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Game mechanics and animal fancies

June 8, 2021 0 Comments

This post first appeared on July 24, 2011
As anyone who is friends with me or my family members on Facebook can probably tell, we play a lot of games at our house. The guys play ruthlessly, so we often joke that it’s not a real game unless someone cries. As the mother, and resident peacemaker, this has made me keenly aware of the concept of game mechanics. Those are the factors that make a game hard enough to be a challenge without being needlessly frustrating.

The card above comes from the French game Milles Bornes. It was a game I played with my siblings as a child, but somehow I missed the fact that the game had terribly bad mechanics. Certainly they do not work for my own family! That’s because this card unbalances the game. It did not take long for my children to figure out that once you have this card, it is almost impossible to lose. So someone finally draws the Right of Way, and someone else cries. Whenever someone suggests this game, most of us just groan because we know what is coming. What we need to do is experiment with altering the rules to make the game more fair, but somehow we always end up using the traditional rules.

I have often wondered why people in the animal fancies – that is, the hobbies devoted to breeding and showing purebred animals – don’t question their own game mechanics.

I suspect that is because many are unaware that the “rules” the activity has are exactly that: game mechanics. Why do the spots have to be just so big, and just so regularly spaced? Why can the tail end be white but not the feet? Why does it matter if the white collar circles all the way around the neck? Do any of those things actually matter to the well-being of the animal? Do they contribute to his ability to do the job he was originally bred to do? Are they tied to an agreeable temperament?

The answer is usually no. What they are about is game mechanics. The game, which in this case is competitive exhibitions of animals, has to be difficult enough to keep the interest of the participants. By adding color requirements to the list of desirable traits, the game is made more challenging. The more specific the requirements, the greater the challenge.

Breeding to a standard is already a challenge. The head on a Collie, which is one of the most important aspects of type in that breed, is required to have very specific angles. The parameters of this are outlined in detail in the breed’s illustrated standard. (The Collie Club of America has one of the most instructive standards in this regard.)  Unfortunately the desired head shape fits between two norms that the canine skull structures tend to take.

The middle image is the ideal Collie head. The heads to either side represent the extremes, with the “Borzoi” type roman nose to the left and the “Farm Collie” dished face to the right. One of the challenges to breeding Collies is getting that elusive middle image. If you are breeding Collies, that is part of the game.

For some animals color and markings are part of the challenge. Yet color is different in one significant way. Compared to something like the angles of the skull, color is pretty easy to predict. Take Boxer markings, for example. Boxer breeders like flashy white markings like the ones seen on these dogs.

In most breeds of dog, this kind of pattern where the legs, belly and collar are white is thought to be recessive. It is most often called Irish spotting, though in Danes it is called Mantle. Boxers are different in that while the white occurs in much the same areas, the pattern is incompletely dominant. Dogs with one copy look like the pair above. Dogs with two copies look like this.

Puppies like this are called White Boxers or Check Boxers (if there are significant patches of color inside the white). White and check Boxers cannot be shown. This is the American Boxer Club position on white Boxers.

ABC policy strictly forbids registering white Boxers with the American Kennel Club, as well as selling white Boxers or breeding white Boxers. The ABC also requires that white puppies not be included in the count on the AKC litter application form. The ABC has never condoned or encouraged the culling of white puppies.

Yet breeders know this is what they will get. It is entirely predictable. If breeders are using white trimmed dogs in their breeding programs (and trends that I have observed suggest that most are), then this is the fate of  25% of all Boxer puppies born in show breeding programs. If the average litter is eight puppies, then each breeding produces two “waste” puppies right out of the gate, before any other aspects of quality are going to be assessed. What if the hoped-for improved quality for that litter happened to fall to one of those white puppies? The parent registry requires that you not even retain the dog for breeding. That makes eight “waste” puppies – and another two additional ones that will be white the next time.

There are worse situations where the color requirements produce a lot of predictable culls. Harlequin Danes are the result of the merle gene and a modifier that strips away the silver color so that the background is white. Merle without Harlequin is not an acceptable color, but Harlequin is a homozygous lethal so all living Harlequins are heterozygotes. That means half the litter will not have the harlequin modifier and will be merle – a color not permitted. It gets even more complicated because merle causes defects (and the wrong coloring) in its homozygous form. That means ethical breeders will be crossing to non-merles, so only half of the puppies will inherit merle. If the breeder is lucky, most of those will be the ones that get the harlequin gene, too, but that’s not a given. To stack the deck even further, the Harlequin gene is “leaky” so undesirable merle patches sometimes show through. The potential for a lot of “pet quality” colors is pretty high.

Those are the rules of the game as it is currently played. Many of these rules date back to the founding of registries. Yes, that makes the limitations traditional, but it also needs to be understood that the men (and it was largely men) making those rules lived in a different world, and looked at animals differently. How easy is it to place a half-dozen off-colored puppies that will one day grow to giant size today, when many families cannot even fit a regular dog into their lifestyle? And are we comfortable with a built-in percentage of “waste” in a world where perfectly healthy animals go begging for a home?

Games only work if there is a challenge. The downside to this kind of challenge is that, depending on how hard it is to get it right, you are going to have a certain amount of misses. With animals, that means offspring that have no future within the fancy. Obviously we all expect fanciers to behave responsibly in regards to the excess animals they produce, and many breeders go above and beyond in this regard. But still the structure of the game ensures that some portion of the animals created will not have a place. When those undesirable animals are the sure outcome of something that is desired, then maybe it is time to reassess the rules of the game in light of the world as it is now, and our modern understanding of animals as fellow beings rather than objects. We do have the power to write new rules.

Update: It has been brought to my attention that the American Boxer Club website page on white Boxers does not have current information. In 2004 it was voted to amend the Breeder’s Code of Ethics so that breeders could offer Limited Registration papers and recoup medical expenses when placing white puppies. It should also be noted that until 1985 the Code of Ethics did not allow for placement of white puppies, which meant that while the statement that culling was never encouraged is technically true, the only action officially allowed was that the breeder keep every white puppy born.

(Boxer photos from Wikimedia Commons, Collie illustrations from the CCoA Breed Standard.)

By lkathman

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