The below Twitter exchange is in two languages. One is obvious: It’s in Thai. The second is harder to understand because it’s also written in . . . dog.
Here’s a translation, courtesy of a professor in Bangkok I know:
Abigail: Doggie, I’ve miss you so doggie (run at the fluffy dog and sink into its fluffy fur)
Abigail’s Dog: Arf [panting, being hugged by the little kid, wagging the tail and rubbing face against her].
Abigail: Don’t…(little girl laughs because of the tickle but continues to play). I’m sorry I haven’t played with you in so long (sad face).
Abigail’s Dog: Ears twitching, head tilted with a smile on. Seeing the girl’s sad face, so rub the face against her again. Woof!
It goes on like that. Abigail and her dog tweet back and forth, unfolding a story so benign that its only strangeness is that it was ever put down in words.
But Abigail is not an anomaly. She is a dog role-player. And the Internet is full of sentient, digital animals–who speak in many languages.
Animal role-play takes two main forms. There’s Abigail’s, which is realism–an interaction between a human and an animal, which pretty much follows the rules of actual human-animal interaction. Twitter is full of it. But the more popular form of animal role-play takes place in message boards, in which people jointly write a fantasy (in the Tolkien sense, though also, occasionally, in the erotic sense) that features only animals. One user is a wolf, say, and will join with other wolves into a pack in a dystopian Earth, and then take turns advancing the story.
The boards each come with their own rules. For example, on Animus, a site for stories about wolves, the rules mandate a level of civility: “Please treat each other with kindness and respect. Writing is art and you are all artists.” And it also limits participants to certain wolves:
On Animus, we allow all species and subspecies of modern wolves (arctic, mexican, european, et cetera) [sic]. Maned wolves, hyenas, “dire” wolves, and similar animals are not playable here.
User 1 writes:
Max choked on his own blood, dying
Rocky heard the howls and barks. He was stalking towards it. Rocky was a German Sheppard crossed with a Border Collie. Weird combination I know. Rocky saw what had happened and sat wide eyed
User 2 follows:
Felicity smirked and put him down and whisper in her ear, “That’s. What. you. Get!” She snarled before snapping to her back-up men, she lead them away to the police station. She licked the blood away from her lips, proudly.
Bad Felicity! Bad!
Among the many questions you may have is: What’s up with a dog role-playing section being on a site named Warrior Cats? The answer lies at the bottom of the page: “Warriors is © Erin Hunter/Harper Collins, whom this site is not affiliated with.”
If you aren’t a tween obsessed with animals or particularly active in the fantasy world, Warriors may not mean anything to you. But it’s meaningful to many readers: It’s a series of books by a group of people who all write under the byline Erin Hunter. Warriors, which is a series about cats, has sold more than 17 million copies. Survivors, which is about dogs, has sold more than 500,000. (There’s also a series about bears, but the publisher, HarperCollins, didn’t provide me sales figures for that one.) The books are adventure fantasy, like if all the elves and hobbits from Lord of the Rings were replaced with house pets.
I reached out to many participants of animal role-playing, but none replied. So I turned to one of the Erin Hunter writers, a lovely and enthusiastic woman named Gillian Philip, who writes the Survivors series and lives in the Scottish Highlands.
Were you aware there was so much animal role-playing?
Philip: I had no idea how big it was until you were calling, and I looked around online. It must be fantastic, I think. I remember when I was a kid–before we had the Internet, because I’m such a dinosaur–me and my friends used to pretend to be horses or a rabbit. And now it’s like that, but it’s grown exponentially, enormously, and now you can do it with people you’ve never met.
How did you start writing animal fantasy novels?
Philip: It wasn’t my first choice to write. I also write humanoid fantasy. But then the Erin Hunter editorial team was looking for someone to start a series with the dogs, and they asked me, and I said yeah, yeah, I really want to do that, because that’s the kind of stuff I loved growing up. When I was a kid I loved Watership Down, about rabbits. It was one of the best books I read as a kid. So I jumped at the chance. That was 2012.
Who’s reading them?
Philip: The audience is surprisingly broad. It’s really middle grade to young adults, but I know a lot of adults read them as well. People who have grown up with the books and stayed with them. And even adults who just enjoy the stories as adults.
Maybe once a year or so, I do a tour in the States with the other Erin Hunter writers, and I meet a load of the fans. It’s just eye-opening and amazing and wonderful, because they’ll come, and they’ve either got fantastic pictures they’ve drawn of our characters or their own characters, or they have stories they’ve written–entire books of stories. And they’ll tell you their clan name or dog name or whatever it is from their own role-playing game–Starfeather, or whatever they’ve chosen to call themselves. They’re so into it.
What do you think attracts people to fantasies featuring animals?
Philip: I think people read them because they love cats or dogs, but there’s also that human element. You’re investigating human moments and human emotions but you’re doing it through animals. There’s things that the readers can relate to. In Survivors, the dog books, we have a main character who’s a loner and he doesn’t want to be in a gang or a pack and he gradually learns how to be in one. So it’s about fitting in, and getting on with people who aren’t like you. So it’s all stuff that’s relevant to a human perspective. I think especially younger people and teenagers can be very into animals and love animals, and it’s a good way to experience those things.
[Now the Fast Company writer comes back]
So which came first, animal fantasy fiction or pre-digital animal roleplaying? It just might be a, ahem, chicken and egg question. Though the symbiosis makes good sense to Philip: Writers like her can’t pump out nearly enough fiction to keep animal lovers happy, so naturally, they write their own.
And how does an animal role-playing fantasy end? For this, let’s turn to the last page of “Howling nights, whispering frights”:
He let out a purr-like noise, nuzzling her