This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
Neko Atsume is a smartphone game where players can watch cats. They can’t pet them, or call to them, or scratch behind their ears. The most a player can do is buy a treat or toy and place it in a backyard. If the player is lucky, the toy will attract Snowball, a furry white kitty who enjoys playing with rubber balls. Or, if the player is really lucky, the toy might even attract Pumpkin—who eats all the tuna he can get his paws on.
Yutaka Takazaki, the creator of Neko Atsume, said he was originally inspired by his native country’s many cat cafes. But millions of players from around the world downloaded the game, showing how the cat cafe culture that originated in Japan has now transformed into a global phenomenon. Aside from the general obsession with cats on the internet, there are now entire film festivals devoted to cat videos that tour around the United States. Holiday specials even air on broadcast television featuring celebrity kitties. Neko Atsume is only the latest proof that felines hold a strange power over modern day humans, no matter what country they’re in.
Neko Atsume’s popularity is even more impressive when one considers that, until September, the game was only available in Japanese. Developer Hitpoint recently hired a localization team to translate all in-game text and rename cats for a more Western audience. But whether they’re saying “nyan” or “meow,” it’s clear that felines speak the universal language of the 21st century. To try and understand why that is, Longreads writer Jillian Steinhauer went to the Internet Cat Video Festival in Minneapolis, United States alongside a community of over 10,000 cat-enthusiast. In her essay The Nine Lives of Cat Videos, Steinhauer points to that communal enthusiasm as an explanation for the digital age’s obsession with cats.
“Dog lovers have always had a real, physical place in which to meet and commune,” she said in an interview, “but having a cat is a very solitary, in-home experience. And so when the internet opened up a way for us to bond over our love of cats, people got excited. Ultimately, things like the Internet Cat Video Festival and #caturday on Instagram are only partly about cats and very much about people—the possibility of coming together and sharing a passion and an experience.”
A sense of community also played a huge part in transforming Neko Atsume from a mobile curiosity into a viral phenomenon. People shared pictures of their collected cats on Twitter or Facebook like they were wallet-sized photo of their kids. Emilie Legrand and Christina Ha are co-owners of Meow Parlour, New York City’s first ever cat cafe. Legrand sees first-hand the positive effects cats can have on their over-stimulated and under-rested humans. “We have visitors who come in the evenings after a terrible day and leave with a big smile,” Legrand said. “I think it’s similar to playing Neko Atsume: if you’re having a bad moment, you have a quick look at your phone and the drawings are so cute, you feel instantly better.”
Customers at Meow Parlour have to make a concerted effort to drop by the location. But download Neko Atsume and the benefits of cat companionship are just a touchscreen away. Such a game would not work nearly as well on a home console, or even dedicated gaming device. The multitasking of a smartphone or tablet lends itself to Atsume’s play style. A tutorial teaches the player to place a treat or a toy and then do something else. “Cats are cautious creatures,” the game explains. “They won’t visit right away, so suspend or close the game… and reopen it in a bit.” It’s only after the player leaves, to check Twitter or Facebook, that the cats will finally emerge.
Domesticated animals have proven their interactive charms before. Nintendogs was a smash-hit on Nintendo DS back in 2005. Unlike Atsume, though, the gameplay in Nintendogs was more directly tied to interacting with the virtual companion, like playing fetch or even bathing them. The game sold nearly 24 million copies. Nintendo tried to repeat the formula with Nintendogs + Cats as a launch title for their 3DS handheld in 2011, but by then the era of smartphones had taken over. The game managed less than one-fifth the sales. But certainly the addition of cats can’t be blamed for that.
But perhaps that’s the lesson: Cats prefer to be in control, not controlled by meddling human players. Dogs scamper up to their owners, seeking approval. Cats sit on their tower, licking themselves, while we gape and watch videos starring their grumpy brethren. As Harvard professor Stephen Burt wrote, “Cats are mysteries; their agendas, beyond food and sleep and sunlight, may constitute a kind of knowledge endlessly deferred.”
Neko Atsume taps into this central cat trait: They do what they want. Maybe Snowball shows up. Maybe she doesn’t. But the player will keep checking regardless, hoping to snap a picture and share it with the millions of other cat-lovers that populate the internet.
Cat cafe photo courtesy Melanie Ko