Why Is This Terrible Cat-Collecting App So Popular?

Photo: Courtesy Neko Atsume.
I am a cat lover. I'm also a cat owner. I look at adorable cat photos online, and I've also played with cat-related apps. One of the newest cat apps is a previously Japanese-only game called Neko Atsume. People LOVE it. But I don't get it.

Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector (free on iOS and Android) started gaining popularity earlier this year. In the game, you own a yard that you can outfit with cat toys, treats, and food. The object is to lure cats into your yard, and then you can snap photos to "collect" them. Some of the cats are supposedly rare — a bit reminiscent of Pokémon in that respect. The game itself is free, but as with many applications, you can buy additional toys and such in the app.

Originally, all the text was in Japanese, which made the app not just a game, but also a bit of a puzzle. Luckily, most everything is illustrated with an image, so it wasn't too difficult to figure out. Even so, a number of how-tos cropped up to guide eager players. There's also now a subreddit dedicated to the game.

I've played both the Japanese version of the game and the updated English version. I've "bought" yarn balls, ping pong balls, boxes, and various other cat toys; I've also bought fancy canned cat food to lure kitties into my yard. But they never come. I've stared at the screen for minutes at a time. I've closed the app and opened it again, ad nauseam. Several of my coworkers and friends love this app, but I just can't find the lure.

I've been given an exhaustive list of reasons why Neko Atsume is "fun." Foremost, the cats are extremely cute (particularly the "special" cats, like one called Chef Cat). And the app is all about anticipation: You put things out in the yard, and then you have to look away, close the app, and wait for cats to come. Some find this strangely addictive. Once you start getting into it, you can find plenty internet camaraderie around the game (like that subreddit). If you want to get a specific cat to visit your yard, you can get tips on what food you should put out, or what time of day that cat normally appears in the game. Once cats start showing up, you can give them names (it can be entertaining to name them after friends and family members, Oregon Trail-style).

If this game were real life, I'd be awesome at it. In real life, cats love me. Apparently this is not the case in the animated, cat-filled world of Neko Atsume.

If you like cats, enjoyed playing Pokémon back in the day, and have patience that stretches as far as an unwound ball of yarn, you should download Neko Atsume straightaway and start playing. But be warned: You might end up with a feline-free yard of disappointment and stale Ritzy Bitz cat food.
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