T.O. animal rights lab is making this new vegan Dungeons and Dragons game a reality

Last week, a new animal rights lab launched in Toronto, offering up a creative “incubator” for pro-vegan content and projects. Thanks to the lab, a Toronto gamer has been working on an unexpected new animal rights-centred project — vegan Dungeons and Dragons campaigns.

“All of my family have played Dungeons and Dragons pretty much their entire lives, and it just made sense to apply veganism to it because both my parents are big vegan activists,” Ethan Kowalchuk says. His parents, Kelly Kerr and Ray Kowalchuk, are part of the group behind Wishbone Animal Rights Lab.

Ethan Kowalchuk

Kowalchuk is finishing up his final year at Ontario Tech University studying game development, and is part of a group of developers called Play Nice that aims to create virtual games that “bring out the best in people.” The vegan Dungeons and Dragons campaigns will be the group’s first project.

So what exactly makes the game vegan? “We are planning on having different different quests that tie in vegan activism, such as an open rescue where you rescue mythical beasts,” he says. “In regular Dungeons and Dragons, you might have a quest where you have to clear out a cage full of goblins by killing them. For a vegan version, maybe you can negotiate with them to move elsewhere; maybe the villagers have been pushing the goblins out of their natural homes and the situation is more complex than you thought. We want to give more complexity than, ‘There’s a monster. Go kill it.'”

This project is exactly the type that co-founder Sue Spahr is hoping to attract at Wishbone. “People are more receptive if you provide entertainment or something relatable,” she says. “We have a bold plan to saturate the airwaves, print and streets with a wide variety of clever, relatable pro-vegan content.”

Organizers and supporters of Wishbone Lab. Courtesy Pinky Stroker

The lab offers a professionally-equipped recording production and broadcasting studio, an equipment lending library, a resource centre, public workshops and training sessions for vegan artists and businesses. “We’re not just wanting to place vegans artists on a level playing field. We want to give them the edge over their non-vegan counterparts,” Spahr says. The lab is currently volunteer and donation-driven, but the team has ambitions of scaling up the project to be rolled out elsewhere locally and globally.

For Kowalchuk, bringing a vegan mindset to Dungeons and Dragons is about more than just animal rights. “We want to incorporate many different movements that we believe veganism is closely tied to; we want to create a community that feels safe and inclusive and we want to use sociocratic philosophies in both how we manage and play our campaigns,” he says.

Kowalchuk notes that violent games aren’t “necessarily” an issue, but says that they can be limiting. “Violence isn’t for everyone; we want to give people options. If you have to get past a guard, instead of knocking them out or killing them, maybe you can use a spell that turns them into your friend instead,” he says. “I want to be able to I want to be able to use my imagination to get past everything rather than just rolling a die and attacking.”

He points to the role-playing video game Undertale as an example of a game with non-violent options that was successful. “You can go through the entire game and not kill or attack a single creature, and it gives you an entirely different ending. It was the first example of a game becoming wildly popular where the main appeal of it is the pacifist route, because it’s so different,” he says.

Through Play Nice, Kowalchuk hopes their campaigns will promote a more inclusive space that challenges a Dungeons and Dragons community that is often dominated by white men. “It’s not a very inclusive space, but that’s changing nowadays. No matter your race or gender identity, we want anyone to be able to play and enjoy our game.”

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