Games and Animals

I’ve been an avid gamer for the better part of my lifetime now and part of what I love about the hobby is how a good game can test you in situations you might not experience. This is, after all, why baby animals play – to test themselves and learn about themselves.

I think gaming can be a great tool for looking at empathy as well, and a game floated across my internet desk quite recently that I absolutely loved: Cat Petting Simulator 2014

The game’s premise is simple – interact with and stroke a cat. Through a text based interface you think about how you approach a cat, stroke the cat, and interact with it. It’s a funny game and I thought the escalation of the interactions was really clever. To that end I emailed the lovely Neongrey who made the game and asked her some questions.

What was your goal in creating the game?

I had a few, really. In part– it’s a bit of a silly extrapolation of something I do with friends online all the time. You know, if they’re feeling down or whatever, I would offer to pet [my]┬ácat for them, and I would really go and hunt down one of my cats and pet them and tell them what happened– usually lots of purring. I hate seeing people feel badly, and I hate feeling like there’s nothing I can do about it, so this is my attempt to do that on a slightly more thorough scale. Sometimes there are people who need to pet cats that I don’t know about! Or I’m at work, and *I* need to pet a cat.

Did you think the game might be educational?

Not educational so much– more like therapeutic, really. I mean I wanted no part of the ‘aloof cat who hates you and wants to claw you’ cariacture; it would go against my intent of wanting the game to feel nice. Not that I much like that stereotype in the first place– as anyone who’s had a particularly affectionate cat will know, yes, absolutely, they can care about you beyond just where the food’s coming from.

Did you think about cat behaviour while making the game?

You know, I joke about how every pet in the game was playtested on a real cat, but it’s not a joke, really. Most of the game was written literally by petting her in the requisite manner and noting down her reactions.
There’s a bit more to it than that, too, though, insofar as measuring her reactions. From the ending score, you can see the bulk of the work is done through an affection meter. This is, you know, basically random. Every time you get a prompt there’ll be something with the potential for a better affection gain than other options, but luck plays a role. It’s not flawless but Twine isn’t the best medium to write AI in, so it was a decent kludge to represent the cat having her own ideas about what she likes.
[Ed note – LOVE this element of the game, which inadvertently alludes to the inherent random nature of decision making]
There’s not a lot of indication as to which she’ll like best– I hint at it a bit in some options, for careful readers– but again, it’s really hard sometimes to tell what a cat will like best, even when you know her, so that there’s a certain air of mystery is perfectly intentional.
I’ll also call attention to the belly pets. In the score menu, I do joke about the so-called ‘deadly belly trap’ but as I’m sure you gathered by now, it wouldn’t really further my intentions to have you clawed up by a cat– about the darkest emotion I try and convey in the game is ‘fond irritation’. So in all cases, the simulated cat does exactly what the real Cassie does– when she’s done with you petting her belly, she’ll push your hand away, and you’ll stop for the moment because you’re not a jerk.
Thing too is petting the belly is *wildly* random. Some options might give you no affection gain, if you’re unlucky, but only petting the belly can *reduce* affection. And I think that’s fair. But also too, it’s got the highest potential gain for affection. It’s quite intentional that the only way to get the elusive ending 6 is to give her cheeks and ears (the game begins with a mandatory back pet) a quick pet and then concentrate entirely on the belly. If you’re lucky– or she’s in exactly the right mood, as the case may be– you’ll get to pick her up and walk around with her a bit and she’ll cuddle right up to you.
Meanwhile the only way to get the “worst” (you still got to pet a cat, so it can’t be that bad) is if you bore her. And you bore her by entirely skipping out on petting a location entirely. You have to pet her back/sides, cheeks/chest, ears, and belly at least once each for her to not hop away up onto the cat tree and lick her butt in your general direction. I think a lot of people are getting that ending because they’re avoiding the belly entirely.

I love the game, is there anything else you’d like to say?

I mean I think it’s important to note that this is by no means an attempt to represent all cats– it doesn’t even represent both my cats. Maddie, who makes a cameo in one of the endings, certainly wouldn’t act the way Cassie does here; she’s much more aloof, except when she decides she’s not.
But, I mean, the whole game mandates two specific conceits: a) the cat loves you, and b) she wants to be petted. And everything sort of falls out from there. I’ve been kind of overwhelmed by the response; there’s a lot of people who, you know, it seems like something like this is exactly what they needed. And I’m happy, and honoured, and you know, a bit surprised, that I can be the one to give that to them.
If you join our MOOC early next year I’m thinking of a short optional exercise surrounding the game so you can get a head start by exploring it and the different options.