If you play Monster Hunter: World and own a cat, you might have experienced a strange phenomenon where your cat(s) started reacting to the Palico. Almost as if the real-life cat sees something in the fictional, feline monster hunting companion from the game. To see if there's a kindred connection between the real and the unreal, we reached out to a cat behavior expert to find out whether or not real cats can connect with video game cats, and what that could mean for the future of cat raising.
When players start up Monster Hunter: World, they can choose to customize their character. It's a pretty good customization tool, though sometimes the results don't look quite the same in-game (which is why players are starting to ask for a do-over option). But the real fun is when the game lets players customize their Palicos, a fictional companion that's basically an upright cat that wears armor and can hunt alongside the player.
Like the character customization, the Palico customization is also pretty in-depth, with players able to choose the fur color, eye shape, ear shape, tail shape, and voice of their Palicos.
Yet something interesting seems to happen when Palicos appear on the TV and if you're a cat owner. Our real life cats seem to fixate on the Palico on the screen, sometimes getting up close to the screen to try and interact with it. It happened to me, it happened to Mike Williams, and judging on the social media activity online, it's happened to plenty of others.
To find out if there's some real-life animal science happening here, or if this is just one, collective coincidence, I reached out to Dr. Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and certified cat behavior consultant at Feline Minds.
We asked Dr. Delgado whether or not cats can recognize exaggerated feline forms through media devices and mediums. She first gave us a bit of salt to take with our newfound cat knowledge: "[We] have to be careful in not assuming that the cat sees things exactly the same way we do. Their eyes are optimized for seeing in low light, and for detecting movement (such as prey), and they aren't so good at seeing color or even seeing clearly up-close."
However, she adds that, "cats' ancestors were also not social animals, they are probably good at recognizing large body signals (such as if a cat is in the "Halloween pose"—a sign of fear or defensiveness—or has their tail up, which is a friendly gesture) and certain cues that say "that's a cat"—such as the shape of the ears and body. The further away from that familiar shape the graphics are, the more likely the cat is responding to more broad things, such as movement of the image."
I'd say that Palicos are about 90 percent catlike, sharing physical features, meows, and movement, diverging only in the fact Palicos remain largely upright and wear armor and wield weapons. So there's a chance real life cats can recognize the familiar sounds and movements of a digital Palico.
Dr. Delgado concludes: "Many cats seem to enjoy digital games/media—especially things that mimic prey (mice, bugs, birds) and are multi-modal—not just vision but also have realistic sounds. We don't really know how easy or difficult it is for cats to perceive images on a flat surface or if an LED screen is easy or harder to see than other screens, again, keeping in mind that their up-close vision is going to be pretty fuzzy."
So while it's hard for us to fully understand or visualize what exactly a cat sees when they see a TV or LED screen, they do recognize physical and vocal similarities, which Palicos have in spades. So while not conclusive, just maybe there is some reason why our cats seem to be fascinated by our Monster Hunter: World Palicos on the screen.