Smartphone owners around the world are being held hostage by an elusive band of smiling cartoon cats.
The Japanese mobile game app Neko Atsume, in which players try to lure cats to their virtual backyards, has emerged as a bona fide hit. Since the game debuted in Oct. 2014, it’s had almost ten million installations on Android devices alone. It’s received meditative write-ups in publications like The New York Times, garnered over 210,000 reviews, prompted hardcore enthusiasts to create data-driven guides and launched a burgeoning industry of Neko Atsume-themed mugs, phone cases, and sweatshirts.
But while Neko Atsume is addictive, it is almost blissfully pointless. Humans scatter bowls of tuna, bonito flakes, and sashimi around their virtual yards, along with cushions, toys and various cat habitats. Then they check back in on their smartphones periodically, hoping to spot some cute felines that have dropped by for a visit. By way of thanks, Neko Atsume cats leave behind offerings of sardines—and on rare occasions, coveted gold sardines. These fish serve as currency that players can use to buy cats even more food and toys.
In this sense, Neko Atsume successfully mimics the experience familiar to cat-lovers everywhere: The cats are completely in charge. But how accurately does the rest of game reflect real-life feline mannerisms? We turned to Daniel “DQ” Quagliozzi, a cat behavior consultant based in San Francisco, to find out.
The premise of the game is certainly based in reality: Using food to attract neighborhood cats as well as feral ones is a solid approach. “When cats find a place that supplies food, they will almost always come on the daily to utilize that resource,” Quagliozzi says.
But people who fantasize about creating their own revolving cat motels should hold off. Once cats figure out that there’s food available, there’s a possibility that “they won’t stop coming to the yard and they will attract other cats, which can lead to tension, fighting, marking and noise disturbances,” Quagliozzi says. In practice, seven to eight cats in a backyard tend to be less yarn-juggling feline utopia and more Lord of the Flies.
Neko Atsume does get cats’ habitat preferences right. The game’s “Goodies” shop, a veritable bazaar of cat-friendly items, includes structures that allow felines to climb cat towers, squeeze through tunnels and hide inside cubes and cardboard houses.
Any cat owner who’s ever been the proud owner of an Amazon box can verify that cats will take on an almost liquid-like state in order to occupy confined spaces. There’s no definite scientific explanation for this preference. But researchers have suggested that cats may seek out tight fits because these spaces offer them heat (cats run colder than humans) and stress relief (when cats get freaked out, they like to hide).
“Cats have a fascination with boxes,” Quagliozzi elaborates. “I’m not sure if it’s the coziness of crawling inside, the texture, or the fact that they are newly-added territory. At any rate, cats love to seek a box for a nap or a place to hide or chill.”
An exception is the plastic shopping bag that players can buy for their Neko Atsume cats to stick their heads into. While this looks cute in cartoon form, plastic bags can easily cause suffocation.
Meanwhile, the toys available on Neko Atsume are all realistic representations of the gear that makes cats happy—basically, any object they can chase, bat around or pounce upon.
“Cats are prey-driven creatures,” Quagliozzi says. “They love to hunt, catch and kill insects and small prey like mice. Yarn and other cat toys are the closest they can come to a real kill sometimes.”
Many a Neko Atsume player has been touched to find that Peaches, Pumpkin or Pickles have left behind silver and gold sardines, along with other mementos like acorns and feathers. Many cat owners have had the same experience—though it’s a lot less cute when a dead squirrel shows up on your pillow.
“Because cats see their guardians as important resources for their survival, they will often bring a mouse, memento or found object to them as a sign of trust,” Quagliozzi says. Other animal behavior experts have offered alternative explanations. Some, including veterinarian Stephanie Liff, have suggested that cats may be trying to provide for their “pack” (that means you, human) or even teach you how to hunt, much as mother cats show kittens how it’s done. Biologist John Bradshaw, on the other hand, has argued that cats are less interested in sharing the bounty than in bringing their meal to a safe place where other felines won’t encroach.
Of course, whether or not cat owners wish to receive these “gifts” is another matter. But at least the cats’ hearts are (possibly) in the right place.
One reality of cat behavior that Neko Atsume doesn’t touch on is cats’ propensity for making more cats. “These games would be so much more valuable if they promoted spaying and neutering or gave proceeds to shelters that need funds to operate,” Quagliozzi says. “As a cat consultant that lives to prevent surrender of cats to shelters, I always hope that we can use the popularity of cat culture to educate the masses.”
But ultimately, the game masterfully captures the strange dynamics of human-cat relationships. Neko Atsume is a game in which there’s no reward beyond the chance to admire cute cats as they poke their heads out of a pile of leaves and nap atop pillow designed to look like pancakes. That’s pretty much what hanging out with cats is like in real life too.
“The best prize is their company,” Quagliozzi says. “We feel honored when cats spend time with us … because most of the time, they just do whatever they want.”