10.24.12

Why virtual dogs make better friends than virtual cats

How do virtual dogs fit into the larger world of computer-canine interaction? Matt Novak over at Smithsonian has been doing a deep exegesis of The Jetsons because why not. On the introduction of Astro, the robot dog, Novak makes a salient point on why we need robotic pets in the future:

In an effort to make the show relatable — to allow the people of 1962 to project themselves into the future along with the Jetson family — we spend most of the series not with robo-dogs but with Astro, a goofy and lovable dog that’s far more sympathetic than a cold metal canine. Like so many of the implicit promises of the Jetsons universe, this was an assurance to viewers of the 1960s that some wonderful technological changes would take place a hundred years hence, but your favorite cuddly things (like the family dog) will still be intact.

We needed Astro because he's a link to our future past. Without him, the future is just a cold calculating place with shiny objects but no true to our current life.  This is also the 60s where even the kitchen had the sci-fi sheen of potential. Novak's observations actually dovetail nicely with an interview with Nintendo producer Hideki Konno from 2005 on why the gamemaker created Nintendogs and not Nintencats, aside from the awkward name of course.

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We narrowed down the candidates into dogs and cats - after all, they are the two main types of companion animals loved by people all around the world. Why dogs instead of cats? Well, one of the things we really wanted to do was to let players teach tricks by utilizing their own voices.

Cats are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning tricks, and also we wanted to have animals with much more fun-loving natures - we wanted the animals to be able to take part in contests, such as agility competitions, and we wanted people to be able to take their pets for a walk. So we decided that dogs were more preferable than cats when it came to realizing those elements.

That's right -- cats don't learn new tricks. Even when he finally got a cat, Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario Bros. and a million other amazing things, had a hard time defending them:

Making a game called Nintencats just didn't seem right for Nintendo, but people all over the world love cats, so I wanted to put cats in a game somehow. But when I actually got a cat, I realized there just aren't as many things to do with a cat as there are with a dog, that we may use in our entertainment.

Capturing the simple fidelity of a dog is easier for a game designer -- in fact, there's even lingo in games that pull from the canine world. "Fetch quests" are a popular mechanic in RPG and adventure games that have us mimicking dogs, retrieving one item from a far away place and returning it to our home. Hillary Goldstein at the Escapist argued earlier this year that Zelda's hero Link is so beloved because he retrieves items. "It's not the green tunic, the sword, of the horse," she writes. "It's got to be his willingness to do nice things for people too lazy to do anything for themselves." (For the record, this is the exact vision of the socialist nightmare ushered in by liberals where men in green suits meet your every whim because that's how it's done in Europe.)

Cats, of course, fetch for no one but themselves, but there may be practical reasons why cats make difficult virtual kin. Their fickle aloofness prevents us from really modeling the emotions generated from housing a creature that utterly disdains our existence.  KS writer Yannick LeJacq finds the complexity of human-cat relations a source of frustration but also fascination:

We admire the beauty of horses, the stupid loyalty of dogs, the perspicacity of monkeys. But our relationship with cats is different, and I think more dramatic, than with other animals. It oscillates between a fanatic and nearly insane hope for intimacy that becomes a hope for transformation.

Nintendo, of course, added cats last year, but the reality is that our needs with pets in our digital lives roughly matches our needs in the real world. I live with two cats. They don't need anything from me, but robot dogs like Astro (and Nintendogs by extension) are a reminder that we are needed and we are loved. They follow our every need and most importantly, they learn from the us. Who wouldn't want to play a game with them as our companion?

Extra Credit: PBS' ScienceNow has a great series on how closely dogs intelligence is linked to our own.