I Can Haz You?

“Everybody wants to be a cat,” they sing with a smug self-assurance. The aphorism is no doubt timeless. But does that make it true?

A month ago, Terry Cavanagh released a browser game called Cat Chat. It’s a free massively-multiplayer online game with one direction: Be a cat. I’ve always avoided MMOs, given how my friends described “quitting” World of Warcraft as if they were in rehab. But Cat Chat was something special. I’ve been many things in videogames, but I’ve never been a cat. 

I grew up with four cats. Or, to be more precise, I was born with two cats: Al and Shirley. We didn’t get along, and it took a scar—my first scar, right above my right eyelid—for Shirley to convince me we would never be friends. I left her alone after that, but I didn’t give up. See, I grew up slightly before Harry Potter sank its teeth into children’s literature and pop culture for eternity. My two favorite tomes were The Golden Compass and Calvin and Hobbes

Al and Shirley were separated when my parents divorced and my mom started to move us across the country. I continued to ask for a new coterie of cats. Let me be clear, though: I never wanted a cat to be just a pet. I didn’t even want it to be a friend. I wanted it to be my best friend. There was no such thing as a feline companion; cats were your daemons, your spirit animals, your best friends, and expressions of your true, inner self. 

I wanted a cat so badly I begged my mom until I got a stuffed tiger. Like many in my generation, I presume, I named it Hobbes. I brought home from school clay figures and drawings of tigers. They were all named Hobbes. One day, leaving the vet with my mom and our dog, I caught the eye of the real Hobbes in an adopt-me cage. The next week we came back with his sister Meydle. Several weeks later we brought home Gandalf and Merlin. Hobbes and I were best friends, I told people. I tried to take him everywhere with me except school. I even wrote his autobiography for a short-story assignment in first grade. It was titled, “Hobbes: The Life of a Cat,” and I’m still waiting to hear back from the publishers. 

Of these four cats, only Gandalf is left, living somewhere in North Carolina I couldn’t find on a map. Hobbes died last year of cancer. Merlin, always the most fiercely independent, disappeared one day without a trace. Meydle woke me up one morning in high school with a grating shriek that wrenched me out of bed. I found her in the driveway at the end of an eerie, viscous trail of fluid. She showed no signs of the cuts or trauma roadkill usually exhibit. Scooped up and driven to the nearest hospital, she died clawing at my chest fiercely and wailing.

An internet without adorable and obnoxious cat memes is no internet at all. 

Cat Chat is a game about being a cat, and talking to other cats,” the opening window explains. You bounce around a front yard, a garden, a back alley. There is a front door that, despite your insistent nudges against it with the up arrow, never seems to open. Slowly, I learned my new speech: the cadence of cats. The pixilated balls of fuzz, at chance encounters, purr, screech, or meow at one another. These are the three things a cat can say. The fourth command is taking a nap, which, after five minutes of confusion, I did, leaving my cat-avatar asleep in the open browser as I clicked into another window.

Cat Chat at first appears to be a game about nothing. Conniving green pigs didn’t steal your kittens; Reapers aren’t coming to destroy a distracted and disbelieving galaxy despite the best efforts of the first feline Spectre. Then mice are introduced. Cat Chat suddenly becomes a game about hunger, and seemingly endless devotion to an unrewarding and vengeful god—the screen door. Your “score” increases as you gather mice on the front step. But what exactly are you competing for? These are not timed races or cage-matches to battle for the most mice. And miraculously, all these human-controlled kitties behave the same way around the house my cats did—milling lazily about and scratching the door, pattering off intermittently to return with a new fruit of their conquest intended, I’m told, to be taken as a gift. Perhaps the mice are given for the chance to enter the house; but nothing actually happens. 

One of my last times playing Cat Chat, I suddenly heard a bark. I wasn’t sure I was hearing correctly, until I saw a dog—slightly larger than the cats and oozing electric-blue pixels of slobber. Cat Chat became a game about danger and the necessity of flight. Most of the game before this is spent idly traipsing around the dark alleyway and garden with no sense of urgency—none of the limits that that games bind their players with for dramatic tension. Suddenly, I was racing around these same alleyways trying to outwit and outrun a pack of hungry pooches with the same basic controls that had become so frustratedly limiting. I thought of Meydle and the way she, like all cats, simply disappeared, only to reappear seamlessly when the need for food and shelter surfaced. 

