Save Point: Neko Atsume

We were sitting in a darkened theater waiting for a movie to start when a friend pulled out her phone and showed me Neko Atsume. “Look,” she said. “If you feed the cats, they come to your yard. You can take pictures of them.” She clicked the camera button, and a rectangular frame hovered over a golden-brown tabby playing with a baseball.

“So, do you keep the cats?” I asked. “Like, do they become your pets?”

“No,” she answered. “You just take their picture. They come and go.” She smiled and put away her phone. “They just come and go.” The screen in front of us illuminated and the movie previews began.

I didn’t understand Neko Atsume at first. Can’t keep the cats? They just come and go? What was the point? For a game subtitled “Kitty Collector,” there didn’t seem to be a lot of collecting going on. More importantly, where was the story?

I am hardwired to be drawn to stories. Or at least drawn to situations where concrete achievements can be framed as conclusions. In an attempt to reduce my time spent on Facebook, I recently decided to give Neko Atsume a try. Not because I thought it would be satisfying in the sense of a game, per se. After all, if the cats come and go, there is no final objective—there is no conclusion, and so there is no story. I installed the game thinking it would be an exercise in appreciating ephemerality—something innocent and mindless to do instead of rage-scrolling through reams of political posts.

At first, the game lived up to this expectation. Cats came, cats went. I photographed them. I bought them food; they left me fish so I could buy them more food. They were cute. The music was pleasant. I enjoyed the idea of spoiling them, being able to buy the cats whatever I wanted without actually spending money. Rubber balls, soft cushions, and scratching posts soon filled the digital yard.

What I didn’t know was that the cats bring you “Mementos” if you satisfy certain conditions. A calico tabby named Tabitha brought me assorted seeds. A tuxedo cat named Gabriel dropped off a raffle ticket. From dirty stuffed animals to broken bells to birthday candles with burnt wicks, the cats repaid my love with curious, useless objects.

I have not looked up the “rules” to Neko Atsume. But the arrival of the mementos taught me that there were “rules.” The most basic rule, of course, is this: If you feed the cats, the cats will come. If you do not, they will not. A lesson in ephemerality; no conclusive objective. The mementoes changed this. I saw, in the Cat Book, that every feline held the possibility of a memento—that the “Random Seeds” showed up in Tabitha’s profile where a question mark appeared in Pepper’s. Abruptly, this created an objective. The exercise was suddenly a game. Even, yes, a story: “You are trying to earn the love of all these cats. That love is measured not only in visits, but in gifts. Your goal is to coax the gift from each cat, to ‘collect’ that which each cat withholds. Only when you have every memento will your quest be complete.”

But how to get them? The Cat Book also informs you what the “Top 3 Goodies Used” are for each of the dozens of cats. You can ascertain that Callie likes the Navy-Blue Cube, the Goldfish Bowl, the Wood Pail. Dottie likes the Temari Ball, the Sakuramochi Cushion, the Plum Cushion (Red). Having done so, you can take care to leave these items out in the hopes that they will visit, will be pleased, will repay you with a memento. That you will be affirmed with evidence of a bond.

There is also the issue of what food to leave out: You can provide the cheap stuff (aptly named “Thrifty Bits”), the slightly more expensive “Frisky Bits,” or delectable, pricey dishes like “Deluxe Tuna Bits” and “Sashimi.” You can leave out “Goodies” ranging from clay pots to space heaters, but only ten at a time (and that’s after you’ve expanded your yard for 180 gold fish, the harder kind to get). What if one of the really rare cats—Whiteshadow, Kathmandu—wants to lounge on the Antique Chair, but you haven’t purchased it yet? Or what if they want to bat a lowly Soccer Ball, but you haven’t left it out in weeks because it was one of the first items you got, and why would such a rare specimen play with a Goodie so humble? My husband listened to me ruminate on these things, shook his head, and said, “It sounds like kitty capitalism.”

Yes, I thought. There is a definite economic element to Neko Atsume. But the game hinges on more than just the exchange of material goods (“I leave you food; you bring me fish so I can buy you more food”). The memento signifies something else: not just capital, but social capital. A light went on in my head.

I was introduced to the idea of social capital by Thomas M. Malaby in his book Making Virtual Worlds: Second Life and Linden Lab, assigned reading for a class called The Anthropology of Social Media. Attributing the term to Marcel Mauss, Malaby explains it like this: “Unlike immediate and equivalent exchanges, such as those of the market, reciprocal exchanges (in the form of objects, services, expressions of concern, and so forth) imply a moral relationship, where the account is ‘never settled’ among individuals […] leaving open the possibility of the nature and quality of the next transaction. Over time, social capital is the resource constituted by these relationships” (34). He continues, “As such, social capital must be cultivated […] success is measured by the ability to participate in an ongoing exchange of obligations, and failure is either not to return such a concern or favor or to demand too many without return” (34-35).

Success is the ability to participate in an ongoing exchange of obligations. The math of human emotion. Reading this, I imagined my friendships as sets of algebra problems. Was that all there was to it? Were relationships just equations we needed to keep balanced? “I will ask this of you, so next time, I will give you what you ask of me, because that will make us even”? Setting the conditions to try to attract the cats whose mementos I was missing rather than spontaneously arranging toys and treats as whimsy directed, I thought of this. “Here is the Snow Sled. Please, come and visit.” “I have laid out the expensive tuna. Please, come and visit.” Half-disregarding the cats whose mementos I had already acquired—taking their photos, admiring them, but thinking, too, of the goal. The goal, the goal: completion of the Cat Book. Acquisition of the mementos. The proof. The tactile proof.

On the one hand, the idea of social capital makes sense. Who has not changed, adjusted, or tweaked themselves to better integrate into a group, succeed at a job, or beckon continued care? We all participate in exchanges of obligations—this is part of the social contract. We can all set out the sled and the fancy food, so to speak, in the hopes of garnering the attention or outcomes we desire. And yet, at times, this theory falls apart. Sometimes those who offer the most don’t find their efforts rewarded. Sometimes the kindest person doesn’t win. Or the most hardworking, or the most innovative, or the most deserving according to whatever barometer is being deployed. We have all, at one point, set out the fancy food and still not earned the memento, or sometimes, even a visit.

In his essay on this game for The New York Times, Ryan Bradley describes how he worked through his frustration at such a scenario with the stubborn and elusive Chairman Meow, concluding, “My problem was that I wanted something from a cat. Anyone who has cohabited with a cat knows, intuitively, that they are sort of wild. […] Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector is a game that appears to be about collecting cats. Only you never really collect the cats.” He adds, “You cannot collect them.”

You cannot collect them. You cannot collect cats. You cannot collect human beings. And no, though you may collect objects that symbolize the ephemeral—degrees that speak to intelligence, jobs that speak to capability, trinkets that speak to affection or love—you cannot collect these abstractions themselves. These things are processes that ebb and flow. Verbs, not nouns. There are no “conclusions” to these stories.

The best we can do is open our yards, offer what we have to offer, wait with patience, and hope. And if we are visited by passing cats, the best we can do is be grateful. Maybe admire, maybe even snap a photo. But know that we are not owed.