Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Press Paws: Pondering the World's First Video Game for Cats

Every once in a while, ideas come down the pipe that are so crazy, they have to work.  Then there's the ideas that are too crazy to work, but at least are entertaining in their failure.  Then there's the ideas that are just crazy.  Hopefully, this one of the first two.

Many of us know by now the backstories given to us by the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto and Satoshi Tajiri, about how as children, they went out adventuring in a wilder, more pristine world, and later, as that world became ever more pacified, paved, and pedestrian, decided that industry on the cutting edge owed it to the world to create a monument to the old adventurous world, and then some.  The result were video games, whose success proves that we really crave outlets for our old sense of strife.  So if this applies to humans, it stands to reason that it should be just as true; if not more, of more wild animals.

Cats certainly qualify as such.  Possessing the fine-tuned instincts of crafty predators beneath those cute faces and huggable fur coats, they have a way of getting into, batting, chasing and pouncing on anything that isn't fastened down, stowed away, braced, or considered boring as a result of it being familiar to them; especially if it moves.  We haven't bred these traits out of them (assuming we could) because face it; we love them.  We love that cats can help us get rid of annoying pests, and we love watching these adorable creatures beat up on yarn like it owes them money, charge after lasers, and other things that make for YouTube clickbait.  Still, sometimes we have conflicts of interest.  People in rural areas appreciate cats going out and chowing down on invading rodents, but I can't imagine city dwellers letting rodents loose in their apartments just so cats can satisfy their natural urges and litter the floor with blood and guts, and it can be irritating when cats decide that the mysterious lights in the magic box are there for them to play with.

Cute and funny, but irritating, and essentially ruinous to our ability to play with them.  My cat, Sunshine, has quite a fixation with TV, whether we're talking about actual channels, DVDs, and pictured above, video games.  I quickly decided that squirting him with a water pistol was too cruel, so for a point, I just waggled a feather toy for him every time he jumped up to the TV.  That got him off, but only briefly; once I went back to watching/playing, he jumped back right up, and I have some suspicion that he came to learn that if he jumped up there, he'd get the toy waggled as a reward.  So eventually, I just followed Jackson Galaxy's advice and put some double-sided tape on my TV table, and that has worked to keep him from going up there, somewhat.However, it got me thinking: What if, instead of punishing a cat for chasing things on TV, we could reward them?  Probably not with out own games, but with games designed for them.  The more I see cats go for such things, the more I think the idea is at least worth a try. 

Now, naturally, creating a video game for cats takes some doing; in at least some ways more than making just another for people does.  For example, because cats only are attracted to what's on the screen and not the controller--in the same way that they're interested in the projected laser beam, but not the pointer--a touch screen would need to control most of what happens in the game.  Furthermore, it would need to be the type that works with many objects; not just a specially designed stylus.  Finally, it would need to be considerably bigger than the touch screen on a 3DS, smartphone, or even an iPad, because cats need to move in their hunting-oriented style of play.

Another problem whose solution is probably more open-ended, but less obvious, is that cats can't think in terms of abstractions to the extent that we can.  Among other reasons, this is because cat eyes, though good at collecting light and sensing movement, don't perceive or distinguish as many colors as we do; recognition of things is thus a matter of them integrating sight with data provided by their other senses, such as smell and hearing, and vibrations sensed by their whiskers.  Up to a point, that isn't a problem, because as noted above, cats are flexible.  The question of whether they can recognize, say, a bird on TV, is less relevant when we remember cats will jump after things that aren't birds at all.  Still, for us to justify something being a game, as opposed to just a special cat-targeting video we play for their amusement, it must not only get cats' attention with interesting entities they can chase, but also provide rewarding feedback based on their input.  Exactly how this is to be done should be determined by some in-depth testing, but here are some ideas:

1) Nocturn.  This would be a scenario where much of the screen goes black.  Soon, though, a little light starts to blink.  The cat would go to it, and upon batting it, the light would shift a bit on the screen, prompting the cat to chase it.  As the cat hits the light more times, it expands, until light replaces the original black screen, at which point a level is complete.
2) Sparrow Hunt.  This would be a bird-hunting simulator, obviously similar to Duck Hunt, but with touch screen controls.
3) Wild Soundboard. This would be essentially a digital, feline version of those toys for young children that we see a lot of in doctors' waiting rooms.  Images of various animals known in the domestic cat's African homeland would flash across the screen, and upon being touched, sounds the animals make would play.

Because in many games, it's the journey that's fun, not the destination, it may be arbitrary, but an added option could be to give the cats rewards.  For example, food.  If a cat hits enough virtual sparrows, for example, maybe award it with some actually poultry.  With Wild Soundboard, it could various types of meat, based on what a cat hit.

Now, these are just suggestions.  I'm not a cat psychologist, and I don't have the mechanical know-how or money to rig up a big touch screen, or the software savvy to make a computer program run with a touch screen.  Yet I have observed what I think is the beginning of an innovative idea, so if you have something to add, by all means, speak up!  Meow!

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