I have an entire backyard filled with cats, all of different breeds, genders, and even fashion styles. They’re a tricky bunch; some prefer fancy, top-of-the-line foods, while others are fine with a bowl full of bargain brand Meow Mix. Some are fine with sleeping on the porch, while others demand fancy bedding for their late afternoon naps.
They come and go as they please, visiting me for a brief time and occasionally leaving small offerings as thanks. Some only appear when I put out particular toys or items, while others are significantly less picky. They don’t care so much about me as they do my backyard and the food and items I leave in it.
I never have—and never will—pet or interact with them in any way. They’ll just continue to come and go as they please and look back at me from behind the screen of my iPhone.
Such is the phenomenon of Neko Atsume, a free-to-play pet collecting game whose popularity has spread internationally since it first launched in Japan.
Neko Atsume is the anti-pet game. Everything about it goes against the conventions established in previous games like Nintendogs, Tamagatchi, and Giga Pets. Nothing will be greeting you and asking for a bath or playtime when you log back in. Nothing dies. Really, the only consequence in Neko Atsume is logging on after a few days and finding your backyard completely empty.
Gravity Ghost developer Erin Robinson Swink has studied the mechanics of Neko Atsume in order to understand why it has become such a phenomenon, despite bucking nearly all of the ideas we’ve come to associate with pet games. She admits it’s hard to pin down exactly what contributes to its lasting appeal, but nonetheless has several theories.
“The game is a transaction: you put out food and toys, cats show up and use them, and they thank you with fish and mementos,” she says. “But the animals don’t rely on you for health and survival the way they do in, say, Harvest Moon. You won’t find a Neko mewling for a bubble bath, or turning droopy and green if they get sick. If you don’t feed them, they’re presumably off gallivanting in someone else’s phone, doing whatever it is they do when not sitting motionless in a cardboard train.”
Neko Atsume does incorporate a collecting aspect, using a camera function to capture cats in little poses and log books to catalog which cats have visited your backyard and which have left little “mementos” as thanks. Swink sees this as a major source of its lasting appeal.
“Another big part of the game is ‘collecting’: of new cats, of photos of cats in new poses, and especially of the baffling array of toys you can buy. But don’t go thinking this is a game about ‘completion,’” she says. “Collecting isn’t even explicitly rewarded by the game. No text box pops up to announce, ‘Wow, you’ve taken 100 photos!’ or ‘Wow, you pampered these little suckers until they brought you every last trinket in the neighborhood!’”
There’s also a social aspect to it, she adds, and not only in the form of sharing photos on Twitter.
“…if a tiny gentleman cat with a sword shows up, you’re going to turn to the person next to you and say, ‘Oh my god, look at this cat I just got! Look at him!’ and they will politely ask you not to shout while inside an Uber,” she jokes.
According to Swink, Neko Atsume is “pretty much the perfect phone game,” because of the player’s brief interaction with it. A standard log on will yield a few minutes maximum of refilling food, looking at items to purchase, and possibly taking new photos of the cats.
“It explicitly demands that you put your phone away for several minutes before any action happens, before you come crawling back like a lapsed Catholic and the priest is asking how long it’s been since your last Hail Smokey,” she says.
John Ricciardi is a co-founder of 8-4, the localization company who played a major role in bringing Neko Atsume to the west. His theory on the whys of Neko Atsume’s popularity both in Japan and abroad? Because it’s cute.
“I’m sure there’s some deep cultural significance here if you dig for it, but one kind of obvious factor I think is important is simply that Japan is extremely proficient in the art of ‘cute,’” he says.
“Neko Atsume’s appeal lies primarily in the cuteness of the cats–the expressions, the poses, the animations; they’re all super adorable, and that’s something Japanese artists have always excelled at. That’s not to say cuteness is an expressly Japanese thing, of course–but when you have a country that has colorful little mascots for everything from government offices to funeral homes, it starts to make sense that they’d be good at making these kinds of games, you know?”
He also attributes the success to its simplicity.
“It does help a lot that Neko Atsume is very simple to get into and doesn’t demand a lot of time or energy to play. You feed your cats, you throw out some toys or food, snap a few pictures or whatever, and then you come back later and do it all over again. It’s not super complicated, but it’s fun and relaxing…and it’s cute.”
Neko Atsume is an enigma-turned-phenomenon, an experiment that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. It is devoid of a significant amount of interactivity, there are no hard objectives to achieve, and-almost like a real cat-it doesn’t care if you check in three times a day or once a month. It’s there, always ready to trot out a series of adorable cats for your enjoyment.
Now if you’ll excuse me, Tubbs ate all the sashimi and drove the other cats away again. I need to re-fill everything and get cats to start visiting again if I ever want to get Mr. Meowgi’s memento.