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Why People Want to Pet the Dog

The creator of @CanYouPetTheDog explains why people... want to pet the dog.

The apocalypse is getting softer. 2016’s The Division was a loot shooter which encouraged players to shoot actual looters in the back as they scrounged for life-saving supplies. 2019’s The Division 2, on the other hand, is a loot shooter where players are pitted against a shadowy paramilitary cabal and the occasional homicidal goon. With the murky morality of the first game alleviated, Ubisoft’s sequel allows players to more easily enjoy the beauty of abandoned city streets now reclaimed by nature. However, The Division 2 remains just as bleak as its predecessor in one key area: You cannot pet the dog.

During the leadup to release, each wave of beta playtests resulted in the same feedback. Specifically, participants were unhappy that The Division 2’s half-destroyed version of Washington, D.C. was populated by frightened stray dogs that players were unable to calm, caress, or otherwise reassure. These posts lined up with my own beta experience, and that vindication inspired me to begin a Twitter account called “Can You Pet the Dog?” which seeks to chronicle every single pettable and non-pettable dog in video games.

Almost immediately, the endeavor was supported with scores of like-minded individuals — reaching over 85,000 followers in a week’s time. I do not entirely attribute the account’s success to myself, or even to scratching that easy, curious itch of providing specialized game trivia. Instead, I think it is thanks to the collective acultural need  — a deep and unsatisfied yearning for comfort-based interactions in escapist entertainment.

To Pet or Not to Pet

When first creating the Twitter account, I believed that digging through old and obscure titles for unique pettable dogs would hold the most appeal for a broader audience. In retrospect, I should have expected to be quickly inundated by replies and private messages requesting the inclusion of mega-popular blockbusters like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. These dog interactions were not new or strange or fascinating, yet the posts canonizing them are by far the most retweeted. Followers shared these tweets not because they were especially noteworthy, but because the posts allowed them to pause the hellish social media scroll in order to greet old friends. That same respite is replicated in games themselves, where a tense session in the right world might be cut with the comfort of a pure, furry soul.

Although it’s always disappointing to find an unpettable dog, that minor setback becomes a gut punch when other traditional gameplay verbs (i.e. the actions that games let you perform)  are present and applicable. As mentioned, The Division 2’s dogs are indeed unpettable, but they are not invincible. Should you lack a beating heart, it is easy to fire a few shots into one of the game’s many homeless canines, downing them with a sickening yelp followed by cold silence. And since ambient wildlife  often wanders into firefights, it is entirely possible — and likely inevitable — that players will inadvertently execute a dog during their time conquering the ruins of D.C. You cannot purposely pet these dogs, but you can accidentally kill them.

This unsettling dichotomy crystalizes in an early mission. Off to the side, behind impenetrable metal grating sits a crestfallen pooch, whimpering in grief over a fallen friend.

All Bark and No Pet

These dogs are carefully arranged to elicit an emotional response from any player who stops to notice them. Your first instinct may be to help these poor things, but the the gate stands firm, guarding a static diorama of misery.

If a bad person is hurting people in The Division 2, options to resolve the situation include A) shooting the enemy in the head until they die, B) deploying a turret to shoot them in the head until they die, or C) commanding a drone to shoot them in the head until they die. If a dog is in distress, there is no enactable solution. Like many loot games, rewards do not come in the form of emotional closure, but instead an incremental power bump. Gaining mastery over the world tops the list of priorities, and mastery does not include a genuine display of affection for an innocent living being.

In between The Division 2’s worst-case scenario and the heavenly petfest of, for example, Nintendogs lies an ambiguous gray area where Nintendo usually operates. Super Mario Odyssey features a puppy as a recurring character who greets the player in multiple levels, often wearing adorable headgear — mimicking the player character. You can interact with the dog directly, most notably with a game of fetch using Mario’s magic hat. Nintendo even went so far as to include a special idle animation for the puppy; it will curl up next to Mario if he should fall asleep. As inherently lovely as these actions may be, their colorful fidelity and variety serve to emphasize the inability to pet this puppy.

Pet Video Game Dogs

Please… Pet the Dog

A similar dilemma exists in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Link can befriend dogs across Hyrule, feeding them in exchange for guidance to unseen treasures. Simply standing nearby causes these majestic animals to emit love in the form of floating hearts directed at the player. But as you may have guessed, these blessed dogs remain otherwise unpettable. After many fan complaints, director Hidemaro Fujibayashi addressed the issue in an interview with IGN:

In the game it seems like you can do anything, but what it really is are all these interlocking systems where you actually have a pretty limited number of actions that can do a ton of different things. So if it came down to something like petting a dog, we would actually have to put in a custom action just for petting a dog that couldn’t really be used for anything else.

Fujibayashi’s comment likely squares with other developers’ explanations. Custom animation requires substantial resources, and it is difficult to justify that time sink for a feature with a small number of use-cases. In the end, there is no appreciable gain for dog petting in video games, because these universes are not built to reward these interactions. Those work hours could be better spent building, refining, and expanding on moment-to-moment gameplay.

That reasoning remains solid, minus one crucial element: Yes, petting a dog almost always offers no tangible benefit or bonus to the main game. But that is precisely why it feels so good. Those quiet moments of stolen comfort are a pressure release. In the seconds you are petting a dog, you are not saving a princess from a dragon turtle, you are not defending a kingdom from a demon pig, and you are most certainly not retaking the capitol from fascist government splinter cells.

When it comes to video games, that reprieve is a small miracle — one that evokes the liberating sensation of escape from escapism itself. Games are often meant as toys of leisure, their playtime pilfered from the hours we must otherwise spend producing in order to stay alive. In a world where games are trending towards complicated, service-based affairs that increasingly ask more from the player, petting a dog restores a small amount of joyful frivolity back to the proceedings. It is an interaction worth having purely because it is worth having. And above all, it is vital to communicate to our pets that they are good dogs. Yes, they are.

About the Author

Can You Pet the Dog?