All Your Yesterdays: Using Art Games for Paleontology

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I’ve talked about my personal, flexible definition of “game” before. To sum up where it currently is, I am most interested in games as the vehicle or space where play takes place. To me, games are defined first and foremost by play and how they facilitate that play. Without play, a game simply cannot exist. Note that “play” does not necessarily mean entertainment or fun, as play and playful can also refer to experimentation or simulation. The surrealist movement notably used games to test the boundaries of social systems and personal biases, as well as explore alternative thought processes. Play can even be used for scientific investigation and theorizing, as we see in the brilliant work All Yesterdays and its follow-up All Your Yesterdays.

All Yesterdays came out of a collaboration between artists John Conway, C.M. Kosemen and palaeozoologist Darren Naish. It is an attempt to challenge a perceived stagnation in paleontology illustration as well as remind us how how little we actually can know about the behavior of long extinct species. Today most drawings of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures in pop culture are woefully out of date and inaccurate, but even within “scientific” illustrations we see many of the same errors and tropes. Let’s be honest, despite how popular dinosaurs are, the average person knows very, very little about them. How many of us still think of them as reptiles? How many of us know that both tyrannosaurus and triceratops probably had feathers and fuzz? How many of us know that crocodiles are closer related to birds than to other reptiles? Or that pleisiosaurs are closer to lizards than dinosaurs? Our views of dinosaurs are set largely by the same scenes we have seen since childhood. Tyrannosaurus attacking a hadrosaur or a pack of raptors pouncing on a sauropod. But animals are not monolithic, and behavior is complex. All Yesterdays challenges us to think of these creatures doing things all animals do, like sleep, defecate, make mistakes, sunbathe, even play.

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All Yesterdays also challenges illustrators and scientists to consider just how little we actually know even about anatomy. While some of the illustrations contained in the book are outlandish, the truth is none of them are “less scientific” than the established view. We’ll never see a dinosaur for sure, and playing too conservative can be just as harmful as being too speculative. Knowing what is “correct’ about the extinct world we will never see is not always as important as what COULD be correct, and entertaining and playing with “unprovable” ideas can lead to new discoveries or concepts. To illustrate this point, All Yesterdays contains a chapter showcasing living, modern day animals illustrated as though they were being discovered by paleontologists of a far future. Skin is pulled taught over the animals skeletons, transforming common cats and swans into horrific nightmares and parodies. From there our future paleontologists conceive of behavior which matches their “scientific” productions. These are laughable but are often just as accurate as what we actually do with dinosaurs. The end result showcases just how much rigorous “scientific” paleoart is speculation, even when it fits the conservative art tropes we’re familiar with. It shows how easy it is to be tricked by our limited senses and contemporary biases. Just as important, it shows that speculation is not something to be avoided in paleoart, just acknowledged. Criticism has been levied at the project as encouraging people (especially amateurs) to speculate with wild abandon and ignore data. This criticism greatly misses the point of the project, which is not to ignore data but to question all forms of speculation and push beyond stagnation. It even asks a more provocative question; can intentionally “unscientific” illustration have a role in science as well as art? It is scientific satire at its most provocative and cheeky, but also at some of its most effective.

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The follow-up book, All Your Yesterdays, transforms this idea into an open game of art and science. Naish and his allies have given the rules to this paleontology game to the world, and now ask any scientist, artist or dinosaur enthusiast to play along with them. The rules are simple, take an extinct creature and mentally play with it. Pouring through the examples within All Your Yesterdays, I couldn’t help but begin playing along. I began taking the ecological niches and animal behavior I observe in my own backyard and wondering how different dinosaurs and other extinct creatures would look and behave mirroring that in their own environment. Dinosaurs communicating and problem solving like crows, hunting fish like herons, or rolling in gravel for physical pleasure like my housemate’s cat. Anyone who spends time with animals can tell you that even the most predictable species can engage in aberrant or surprising behavior given the circumstances. In the past I owned a pair of degus, a social desert rodent that in captivity grows bored. My degus would stack objects in order of descending height, use tools to grab treats out of reach, and even on one occasion use toilet paper tubes to build their own “maze”. What might dinosaurs do if given the opportunity to become bored? I’ve seen cows start eating small birds and rodents given the opportunity and herons give up fish to start hunting the chicks of other seabirds. What happened when the tables turned and the lone raptor became the target for a bored or aberrant sauropod? This game, whether mental or represented through visual art, suddenly made the extinct world of the dinosaurs much more vibrant and imaginable.

Merritt Kopas recently gave a challenging talk about the limitations of games. I mean challenging in the best way, in that the questions she forces artists and designers to answer are the kinds of questions we should already be asking ourselves. One of these challenges is to face the truth that creating a video game, no matter its content or intention, inherently limits its audience. It limits the audience because of barriers created by “gamer culture” and by economic barriers built into who has access to game systems and computers. It even limits the audience because many of the skills those of us familiar with video games take for granted (control schemes, visualizing and exploring a 3d space within a 2d space, familiar genre tropes, etc) are impenetrably complicated to people who haven’t grown up with them. The question artists should always ask is “why games?” But just as important can be to ask “why VIDEO games?” All Your Yesterdays introduces a game without any of the barriers mentioned above. All anyone needs to play this game is a passion for dinosaurs and the ability to observe ecology and behavior. Even the most isolated city dweller could use pigeons, rats, insects or (perhaps most interestingly) other humans. It is a game that an expert can play to enhance their research just as an amateur can play to investigate new fields. Through play, All Your Yesterdays allows anyone the ability to not only better understand key concepts of paleontology, ethology and ecology, but also most importantly connect those concepts to their own life and environment.

All Yesterdays is available for purchase from a number of places including Amazon. All Your Yesterdays is available as a free download at http://irregularbooks.co/

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