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Neko Atsume and pigeon dances

Joanna By Joanna Published on March 19, 2016

Full confession time. 

I spend a truly disturbing amount of time trying to lure imaginary cats into my digital yard so I can give them things which might make them happy. Despite living in an apartment which belongs to a ridiculously amazing cat, I have become obsessed with the catopian mobile game, Neko Atsume. 

What is wrong with me? I have two masters degrees. Why do I find this game so appealing?  Neko Atsume seems to have been made by people who truly appreciate cats and their cute little feets. Cats come and go as they like; they ignore you just as they do in real life. If the kitties are happy with you, they leave you some fishy currency with which you may buy them different types of food, more toys and nicer things to sit on.  

There's no threat of danger or failure because  your cat friends won't die if you don't check in with them.  There are no meaningful conflicts and no real achievements either. If a cat is really happy after visiting your yard several times, he or she might bring you a present: not a beheaded bluejay or half a mouse like in real life, but a harmless talisman like a bottlecap or some little mittens.

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My favourite cat is Tubbs. I appreciate his ability to eat all the available food despite the fact that it prevents additional cats from visiting the yard while he sleeps off his food coma. 

Each of the cats has his or her own preferences and behaviours. Some of the cats are more extroverted; some are reclusive. One must experiment a bit to figure out what types of things the cats like. Or wait a minute, is this game some sort of Skinner box for ailurophiles?

Through experimenting with pigeons, Burrhus Frederic Skinner developed a theory termed operant conditioning. In his experiments, he placed pigeons in a box; when the pigeon performed certain actions, a mechanism would dispense small amounts of food. Within this framework, Skinner developed a technique called 'shaping through successive approximation' which involves rewarding exaggerated behaviour in small, successive ways to encourage the development of complex actions.  Skinner's pigeons eventually developed many strange ritual dances termed 'pigeon superstition.'

B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning of pigeons

As I find myself constructing very detailed and imaginative plans to attract more cats, I recognize that these cats appear at computationally irregular intervals. Strategy does not really figure into this game in a meaningful way. I am constructing a bizarre set of superstitions surrounding these imaginary cats, rather like a pigeon dance. 

In spite of this, I wonder what my cat friends are doing now. It is nice to imagine there is a utopian world in which I can hug all the cats. I just want to hug all the cats.... and my cat =^..^=

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Joanna has twice won certificates of honour (and a free beer) for demonstrating “extraordinary courage against the unsurmountable Phaal”, a ludicrously spicy curry.