Steer Madness, the videogame

A cow was riding a bicycle along Georgia Street when...

It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s actually a scene from a made-in-Vancouver videogame called Steer Madness. In the game, you play Bryce, a steer on his way to the slaughterhouse who escapes, gets help from an animal rights activist and then helps his new friend by cycling through the city trying to save other animals (including seals and battery hens) from grisly human-instigated fates. Bryce can also walk (though that takes up precious time) and, for some missions, drive a car.

Steer Madness was produced by Veggie Games in 2004. The game was distributed through stores such as Sweet Cherubim on Commercial Drive as well as websites of animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Playable on both Windows and Macintosh computers, it can still be found online sometimes, but is no longer officially for sale and the Veggie Games website has disappeared.

Videogame production in the first decade of the 21st century is a big business. Companies such as Electronic Arts routinely employ hundreds of people to produce a single title. But Steer Madness, despite its 3-D graphics, professional soundtrack and enjoyable storyline, was essentially the work of one person, Vancouver-based animal rights activist and computer science graduate Johnathan Skinner. He worked on the game full-time for about two years, even writing the game engine himself from scratch (his game engine, GameCore, is now available for sale from www.gamecore3d.com). The 3D objects were modeled and animated in Newtek Lightwave 3D, and textures and other art were done in Adobe Photoshop.

Other contributors included five independent Canadian bands which supplied the songs for the game’s soundtrack, a handful of voice actors, an artist and two interns who each worked for a month on Steer Madness.

Skinner says he designed Steer Madness to educate people about animal rights issues “in a fun and entertaining way.” He combined information about the suffering caused by factory farming, the seal hunt and other animal abuses with typical game-playing elements such as climbing, jumping, racing and solving puzzles.

No question, Steer Madness is fun to play. Trying to maintain control while steering a 500-pound cow on a bicycle through familiar-looking Vancouver streets is a giddy, exhilarating experience. But there’s a serious message underlying the fun. And though Steer Madness didn’t reach as broad an audience as Skinner hoped, he feels it did a good job in conveying some of the dark side of meat production.

Skinner isn’t working on any other games at “the moment.” Instead, he’s spending his time “doing real-life animal rights activism, interning with various animal rights groups, helping them with graphic design and other things for their campaigns,” he says.

Though Steer Madness is no longer available, a number of animal rights-themed videogames can be played for free on the internet. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have released several online games, including Revenge of the PETA Tomatoes, where the goal is to throw rotten tomatoes at people wearing fur coats, Lobster Liberation (guide the lobsters to safety) and a controversial new title, Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals, which is a parody of a popular Nintendo cooking game, Mama the Chef. PETA’s games are divided according to the maturity of their content, with lighter-themed games at www.petakids.com and more provocative titles such as Cooking Mama at www.peta2.com.

Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org/international/fungames) also hosts free games (such as Eco-Quest and Mr. Splashy Pants to the Rescue), but the most successful game with an animal rights theme is Whales Revenge (www.whalesrevenge.com), which was created by Patrick Bonello to raise awareness of whale harvesting off the Australian coast. In the two years since Bonello created the Space Invaders-inspired Whales Revenge, his website has gathered more than a million signatures on an online anti-whaling petition.

Maybe a cow riding a bicycle down Georgia Street isn’t such a joke after all.

Over the next several weeks, Terry Lavender, a videogame researcher at Simon Fraser University, will continue to look at some of the local game designers who are using videogames to change the world. See his first article here.
Screen shot from Steer MadnessScreen shot from Steer Madness
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