I recently discovered a game called Neko Atsume, and now it's all I think about. It's a mobile phone game in which you "collect" neighbourhood cats by enticing them with food and toys. You may have seen screenshots from the game pop up in your Facebook or Twitter feeds, as your friends celebrate their cat accomplishments. That's how I first became aware of it, and from the moment I saw it, I knew I had to have it.
Made by Japanese game company Hit-Point, Neko Atsume gained worldwide popularity after Apple ran a promotion for cat-based games on an informal Japanese holiday called The Day of the Cat. The promotion boosted Neko Atsume into the Japanese top 10 , and American games journalists quickly began to take notice of it. The game is entirely in Japanese, but is mostly intuitive enough that you can figure out what's going on without any knowledge of the language. (I have occasionally harassed Japanese-speaking friends for answers, though.)
Neko Atsume is a game in which barely anything happens. You leave food and toys out for cats, the cats come and eat or play, the cats leave you sardines to say thank you, you use the sardines as currency to buy them new food and toys. And on and on the cycle goes. Sometimes the cats come when you don't have the game open (you know they were there, though, because of the sardines). Sometimes they come and just sit there. The most activity that ever happens is a cat rolling around, or clawing at a scratching post. It thrills me.
And I'm not alone. Comedian and writer Emily Heller is also obsessed with the game. (Full disclosure: I introduced her to it.) I ask her what she likes about it. "I don't know why I love this game. It's barely dynamic. But cats are barely dynamic. It's realistic. I think I check it as often as everything else I check on my phone. The difference is I don't worry about which tweets I missed while I was sleeping, but I do stress about which cats came and played with my yarn ball while I was wasting precious cat-gazing hours unconscious. Also, I like their little buttholes."
Looking to spread the joy of the cats' little buttholes, Heller introduced the game to Emily V. Gordon, comedian and cohost of video game podcast The Indoor Kids, which VICE Gaming profiled earlier in 2015. She's now joined our weird cat cult, and can't stop playing the game. "I probably check on my cats 15 to 20 times a day," she tells me. "I think I like the game because I like making cats happy, and I like feeling beholden to something that is easy to satisfy. I love giving them silly names – my favourites are Fremium and Dudith – and checking to see who is eating my food and playing with my weird toys that don't seem that fun. That crystal vase doesn't seem like a toy." (She's right. Frankly, it seems dangerous.)
Why can't we stop playing this game? Almost nothing happens in it, and the stakes are comically low. You don't even own the cats you "collect" – they're neighbourhood cats, and the most you can achieve is to lure them temporarily to your house. I ask Dr Sarah Lynne Bowman, who holds a PhD in Arts and Humanities, why it's so dangerously easy to become obsessed with this game. Dr Bowman studies games academically, and her current work focuses on applying Jungian theory to role-playing titles.
"I definitely think that evolutionary instincts are at play here," she says. "We have the instinctive urge to care for small, helpless creatures, especially when they are cute. Likely, we experience some sort of hormone release when we play these games, though I'd love to see some cognitive data on the topic. I suspect we experience serotonin and oxytocin releases when we care for people and creatures. Indeed, much of the research on happiness has indicated that money, sex, and status do not keep us happy in the long run; we are more fulfilled by challenging, yet rewarding tasks – like video game play – connections within a community, and helping others."
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Dr Bowman also tells me that games like Neko Atsume give us a lot of those benefits in the "long-term happiness" category – even if the effects are somewhat illusory. "Players are experiencing the simulation of caring for others; of being challenged and subsequently rewarded; of having this community of cats. Games like The Sims and environments like Second Life have similar effects."
Dr Bowman notes that this virtual community of cats leads people to form actual communities of people. She finds it interesting, for example, that people share their acquired cats on Twitter and Facebook. "They are reaching out to others in a tangible, social way and connecting over this simulation. This practice reinforces communal connection for gamers, people who love cats, and even people who exist in the Twitterverse as a subculture. In other words, people are creating real communities in a virtual space based on their involvement with the game."
Dr Bowman has a small warning, though. "The game is playing a trick on us, to a degree, by getting us hooked in these virtual 'love-fests'. The balance with these games always involves making sure to stay plugged into your daily life and relationships while you are interfacing with a machine that is not actually providing you a sense of communal connection or love, but rather a virtual simulation of it. However, psychologically speaking, if a balanced engagement in these sorts of games produces similar effects, I think it's a positive development."
So if you, like me, check on your Neko Atsume cats at least 20 times a day, don't fret. It's okay if their little buttholes consume your every waking thought – as long as you maintain relationships with real people and their real, significantly less-cute backsides.
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