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The Science Behind Why Neko Atsume Is So Addictive

Think you've got it bad for Neko Atsume collector mania?

Cats are cute.

--Okay. So maybe that's not science, but unless you are a cold, unfeeling monster, you have watched a cat video or cat .gif (not of one being set on fire) and you have smiled. 

And unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard of "the cat game" that everyone is talking about. You might even be one of those go-getters that picked it up and powered through in Japanese long before the English version hit your respective app store. 

But you did it because cats are cute, and then you decided that you needed to see and collect them all. Didn't you?

Neko Atsume is the surprising new hit of the season -- and the obvious aside, it's hard to really pinpoint the reason why.

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It's a waiting game like any other - you set out food and toys, and you tab out of the game to wait around and see if any cats come to visit. Nothing happens if you simply sit there and watch your yard. 

The simplicity of the game is is what makes it so accessible to so many people, and helps account for its popularity worldwide. Japan has a (well-earned) reputation for capitalizing on cute things in some of the most imaginative and lucrative ways possible - an entire franchise of Re-ment-like toys, stuffed animals, and other cat merchandise has already saturated the market over there - but we can't quite say the same thing about the North American state of affairs.

http://boingboing.net/2015/09/24/netoatsume-toys.html

(Although who knows? We saw how well Angry Birds did, and Pumpkin is so much cuter than Red.)

Traditionally, the idea of video game addiction was applied to MMO gamers. It was usually the community aspect that gamers craved to the point of distraction; doing something that was challenging but they felt good at doing, that offered them flashy lights and thrilling music every time they leveled up (oh, accomplishment!), and doing it all with people just like them. 

http://nekoatsume.wikia.com/wiki/Merchandise

The good news, of course, is that more or less, most countries with first world infrastructure acknowledge video game/internet addiction for those people who actually have a problem. The bad news is that it's just new enough that most people don't know how to see when and if there really is a problem.

(See The Direct Approach: China Takes on Teen Internet Addiction for a rather extreme method of authoritative counter-measures to addiction in China.)

In the early years, World of Warcraft wasn't a game, it was a warning to those of out of the loop, an injunction never to be like one of them. Nowadays, when WoW subscription numbers have dropped significantly, the warning is still there: don't be one of those people who simply can't let go. 

This stigma against multi-player gamers has endured, unfortunately, and only now are people beginning to realize that most of the stereotypes of he mouth-breathing neckbeard are untrue. It wasn't just WoW,; everyone touched a multi-player game (from Counter Strike to Maple Story) even semi-seriously were often tarred with the same brush.

(see also Are You a Video Game Addict?)

It's only in recent years that the mobile market has really taken off - and in doing so, introduced the rest of the world to gaming, which up until now, didn't really care for controllers or WASD keyboard configurations. It's made playing a game for a long time okay, where more people are in the position to understand when you profess to spending a crazy amount of time playing a game.

Of course, the rise in mobile games has also led to a number of factors that influence gamer habits. The kind of game that succeeds in the mobile market is far removed from what you would normally play on PC or console, and mobile app companies have been quick to realize this. What makes mobile games popular?

We have some ideas about other mobile games. King's mobile mogul casual and colorful match-3 Candy Crush Saga is a perfect example about realizing what attracts their audiences and keeps them. 

http://www.online-psychology-degrees.org/mobile-gaming-addiction/

And yet, that isn't a very satisfactory explanation about the popularity of Neko Atsume is it?

After all, the cat game is much more passive than Candy Crush - you don't really need to do anything, simply check in from time to time, and refill the food bowl. If you have a few more minutes to spare, collect your fish rewards and buy some new toys to set out. It also doesn't require much in the way of cold hard cash to keep playing - nor does it do much to encourage spending money. You can pay to buy more golden fish if you want, but you get plenty of silver and gold fish as rewards already, and there is a good exchange mechanic in the store to trade between silver and gold fish. 

That's the thing about mobile games though, 0.15% of mobile gamers bring in 50% of the market's revenue according to 2012 Forbes data. Most people aren't addicted to the same degree that this fraction of a percent is (where it affects the state of their pocket in a big way). And yet even if we're not shelling out the cash, it's the majority that sincerely appreciates when the app creators haven't designed the game expressly to mask Micro-Transaction Simulator 2016. 

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Neko Atsume is so popular and so well-liked because it's so laid back. You just check in once in awhile for up to 30 seconds at most before going back to you day. There are no wait timers. There aren't any quests. There aren't any annoying ads unless you choose to tap on them. You don't feel compelled to stare at it, but you're willing to keep it going. It's a good, harmless, adorable game that people simply can't get enough of.

 

It's' like playing a Pusheen game without any Pusheen in it. 

Are there downsides though?

As with all things, certainly, there could be. The most obvious harm is to your bank account - the internet is full of anecdotal evidence and news stories about kids who play phone games and end up charging thousands of dollars to their parents' credit cards because they haven't quite got the hang of using or earning real money. 

But that's only a part of it. 

A mobile game habit doesn't hurt you physically in the same way as it would other addictive substances (e.g. cigarettes, alcohol, hard drugs), but it affects your brain in a similar manner, especially when you have to do without: 

  • Addictions target the brain’s reward system and flood it with dopamine. When we play, we feel happy.
  • Since playing is now associated with reward, our brains remember this action as something necessary to repeat in the future.
  • Over time, a person can produce less and less dopamine with the activity, so the brain craves more time spent with the addiction.
  • Because of the lower dopamine levels when not playing, withdrawal symptoms set in, including depression, restlessness, difficulty focusing, mood swings, and nausea.

This perhaps isn't necessarily the case with Neko Atsume. There isn't nearly as much of a push to win as there is in other games (3-star mechanics, for example) or beat your friends in any way. The most it encourages you to do, is to post your cat photos on Twitter to share with your friends. 

So maybe that's another reason why we like it. Even those players who are super invested and have filled their catbooks with photos and have collected all the mementos don't spend nearly as much time in this game as one might in any other. They don't have to spend as much money. They spend so much time away, withdrawal symptoms aren't triggered in quite the same way if they are separated from it. They play it because it's a game that's fun, but still fairly safe to obsess about. And in today's mobile market, that's a rare find indeed.

 

Published Mar. 13th 2016

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