I had wanted to be friends with Hobbes and Meydle, but they always had strange outward lives that never seemed to occur to my dog any time he nudged me to throw a stick. What was stranger than Meydle’s disappearance and even her death, the vet told me, was that she had tried so hard to crawl back home at all. She lived in an entirely different world—one I could never really understand. 

/ / /

January 18, 2012 gained internet notoriety as websites like Wikipedia and Reddit blacked themselves out in protest of the SOPA/PIPA legislation. Another site that became ubiquitously blank, however, was the Cheezburger family, which had just reached its fifth year as an internet powerhouse. People weren’t really sure what to make of the absence of internet cat memes as a veritable protest movement; Peter Sagal joked on that weekend’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, “Where could Americans turn on this dark day on Wednesday for poorly-sourced information or cheezburgers they can haz?” 

The site itself was eager to escape the long, dark shadow that cats had cast for it: “Reaching our fifth anniversary means that we’re not just seen as a cat website company,” Emily Huh, the editor-in-chief, told Mashable in an interview preceding the protest. But the evasiveness here ignores the massive cultural capital that cats now have. An internet without adorable and obnoxious cat memes is no internet at all. Maru the Cat is more of a celebrity than the majority of human beings on the planet today. By 2010, more than 15 years of the collective human experience had been spent watching “Surprised Kitty,” leading The New York Times to write off this generation—that of the cat-obsessed and internet-savvy—as the next “lost generation.”  

We can’t decide, in short, if cats are actually man’s best friend or man’s greatest enemy. 

Drew Millard recently said in his impassioned defense of My Horse that “Horses represent the symbiotic relationship between man and nature. We are dominant over our horses, but never cruelly so.” The animal-loving, PETA-sympathizing-despite-their-obnoxious-grandstanding part of me finds this woefully ignorant, even offensive. Clearly we are cruel to animals—the most radical animal liberationists will tell you any form of pet ownership is institutionalized slavery, while pretty much anybody can be grossed out by the horrific details of factory farming. But in his enthusiasm for “petting” a virtual animal, Millard raises an important point: The fantasy of videogames, particularly the animal-petting variety, is one of impossible intimacy—a friendship we can never truly have, because it is without reciprocity. We pet these fake animals, like we fed our Tamagotchis or mated our Sims before them, just as we spend years of our lives watching them ecstatically as they scream and yawn across our many, many screens. But we never have to feed them. My Horse and Cat Chat don’t let you abuse the animal in any number of ways that horses, dogs, and cats surely are when they are abandoned or brutalized today. John Marston, Altaïr, and Wander may push their horses to the breaking point, but you never have to run over to the pet store for them. There’s no shit to scoop up or the raw, stinging smell of pissed-on couches and rugs. No painful and expensive shots to administer. And there’s no death.  

We admire the beauty of horses, the stupid loyalty of dogs, the perspicacity of monkeys. But our relationship with cats is different, and I think more dramatic, than with other animals. It oscillates between a fanatic and nearly insane hope for intimacy that becomes a hope for transformation—the allegedly simple instruction to “be a cat” in Cat Chat—and a rapid fear or paranoia that the animals are a harbinger of our doom. BuzzFeed has a special “Meow!” badge to distinguish cats from the unfiltered dreck of the “cute” family. The Atlantic, meanwhile, recently warned us that cats are actually planting parasites in all of our brains. “Of all God’s creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the leash,” Mark Twain wrote in his notebook in 1894, “that one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”

The point is, we’ve never really fully understood what our relationship with cats is. Ancient Egyptians elevated our feline ancestors to the level of gods. Witch-hungry and frightened Europeans hunted and persecuted cats almost as much as they did women and gypsies. A ninth-century Irish monk wrote an epic poem eulogizing his cat Pangur Ban. And in 18th-century France, disaffected apprentice printers in Rue Saint-Severin rounded up all the cats they could find and put them on trial to defy their masters for treating the cats far better than their own servants.

