Cats Deserve a Better Video Game

Designers of feline-focused tablet apps are learning a lot about how pets play.
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Tablet gaming has been revolutionary. And yet, its importance is often under-recognized. Its intuitive and basic design has made gaming a more accessible hobby for an audience that spans from small children to the elderly, allowing people the chance to play games for entertainment, cognitive training, memory building, and education.

Several videos on YouTube even show that the iPad has an appeal that not only spans ages, but species. Any random search for “animals playing iPad” will provide you with videos of everything from dogs and cats to frogs and lizards playing games on a touch screen.

In fact, it was a video on YouTube depicting a cat playing with the now-defunct app Noby Noby Boy that first drew Martine Carlsen into the world of cat app development. She watched, fascinated and amused with a little cat that batted at and dragged its paw across the screen, endlessly entertained by the sound effects and unique visuals. In an attempt to entertain her own cats Sonny and Cher, she purchased the app and placed it in front of them. She remembers them not being all that impressed.  

It was not long after that a handful of games created specifically for cats appeared on the app store. She purchased several of these, but was again unable to elicit anything from her cats other than apathy. As a programmer and developer for the iPhone and iPad, Martine decided at that moment that she wanted to create a game that her cats would enjoy.

The result was Catch the Mouse, a small game featuring a tiny virtual mouse continuously moving across the screen.

Although seemingly simple, a great deal of considerations must be taken into account in order to make an app that will appeal to a cat’s senses. In nature, cats are predatory animals that prefer to stalk their prey, studying their movements and preparing to strike the moment the opportunity first presents itself. They’re hard-wired to recognize the patterns of their prey, so it’s imperative that the in-game creatures move in a way the cat can instantly recognize.

“What I found through testing was that the way the mouse (or any other digital prey) moved was as important as the way it looked,” Martine explains, adding that she watched multiple videos of mice, spiders, and fish in order to “try and mimic their movement.”

Basic visual design with high color contrast and noises that reward a “catch” also help to give the cat a satisfying amount of sensory feedback for their success. Mice squeak when caught, some apps feature keyboards that reward with piano sounds, and others make loud splashing noises as cats bat at on-screen fish in virtual koi ponds.

Since cats are obviously not able to use credit cards or browse through the App Store, the apps must keep a biped audience in mind as well. “The design of the game has to appeal to humans to ‘persuade’ them to purchase it, and it has to appeal to the cat to be a success,” says Martine. “One without the other is not enough.”

Martine points out that not all gamer cats are the same. “Cats are like humans in the sense that they have different preferences and taste in toys. Some cats will gladly attack everything that moves on the iPad screen, while others are more picky about even the most lifelike (virtual) mouse,” she explains. “I try to make games with catch objects that appeal to as many cats as possible, but you can’t please everybody (or every cat). It’s like buying an expensive toy for your kid; they take out the toy and play with the box instead. You never know!”

While they certainly make for entertaining YouTube videos, there’s a deeper importance to these games that speaks to the necessity of play for all species. Nearly every kind of animal has a certain “play” mode they enter—whether by themselves or with others—that gives them the chance to exercise their natural instincts and abilities. It’s an essential part of a healthy lifestyle for an animal; dogs have bones and chew toys, wolves play-fight, horses have stall toys to keep them from engaging in bad habits, and some wild birds will even “play” with their own prey before eating it.

Many animals have enjoyed these games, but for cats the iPad is a natural fit. They tend to use their paws to interact with and attack objects, and since the touch screen on a tablet is just as sensitive to the pads on their feet as it is to human fingertips, cats are able to pick up on the game very quickly while taking in the necessary physical and mental stimulation they need.

Although she’s gone on to create several more apps targeted for cats, Martine adds that her creation of these has also helped with her development for human-targeted games on the iPhone and iPad. “Cats—as well as humans—are different,” she says. “Some will like what you create, others will not. You will never be able to design a game that everybody likes, so you develop and design for a specific target group and make the game as good as you can.”

She also explains that developing for these two different audiences has only helped her work progress. “I learn something from every game that I create,” she says. “Sometimes it’s code, sometimes it’s GUI design, and sometimes it’s just the process of creating a game as a whole that gives you a little more knowledge and experience than you had before. And that (hopefully) makes you a better game designer and developer. You learn what works, and you learn what doesn’t work, and you use this experience when designing your next game, be it for cats or humans.”

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