence. That's not what PETA's games do, though?

Joel Bartlett: Correct, we do not glorify violence in our games.

AVB: Are there any mainstream games that you'd identify as animal friendly, or at least relatively so?

Joel Bartlett: Sonic the Hedgehog was all about saving animals from animal experiementation and enslavement in the original games. People tell us all the time we should parody Sonic, but what's to parody – the game had a great message! PETA's given kudos to Fables 2 and Nintendog for positive animal messages. My Fables 2 character was completely vegan and that helped me be a good person.

AVB: What's your opinion on the "call of duty dog"?

Joel Bartlett: I might have eaten some pie without looking at the list of ingredients. I assumed it was vegan pie. I think bringing a dog into a studio to record him is not necessary. PETA believes animals are not ours for entertainment, and that includes bringing dogs on a video game set, dressing him up in some strage contraption. But a far more cruel thing is how the US military is actually torturing live animals in needless trauma training exercises.

AVB: Thanks for that info! Other than the games you've parodied, what other games do you think are particularly bad on animal rights?

Joel Bartlett: I hope all the hunting and fishing games are an alternative to actually killing animals, so maybe they're a good thing. But I'll stick with Tofu Hunter.

AVB: Following up on sonic the hedgehog, Do you think PETA might make a game with a somewhat gentler approach? Or is dark humor more along the lines of what you're sticking with?

Joel Bartlett: Would Miley Cyrus have captured the world's attention with a gentler approach? I don't think so. Our iPhone game, Circus Slam, has a gentler approach, but it never caught on the way our other games have/

AVB: I can understand that. Anything coming up for PETA in games that you'd like to share?

Joel Bartlett: Nothing I can share. 🙂 I'd just like to encourage people to play Pokemon Red, White, & Blue – an Unofficial PETA Parody with an open mind.

AVB: Of course! Do you see gamers as having a predisposition to being sympathetic to animal  rights? The stereotype is that gamers are violent, of course, but I've talked with gamers who feel much worse about hurting animals in games than other humans, too.

Joel Bartlett: I think humans have a predisposition to being sympathetic to animal rights. This is why all the Disney movies we grew up are about helping animals – Dumbo from the circus or dogs from Cruelle's fur coat. Gamers are just people. It's animal abusing industries, which spend billions to disconnect our emptahy for animal from the food we eat, that are the problem. I do think more people, especially the hardcore fans, are drawn to Pokemon for it's positive messages than the animal fighting.

AVB: I do know that nearly everyone I know in video games has or closely associated with a cat in some form. I don't know much about it myself, but some gamers I have spoken to that are involved in animal rights feel strongly against PETA's stance on euthanasia. I know that's a sticking block for many; is it possible that PETA would confront this in the form of a game as well?

Joel Bartlett: It's a possibility. We've thrown around the idea of a "resource" game where you have a cat you take care of and then there are kittens, and then more kittens. And then you just have way too many cats. But back to the games should be fun idea – it's hard to think of a way to make this game fun. It's really tragic.

AVB: Yes, that is true. Of course, I know of many developers making serious games as well, like iPhone Story, about electronics consumption, or Unmaned, about an american drone pilot. Is that a direction PETA might take?

Joel Bartlett: It's absolutely a possibility, we want to continue exploring new things. As fun as it'd be, we won't just keep releasing more Pokemon parody games. We want to surprise people.

AVB: do you have any other things that you'd like to say that i've missed?

Joel Bartlett: I know that shocking headlines get clicked – that's part of our strategy, but I hope fans of Pokemon look beyond the headline of "PETA Attacks Pokemon" to actually play the game, have a good laugh, and have a good think.

AVB: Alright, well thank you so much for you time and insight into PETA's online games!

Joel Bartlett: You're welcome. Thanks for taking the time to dig into this.