Apps for Cats
In an office overlooking a daytime-busy Sixth Street, David McKnight is demonstrating his newest iPad app with a little help from his friend Buddy.
The two take turns finding objects and scoring points on their shared iPad 2. Pretty typical until you realize Buddy is a nine-pound tabby with a blonde coat and a competitive gleam in his eye. He knows he's the star of today's party, and he's determined to continue his winning streak.
McKnight, meanwhile, is the Director of Interactive Arts at Fosforus, the Austin ad agency that designed the first interactive iPad app for cat owners and their pets to play together. Called You vs. Cat, the game is the fifth in a series of games Fosforus has made for Friskies, who holds the distinction as "the leader in cat gaming."
Cat gaming, you say? Well, yes. Cat gaming. As in, cats playing video games.
Before the iPad had even been released, the crack creative team at Fosforus began developing their games for cats to help create new opportunities for felines and their technology-loving owners to share more quality time together.
"This was part of our plan from the very beginning with Friskies," states McKnight. "People had made computer games for cats and videos for cats, but once the iPad came out, we wanted to figure out a way to get cats involved. We watched how cats respond to different movement, when they're watching birds for example, and we wanted to capture that in the game."
After some additional, ahem, Google and Wikipedia searches, the team found which colors cats' eyes respond best to, and they built up their first prototype. (And in case you're wondering, like I did, if an iPad is durable to kitty claws, the answer is yes. "We bought a "research iPad" specifically to test this," admits McKnight. "Screen covers don't work, but the ordinary screen is definitely scratch-proof.")
The first of the Friskies Games for Cats they designed was Cat Fishing, a simple HTML5 game where cats can track and "catch' goldfish popping in and out of the flat water surface. "We put it down in front of our first cat subject — and this was not a gamer cat — and he attacked it," says McKnight, proudly.
The latest game, currently pitting McKnight against Buddy the Gamer Cat, debuted at this year's SXSW Interactive, and involves a turn-based formula that allows you to go head-to-head against your cat. One at a time, each player taps the floating Friskies treats that multiply and scatter across the iPad field. The more treats you or your cat touch, the more points you earn.
In the end, there can only be one species to rise triumphant. So it's finally time to show him who's really boss. For all those times he woke you up at five a.m. to be fed early. Or clawed up your favorite sweater to let you know he missed you.
All of the Games for Cats games are free to download and come with easy-to-follow instructions. "Certain games, like Cat Fishing"— or as McKnight calls it, "the gateway game" —"are easy to learn. Cats love it because it's not intimidating. Once they get comfortable with that one, then you move on with more advanced games like You vs. Cat."
And that's how you make a gamer cat. Likely to lock herself in her dark, smelly room for hours at a time, talking to other antisocial gamer cats on the other side of the world.
According to McKnight, addiction can be a problem with some gamer cats, just as in humans. "Sometimes, our gamer cat will come over and try to take the device away from us," he says without irony. "We were worried he would get obsessed with screens, but it appears it's only the iPad that he wants because he wants to play his game with us."
Makes sense that if we're going to spend so much time on our computers and iPads, our best friends should get to use them for fun as well. And, after all, it's better than them just sitting on them every time we're trying to get work done.
"These devices are part of what preoccupies people and keeps them from spending quality time with their pets," offers McKnight. "These games are going to help us spend better quality time with our animals. We're really proud to bring that into people's lives. They might pick it up as a novelty, but it actually opens a whole new door to the relationship between them and their pet."
Now let the cat-fight begin.