In the video game, Hatoful Kareshi (Pigeon-ful or Heart-ful Boyfriend), the player is a human girl attending a distinguished school for birds (mostly various pigeons/doves). Through making selections in conversation, the player engages various birds (your pigeon friend, a mourning dove who haunts the library, your quail homeroom teacher) in romantic subplots which reveal each bird’s distinctive personality (some of them are evil, some are just insane. At least one is already dead.) The birds can either appear as birds or as anime-style handsome boys according to the player’s preference. Making the correct choices in each subplot means endings of various types, but failure always means the same ending. Darkness falls and a mysterious voice “???” speaks about the “human representative”: “While she was meant to act as a goodwill ambassador, she… fails to display sufficient intimacy with the birds.” The voice then calls to execute the termination sequence and you, back in your cave, are attacked and murdered. In the course of unlocking the “good endings,” you discover the secrets of this bad ending—that you were placed in the school as an experimental solution to the tense peace between bird and human and the Hawk Party (you can guess) of the birds is hoping to use your murder to fan the tensions back into an all-out war. In the future dystopia of Hatoful, a human attempt to eradicate the avian carriers of a new bird flu mutated birds, starting with pigeons as the most common human-adjacent birds, into intelligent, self-aware beings. Your human failure to develop relationships with the birds dominating future society means a failure of human intelligence and emotional capacity—a proof, for the shadowy background figures of the game world, that humans are not capable of love or thought the way birds are.
Digital subcultures and amateur productions, like the mythological space of gods and omens, animate the lives of birds and other animals in new intimacy with humans. Hatoful was originally dōjin-soft or an amateur software game created and sold independently by comic artist, translator, and pigeon enthusiast Hato Moa (a pen name meaning “More Pigeons”; I possibly met her once, but I was too nervous to say anything.) It functions as a parody of the repetitive interactions and ridiculous storylines of dating simulation games, made even more absurd through transposition on to bird characters, but it also, quite simply, celebrates Moa’s love of pigeons. Her own pet pigeon Oko San even gets a branch on the gameplay tree, in which he becomes a legendary pudding king. In the drawn world of the game, the birds are so straightforwardly present that their weirdness becomes no weirder than a human presence.
There’s something about the unironic love of animals, the faith in new intimacies with them, which is amplified in online spaces and fan productions—amplified and yet somehow not all that different from omens and totems, Zeus becoming a swan for affairs, all of history’s struggle to exist as one with other animals. An internet subculture trend for a while was “otherkin,” people who identified trans-species with animals and believed their souls were either naturally that of an animal or someone connected to one. This is different from the internet subculture of “furries” who enjoy drawing, imagining, and roleplaying animals, usually anthropomorphized as cartoon-like mascots, sometimes with sexual implications. Otherkin identify as wolf-kin, fox-kin, raven-kin, etc. and, like ancient shamanistic shapeshifters, sometimes their animal natures overcome their human training. Otherkin culture expanded so that one could be “kin” with fantastic beasts, unicorns, werewolves, aliens, or cosmic entities, galaxies, supernova, or non-animal earth features, trees, flowers, a particular volcano. Eventually one could be kin with fictional characters or celebrity personas. Some iterations of this overlapped with a critique of gender emerging from within transgender or non-binary online communities in which, instead of identifying as male or female, a member would identity as “tree” or “fairy” or another non-gender. One could be foxkin or one could be fox-gendered.
Though I don’t see much of these groups anymore (except the furries, who are still going strong), the overall willingness to question the divide between human and animal, as well as the “natural,” “scientific” (but ultimately constructed) divisions between male and female, suggests an equivalent in popular culture of the current academic interrogation of human division from the animal and the world. This discourse rejects the scientific knowledge which comes from the manipulation of animals and animal bodies except insofar as it provides stories of animal behavior which can elaborate their psychological identification; instead, it relies primarily on cultural associations with a particular animal, an animal lore in some cases stretching back to antiquity now being reconfigured into teenage identity exploration on the internet. Particularly in spaces where imagined images are king—the drawn worlds of comics, animation, and games and the online networks where your physical body never has to intrude upon the persona you construct—it doesn’t seem like such a leap to claim kinship with animals. If your digital body can be whatever you wish it, why not imagine it as a coyote? Why not date a bird? Why not date every bird?