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Pigs are smarter than we thought. Scientists taught them to play video games

Picture an early Atari-style game of the same era as, say, Pong or Breakout. In the game, the player scores points for maneuvering a cursor using a joystick so as to hit a colored target. On level one, it’s easy. The player is in the middle of what looks like an abstract representation of a room, surrounded by four blue walls. Each wall, running the length of the screen, is a potential target. The player need hit any wall to complete the stage. Level two is harder. Now there are only three walls to hit. Level three has just two walls. Before long, the walls are shorter, eventually forming a single square on the screen. Then the square starts to move around.

OK, so it’s not exactly Call of Duty or GTA in its complexity, but as tests of dexterity go, it isn’t bad. And while hardcore gamers might want something a little tougher, that’s alright: It’s not meant for them. Literally. The game described above is a video game designed for pigs. And the pigs are pretty darn good at it.

pigs playing video games
Purdue University

“Almost all of our pigs got to the one-sided target,” Candace Croney, professor of Animal Behavior and Well-being at Purdue University, told Digital Trends, a hint of pride creeping into her voice. “And we did have a couple of pigs that were able to get to the one-sided target that became the much shorter box. None of them got to the stage where you had the smallest box possible and it moved around. But two of them at least got to the stage where there is one target wall that shrinks down and becomes fairly small.”

World of Boarcraft

It would be great to be able to report that, with gaming proving more popular than ever, developers are turning to other species to sustain industry growth. Sadly, that’s not the case here — although the real reason is just as interesting. The video game setup, in which the animals have to nudge a joystick with their snouts to control the on-screen cursor, is intended as a test of the cognitive abilities of pigs, an animal that has not been so well-studied in this domain as some of its contemporaries. While it is well-documented that pigs are smart enough to learn basic commands, such as “sit” and “come here,” they have not previously had their higher-level cognition put through the wringer in this way.

“The bigger goal was really to get at what they can show us about the level of mental sophistication that it takes to do conceptual learning,” Croney said. “That’s the type of learning that an animal really has to figure out on their own. You can give them the tools to express behaviors that let us know if they are responding in ways that indicate knowing versus guessing. But you can’t actually give them the concept. They have to either figure it out or not.”

Cute Pig Playing Video Games

In other words, you can lead a pig to water, but you can’t make it master Civilization VI.

The pigs in the experiment — two Panepinto micro pigs and two Yorkshire pigs, named Ebony, Ivory, Hamlet, and Omelette — had to make the necessary mental leap that the manipulation of a controller was commanding another object, in a separate space, that the pig cannot otherwise interact with. It is these abstracted actions that determine whether or not the pigs receive a tasty reward, as they do when successfully completing game stages.

“It’s not just ‘move this joystick and get a reward,’ right?” said Croney. “That’s not the thing that triggers the reward. They have to move the joystick with intentionality to control this cursor on the screen. They have to make the link that that behavior is manipulating this other thing’s behavior or movement. It’s super abstract. They have to make that mental connection between what they’re doing and the effect. That’s what gets them the reward.”

How pigs process information

Interestingly, in scenarios where the machine dispensing treats stopped working, the pigs responded to verbal encouragement from the human researchers. Although they did not exhibit the skill level of nonhuman primates on a similar task, the pigs nonetheless performed well above expectations.

pigs playing video games
Purdue University

Croney said that the researchers experienced “shock and awe” when the pigs successfully moved beyond “what looks like guessing behavior — where they’re not operating above chance level of success, just playing around with the joystick — to this ‘aha’ moment where something different is happening. Once they made that connection, and you could see it in their data, we could just let them loose and they’d keep going.”

Going forward, this research could help investigators discover more about the intelligence of pigs and how they process information. It could also open up some intriguing possibilities when it comes to showing the animals symbols that might allow researchers to communicate with them more directly.

Croney said: “If you have an animal that can understand that their behavior is manipulating the behavior of something else, as abstract as a cursor, it’s not a leap to think that they could [also understand] that their behavior could result in manipulating some real-life objects someplace else — because they’ve clearly shown that they have some capacity to grasp that. And [you could conceivably imagine moving from that to], ‘maybe my behavior is actually going to impact the behavior or the response of another individual.’”

A paper describing the project was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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