Pet ownership has more than a little in common with video games.
Viewed as a video game, Dog Ownership is, to be honest, not a good one. The dog-walking mini-game can become particularly wearying after a while. Its objectives and collectibles are scatological. The controls — a leash that can, at higher levels of this game, be modified into a retractable version — are loose, imprecise, even unresponsive.
Your companion frequently fails to apprehend basic instructions. In what appears to be a software bug, he occasionally interprets obviously friendly neighbors as ferocious enemies. The dialogue, if you can call it that, is repetitive and mind dulling: “OK,” “Let’s go,” “C’mon,” “Hurry up!”
The photorealistic graphics, however, are jaw-dropping. On a summer day you might find yourself on Riverside Drive as leaves turn in the wind and light shimmers on the Hudson.
When my wife first suggested more than six years ago that we get a dog, I was against the idea. I worked from home and had started a new gig writing for The New York Times. The time and effort involved in caring for a puppy, I thought, would distract from my Important New Job. We ended up with a dog in the house anyway.
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He is an adorable, bright-eyed cairn terrier. We named him Wookiee. Like the most famous member of that space opera species, he grew up to become a furry, beloved co-pilot. And the very tedium I feared he would introduce into our lives ended up binding us together.
In that sense, pet ownership (or pet guardianship, to hand-wavingly use a politically correct phrase in a halfhearted effort to stave off a raft of letters) has more than a little in common with video games, which I write about regularly. Playing a video game, much like owning a dog (or caring for an infant, for that matter), can involve rote, mundane, even unpleasant tasks. These duties are carried out on behalf of an inarticulate companion. Doing the bidding of this putative sidekick turns out to be a strikingly effective method for creating intimacy.
Video games are verbs, to oversimplify an observation from the independent game designer Anna Anthropy. The best games do not plumb the interior depths of characters the way novels do, but they summon a different magic. The act, say, of holding hands for hours upon hours with Yorda, the princess in Fumito Ueda’s masterly Ico, leads the player to feel something for her that is not unlike the love a man has for his dog. Video games aren’t great with character, but they do companionship surprisingly well.
Over time it became apparent that my wife regarded our adopting a dog as akin to what gamers refer to as a tutorial — for a new game called Child Rearing, which can be viewed as a spiritual successor to Dog Ownership. (Though it should be said, based on their shocked delight when we had a daughter some years later, some of my Midwestern relatives interpreted Wookiee’s arrival as evidence of our tragic infertility.)
This summer my wife and I began a new round of Child Rearing. Compared with Dog Ownership, it is more challenging, involving and rewarding. It features many more hours of gameplay, not to mention much knottier moral quandaries and choices. I wrote this with our second daughter, who was 4 days old at the time, in the next room. She is predictably mesmerizing.
And yet there’s something in the purity and simplicity of Dog Ownership that makes it worth returning to, even when you’ve played the sequels. Sometimes Wookiee and I look at each other, heads cocked, unable to express our feelings for the other except through simple actions performed routinely, year upon year upon year: retracing the same blocks of our neighborhood each morning, playing fetch (shhhhh, illegally) in the park in the early evening, falling asleep with our sides touching, to warm ourselves in the air-conditioned night.
The characters are unremarkable. The setting is ordinary. The action is dull. But like all games, owning a dog is about the quiet magic of doing. The love comes from the doing.