Vegans are haunted by one particularly annoying hypothetical situation: ‘But what would you eat if you were stranded on a desert island?’ I stopped entertaining this question about a month into being a vegetarian. It’s a cop-out question from people who either can’t or won’t discuss the moral implications of the meat and dairy industry. I now often respond with the equally evasive retort: ‘How many people could actually hunt a damn animal with self-made tools as opposed to foraging?’
But I entertained a similar situation while playing Where the Goats Are by Memory of God, a game about farming goats and chickens in the face of the apocalypse.
As Tikvah, you milk goats, make cheese and trade with the only other person present, a passer-by who appears fleetingly each day. You don’t eat the cheese but trade it for more goats or hay. Apart from this, all you can do is water a plant, read letters from your equally doomed family in the city and draw pictures in the earth with a stick. Or you can do nothing, let the farm go to ruin and wait for the inevitable. Whether you try to survive or not, the end is coming.
So with everything facing extinction, this is not simply a matter of Tikvah keeping goats in her service for her. She is also saving them from extinction. There is a cycle of work and trade that is necessary for both Tikvah and her goats. The plants are all withered and the earth is scorched from an impending ominous bright light. Such an arid land is no place for a goat, so it is a necessity she buys hay.
It’s reminiscent of another favourite argument of omnivores that suggests all livestock would be extinct if it were not for animal agriculture. Thing is, in reality they would only face extinction due to human acts, such as the destruction of their natural habitats.
Here, however, there is a two-way cycle, rather than a one-way service in which livestock is forced to take part with no benefit.
Before playing, I was concerned Where the Goats Are would be overly twee or reductive in its portrayal of dairy farming. Admittedly, it is. But this isn’t a game about thoughtlessly milking goats, ignoring the dissociation of the inherent cruelty in dairy farming with the results – ignoring that, morally, enjoying the results is the same as enjoying the process. It’s also important to note that this is very different from self-sustained farming in general, ahimsa milk and the hypothetical ‘stuck on an island’. In all of these cases, you are more likely than not able to live off something that does not contribute to any animal harm or discomfort. In real life, there are alternatives. Where the Goats Are presents a very specific snapshot of a dying world. In this context, in this particular snapshot, Tikvah works to keep herself and her only companions, the goats and chickens, alive.