‘Collect it all.’
– Keith Alexander, former director of the NSA
‘The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself. Of course he wants care and shelter. You don’t buy love for nothing.’
– William S. Burroughs, The Cat Inside
Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector is a game in which feline entrepreneurs allow you to photograph them in exchange for food and toys. You take photos and build intelligence files on each of the cats. In turn, they bribe you with dried sardines; the cheapskates give you silver fish, while the more generous cats dispense gold fish. You use this fishy currency to buy even more expensive toys, fancier food and lush feline furniture. If you develop a mutually beneficial relationship with a cat, it may also reward you with a memento, perhaps a ribbon, an acorn or a cicada carapace. If you save up 180 gold fish, you can purchase a bigger yard, expanding your empire to accommodate more feral freelancers. While Neko Atsume purports to simulate the ineffable pleasures of cat ownership, its true draw is the power to manage a free market, while indulging in a fantasy of unfettered surveillance.
Indeed cats are ideal neoliberal subjects – solitary hunters who thrive equally well in domestic and feral arrangements, adapting to the shifting grounds of liquid capitalism. As Burroughs noted, domestic cats are practical creatures that have traded affection for shelter and access to a reliable food supply. But while real-life cat ownership is a frivolous endeavor, with an intangible affective payoff, the business of neko collecting is totally practical. Quite literally, nothing goes to waste. The cats have perfected the art of self-management – they proudly display their puckered anuses, but have buried their shit outside of the garden. Your relationship to the cats in Neko Atsume is purely transactional – you are encouraged to select the food and toys which will give you the most advantage in the market.
Your intelligence file – what the game innocently dubs a ‘Catbook’ – contains dossiers on each cat, including its favorite toys, personality type and ‘power level’ which reflects his or her rank in the colony’s social hierarchy. Like a Klout score or a credit rating, the power level helps you to determine which cats offer the best return on investment at any given moment. Success is measured when you exploit this data to lure the rarest (and therefore most valuable) cats into the yard with the right combination of gadgets and grub.
The name Kitty Collector recalls both the NSA’s ‘collect it all’ philosophy and ‘gotta catch ‘em all’, the classic pitch for Pokemon, which was itself inspired by insect collecting. This is not just a currency trading game; it’s an intelligence gathering sim for a post-Pokemon world. The successful player of Neko Atsume is not a dedicated cat fancier, but a dispassionate data analyst. You gain advantage through making frequent and unannounced visits to the yard. Even when you’re not there to snap photos, new visitors are mysteriously logged into your Catbook – flagged as subjects for closer scrutiny.
Aloof and self-absorbed, the cats in Neko Atsume make themselves available for your surveillance. Radha O’Meara argues that cat videos have come to dominate YouTube precisely because their subjects remain oblivious to the camera.
The unselfconsciousness of cats in online videos offers viewers two key pleasures: to imagine the possibility of freedom from surveillance, and to experience the power of administering surveillance as unproblematic.
Our ability to project this fantasy onto cats is due to their perceived independence and aloofness, ‘a libertarian ideal’. While a dog may confront us with its needy gaze, a cat will behave the same, whether we are watching it or not. Cats are models of the transparency society that Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow tech utopians are seeking to build.
Like the feline stars of YouTube, the cats of Neko Atsume rarely acknowledge your spectatorship, except in those rare hushed moments, when the game pauses and the screen goes black, long enough for a cat to lay a memento at your feet. In these unexpected digressions, market trading stops, the camera is rendered inoperable and the cat’s eyes meet yours. It is here, stripped of your financial instruments and surveillance gear that you might, like Derrida, briefly stand naked before the cat.
Once the moment passes, the cats resume showing their asses. The market reopens. The cats come and go, but you will maintain this yard indefinitely. This is a game without end. You cannot win, and you will never be satisfied. Like cats themselves, Neko Atsume is aloof, denying you that which you most desire from this arrangement. You may never pet or cuddle the cats. You find yourself like Mark Zuckerberg in the final ‘Rosebud’ scene of David Fincher’s The Social Network. You have built a vast surveillance network, monetized the data and expanded the borders of your walled garden. You preside over a treasure trove of information and images, but you aren’t any closer to the object of your affection.