Trivia 076: Dog-assisted trivia

Last week was the annual Games Done Quick convention in Pittsburgh. During this week-long event, speedrunners get to showcase their talents as they complete video games in as short a time as possible. Throughout the event, GDQ raises donations to for the Prevent Cancer Foundation (there is a similar one in the summer which donates to Doctors Without Borders). This year, the donation total topped $2.5 million. In addition to the in-person convention, there is also a 24/7 livestream of the main stage events online, so I always make sure to tune in. It’s a good time every year, and they are always interesting to watch.

This year, though, there was a very special moment as a new runner made their debut – Peanut Butter, the dog. Peanut Butter is a shiba inu trained to press buttons on a special pad when instructed. In this way, the dog’s owner can give him commands to press buttons and thus beat the game without a human needing to interact with the controls. Here is the video of the event, if you’d like to watch it yourself. However, the dog could not be said to be playing the game, as they were simply following the commands of their owner, not looking at the screen and reacting themselves.

In fact, it was not until recently that dogs could “watch” television. While they may become momentarily interested in something they see on the screen, they typically do not watch it for very long. This is likely due to the fact that dogs have a higher flicker fusion rate than humans. For a human, if a light is flickering at a frequency higher than 60 Hertz (60 times a second), it will appear to be continuously illuminated. At a lower rate, we will perceive it as actually flickering.This is why when we watch movies or games on a screen, a framerate at 60 frames per second (fps) is desirable. If the frame rate is lower than that, the motion may appear choppy and broken. Drop the frame rate low enough, and you basically end up with a slideshow. This is noticeable if you watch a video on an older device, like a cathode-ray television. With a frame rate of sometimes 16-20 fps, it was fast enough that a human could interpret a set of images as something moving.

However, the flicker fusion rate for dogs is likely 70-80 Hertz, according to several studies. This means that with those old television screens, a dog would simply perceive a set of sequential images – much like a slideshow. It hasn’t been until more recent decades that television technology (specifically the frame rate) has gotten good enough to reach a dog’s flicker fusion rate. This is why dogs typically do not pay attention to things on a television, but are becoming more and more interested in them.

So although Peanut Butter was a very good boy, and was trained admirably to assist his owner in the speedrun, it may be a while yet before dogs will be able to play video games on their own.

I was concerned that this post would be like Trivia 064: I’ve been itching to write this one. In that post, I described how tarantula hair was once used as an ingredient in itching powder. However, I was not able to find any credible documented source of that. This time, however, I did succeed. At first I merely found article after article espousing the 70fps number as an almost fiat claim. Sometimes they would link to another, older article, sometimes not. But eventually by following article citing article citing article, I was eventually able to work my way back to the source – a 2017 paper written by Byosiere, Chouinard, Howell, and Bennett. I think this is a good lesson in journalism – make sure to cite primary sources! Otherwise, misinformation can easily spread.

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