Play with the carefree heart of a dog in Dog Park

Dogs are no strangers to games. Man’s best friend was a protagonist in Okami, a musician in Animal Crossing, and a prize-winning competitor in Nintendogs. But only in Okami can you virtually inhabit the body of a dog—to be running on all fours, pester some humans, and eat a bone. Then again, you were the wolf-dog incarnation of the Japanese Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Maybe not the most authentic experience of a canine life.

Kevin Cancienne, a game designer based out of New York, is committed to a recreation of a how dogs can have a space in games—and that means stripping out the humans. His game Dog Park, slated to appear to NYU’s No Quarter in late September, turns the premise of Nintendogs on its head. Dogs are not meant to be your virtual Tamagotchi in Dog Park. You are the dog. And your goal is to play, wrestle, and dig holes with other dogs.

Dog Park is a pretty big departure for me,” he said. “Not only is it in a genre and format I haven’t worked in much—it’s a 3D arcade game with lots of animation and physics—but I’ve let the free-flowing, organic, bottom-up qualities I appreciate about dog play come through.”

No Quarter is a natural home for the project. It’s an annual exhibition hosted by the NYU Game Center, and it’s dedicated to “the idea of presenting games that work best, or only, when they are played by people who share a physical space.” Dog Park mirrors the message. It embraces the form of a competitive multiplayer game, but rejects the structure of a game like Tekken or Street Fighter. It doesn’t include the brutal K.O. screen as your health bar drops to zero, since dogs don’t play for tangible points like we humans do.

Cancienne said that he was “inspired by the non-zero-sum dynamics dogs show in play.” When dogs are going at a game of tug of war, there’s no scoreboard that clicks up or down with each win or loss. “When it comes to play, the dog’s only goal is to keep on having more fun,” he said. It’s a continual back-and-forth of competition.

And there’s good reason to keep the play between dogs. In a study released by the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science, animal psychologists found that “dog-dog and dog-human play are structurally different, supporting the idea that they are motivationally distinct.” According to Laurie Santos, Director of the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, dogs play as to prepare for social encounters in the future. More than dominance, dogs engage in play to learn and to have fun. But, she added, “Asking an animal why he’s doing something is always a tough question to address scientifically.”

Dog Park is headed to No Quarter soon. It’s a good space to think about what play can mean, absent from the normally human perspective of video games. It may still be a human game about dogs, but it’s a game that brings home the idea that play is more than a human construct.