How collecting virtual cats saved me from myself

This morning, I had eight cats in my yard, including Xerxes, the aloof Persian who will only deign to recline on either the Zanzibar cushion or the aptly named Royal Bed. Xerxes is my favorite rare cat, and I was absurdly delighted to see him visit.

I’m not talking about some bizarre morning mindfulness ritual practiced by successful entrepreneurs (though this is certainly one I could get behind).

I’m talking about Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector, an utterly addictive Japanese mobile app/game that I’ve discovered only recently, though CNN was reporting about it over a year ago. 

The premise is simple. You collect currency in the form of gold and silver fish, which you use to purchase cat toys and food for your virtual “yard”. Cats then visit your yard to eat, play, or lounge around, and upon departing, they leave you more fish as a token of their gratitude.

As you earn more fish, you can afford more perks (like yard expansions and redesigns, or pricey toys that attract the game’s “rare” cats), and over time, each cat will leave you its “memento” (an odd item unique to that cat). The end goal is to attract every cat in the game and collect all their mementos.

But here’s the thing: you have to close the app for anything to happen. And I don't mean close it and immediately reopen it. You have to close the app and wait for a little while.

Cats won’t show up while the app is open. And when you do open it to find cats in your yard, you can’t interact with them (other than taking “photos” with the game’s in-app camera, for no particular reason). 

They don’t really do anything, either—most just sit there, while others “play” on a simple loop animation. Nothing changes while you’re in the app. No cats will depart or arrive or even move around to different toys.

Sometimes, when you open the app, you’ll find your food bowl empty. No cats will visit while you’re out of food, so you’ll see nothing but an empty yard when this happens. All you can do is refill your food bowl, swap out some toys if the spirit moves you, and close the app again.

And those mementos? There’s nothing you can do, as a player, to persuade the cats to hand them over. They’re just given in their own time, seemingly randomly. All you can do is keep opening the app throughout the day, keep those food bowls full, and try new toys and food varieties to see which cats you can attract (some cats will visit only for particular items).

You’d be hard-pressed to spend more than a few minutes in the app at any given time.

Yet the game has surpassed 19 million downloads as of November 1, 2016 (according to Originally released in Japanese, it was expanded to include an English version after player-written game guides for English speakers began floating around online. It was turned into a live gaming event in September 2015, streamed from a cat cafe in Japan as part of Google Play Game Week. It’s even won awards for game design.

The game’s developer, Yutaka Takasaki, said that he created Neko Atsume between developing other games and doesn’t know why it’s so popular—it was simply intended to be an easy, simple game that required little skill or time investment (and he certainly succeeded at that). 

My take? Neko Atsume is totally delightful in its simplicity. (I should admit here that I’m a real-life cat person, while also clarifying that I’ve never had a particular yen for cartoon cats or cat-themed paraphernalia*, nor have I ever been much for playing games on my phone.)

I’d argue that it’s even valuable in a very real way, because it transforms one of our most mindless urges: to compulsively check our phones. 

We do this as much as 85 times per day, according to a 2015 study led by Nottingham Trent University in England, most times for less than 30 seconds.* Another 2015 study, this one led by Deloitte, found that globally, people check their smartphones more than 80 billion times a day.**

Of course, this speaks to an alarming level of distraction, impatience, and anxiety bred by an always-on, always-available culture. Recent research from Baylor University has suggested that “phone addiction” can be associated with emotional instability and difficulty focusing on tasks.***

“Much like a variety of substance addictions, cell phone addiction may be an attempt at mood repair,” according to the study’s authors.

Anecdotally, at least a few of my daily phone checks suck me into time-wasting, vaguely depressing rabbit holes. 

After half an hour of looking at some random friend-of-a-friend’s Facebook wall for no particular reason, following a stranger’s idyllic travel photos on Instagram, or reading a string of click-bait articles about all the things I’m not doing to maximize my productivity and mindfulness, I feel disoriented, disconnected, and more than a little disappointed in myself.

And while Neko Atsume certainly isn’t going to cure my phone addiction, it does capture a mindless, potentially mood-draining impulse and redirects it into a positively sunny moment.

When I find myself robotically checking my phone, I just look in on my yard, feel a little burst of delight to see that Rascal is buried face-first in the cake box I left out this morning, and then, because I have to close the app for anything more to happen, I move on with my day.

The experience is light, brief, and feels entirely appropriate to the context of an aimless phone check. However frivolous, it’s made a tangible positive impact on my day-to-day life.

Yes, friends, virtual cats have saved me from myself.

And it all started with a developer’s casual side project to create something simple for people to just “look and enjoy”. 

What if making a positive impact on your people could be that simple sometimes too?

It’s not always about your “sales funnel” or your “user journey” or your product benefits or even your website visitors’ top tasks. Sometimes, it’s just about remembering that the people you serve are human (and that you are too).

Real human relationships (the good kind) are made of more than just the big moments. They’re made of small gestures, thoughtful comments, and day-to-day interactions that may not change the world or even move the relationship forward in a significant way. But they add up.

So how can you help the people you serve simply to feel better, right now, without needing to buy something? (Neko Atsume is free, and in-app purchases are available but completely unnecessary.)

Where might you find opportunities to meet them where they are and give them a boost, even in their most mundane and unflattering moments?

When might you do more good not by holding their attention for as long as possible, but by requiring less of it?

It’s those small efforts—the ones that don’t necessarily map to a metric or generate a business-approved ROI—that add genuineness and depth to your connections with the people you serve. It’s the little, seemingly inconsequential moments that build the content of your character as a brand. And they’re important.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m out of Deluxe Tuna Bitz, and those cats aren’t going to feed themselves.

You can download Neko Atsume free for iPhone or Android.  And just for the record, we're not affiliated with them in any way.

*In this study, participants 18 to 33 years old agreed to have an app installed on their smartphones that recorded their usage over a 2-week period.

**Global Mobile Consumer Trends, 2015

***I need my smartphone: A hierarchical model of personality and cell-phone addiction, 2015