From the scientific authority vested in me from watching several episodes of Planet Earth and Life, I think I can safely say that cats lack the emotional and intellectual complexity of, say, chimps. So why isn’t it apes that are hasing all the cheezburgers? It seems that cats today have been once again raised to the level of near-deities, for they embody a romantic ideal of animals. They are distant and independent, yet seemingly knowing and friendly. They’re the good neighbors of a modern suburban ecosystem, rather than the sputtering, defecating messes of dogs. They seem smart, but they’re probably not smart enough to creep us out. To put it back in terms of videogames: Cats will never cross into the uncanny valley. Their eyes are too sharply inexpressive, their cognition too remotely alien, their lives so uncompromisingly foreign.

Does dumbing all language down to the level of screeches and purrs make any of this easier?

We can’t decide, in short, if cats are actually man’s best friend or man’s greatest enemy. Games like all media reflect this protean friendship by casting cats as heroes and villains in equal part. Many videogames feature cats as playable characters. Final Fantasy VII, the pinnacle of the series for many fans, had two arguably cat characters that embodied both sides of the feline two-face: the gritty and haunted Red XIII, and the Hello Kitty-esque Cait Sith. Bubsy, at one point, was thought to be the next Sonic the Hedgehog; and some fans of Ratchet & Clank maintain that a Lombax is basically a Maine Coon. And the Khajiit race in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series now has its own internet cat sensation in Felix the Peaceful Monk. But I doubt any of these games try to approximate the immersive experience of cat-ness itself. Cat Chat gets at a much grander truth in its instruction to “be a cat”: Apathy. As Werner Herzog said of bears in Grizzly Man: “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.”

The other way to “be a cat,” I suppose, would be to play one of the new videogames specifically designed for them. “The Apple grip, holding the device with one hand while scratching distractedly at its face with the thumb, stinks of bourgeois idleness,” Ryan Kuo wrote of Apple and its turn toward gaming. But the iPad also represents another fantasy—that of creating a space both digital and tactile so comprehensively basic and responsive that even cats can play with it. “In general, the cat gamer likes fast-moving things that make sounds,” the designer of an iPad cat game said in a recent interview with Kotaku Australia. “That’s not very complex, I know.”

Is this the final frontier of play—the final frontier of friendship, not just between people, but with the animals and everything else we own? The vision of Apple, and the ideology of these cat games, is that one day every relationship we have may be mediated through a screen alone. But even the fluid touchscreen interface isn’t much of a substitute for actually petting an animal and experiencing mutual gratification. It’s a transplantation of the real experience of fur and flesh into a sleeker and far more alien experience.

/ / /

I miss my real cats. I miss Hobbes and Meydle and Merlin. I ask myself when I’m going to decide that life is finally uncomplicated and inexpensive enough to move on and get another cat. Until then, I keep watching watching cat videos and playing Cat Chat. Friends say I’m the “cat guy” on their Facebook newsfeeds, given how many cat-related images people send me. Even as I was writing this, I paused to see a former college classmate post on my Facebook wall, saying, “i think the entirety of our ‘friendship’ on facebook consist of cute animal videos.”

The other hope embodied by these cat games—or more broadly, the viral ubiquity of cats themselves—is that people may relate to each other with the same dumb kindness we all feel toward cats. But does dumbing all language down to the level of screeches and purrs make any of this easier? “There goes my work day,” one friend wrote to me after I first posted a link to Cat Chat. Then, an hour later: “I got followed around by a kitty named JewBurner who called me a ‘N***er Bitch!’”

I kept meowing at the Cat Chat doorstep until I realized I could also speak in the game, like in any online chat room. “How do I get into house?” I type, circling the yard anxiously and occasionally pressing my head against the bright yellow door. “Through the front door,” a cat with the handle WetPussy replies. I leave for the alley. There sits another unnamed, numbered “Kitty”—the name we are all given when we first enter the world of Cat Chat

“Hi,” I type.

No response. 

I screech. The cat meows back. Then, for a moment, we both purr.

There’s nothing left to do together, so eventually the other kitty leaves. I circle around the alley for a moment. It’s time for another nap, I tell myself. I lay the cat down to sleep, and get back to work.

Photograph by zacklur