8-Bit Oinkers: These Tech-Savvy Pigs Are Mastering Video Games

By Helen LinLast Updated Apr 1, 2021 3:26:37 PM ET
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There’s no question that pigs are intelligent, but here's a new question: Are they smart enough to play video games? It seems they are, at least according to a study published in February 2021 that specifically set out to test the intrepid critters’ skills in playing joystick-operated video games. As it turns out, these bright barnyard buddies are more than capable of successfully completing simple games using basic controllers.

If that sounds unbelievable, you, like most of us, probably haven't been keeping up with animal-learning research that’s been underway since the 1990s. Today's scientists likely find it unsurprising that pigs possess the cognition it takes to get into gaming. But what does this mean for the scientific community’s understanding of animal intelligence?

The Smartest Domestic Animal

Despite their less-than-savory reputation as the farm’s messiest members, pigs have more than their fair share of redeeming qualities — one of the most notable being that they’re incredibly intelligent. But scientists didn’t always know how smart pigs are, and it wasn't until a few decades ago that they began conducting tests to find out.

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The Joy of Pigs, a documentary that originally aired in 1996, includes discussion of a pig IQ test that shows the animals’ ability to solve problems. In fact, plenty of other research has also documented their problem-solving skills, showing how they’re more trainable than cats and dogs, according to animal experts. Their ability to use tools has also been scientifically documented, and they’ve even been found to employ deception tactics, proving that they’re cognitively advanced and "astute in very human ways," according to The Atlantic.

Pig-gamer research began in the late 1990s, when scientists began testing pigs' ability to manipulate computers. That research didn't get much publicity, perhaps because it wasn't peer-reviewed — but, despite this, pig-cognition testing continued. Years later, a paper from 2015 identified results from numerous psychological studies showing that pigs are complex creatures similar to animals we tend to see as smarter, like chimpanzees and dogs. Now, it’s widely accepted that pigs are the smartest domestic animals. So, it follows that scientists would want to know more about just how deeply intelligent pigs are. Enter video games.

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Pigs Start Charting New Digital Frontiers

On February 11, 2021, Frontiers in Psychology published peer-reviewed research involving four pigs playing a joystick-operated video game similar to Pong. Essentially, the game began by displaying three bright blue walls on a black screen. The objective was for the pigs to move the on-screen cursor to a wall using the joystick. When the pigs did this successfully, they received treats from a dispenser. Then, after the pigs displayed repeated success in directing the cursor, one of the walls disappeared. With only two walls left to hit, the task was slightly more difficult. Then, after demonstrating enough success with two walls, another wall disappeared, leaving only one blue wall to hit.

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The kicker? The pigs were operating the joystick and playing the game to completion with their snouts — no easy feat. The fact that each of the four pigs in the experiment displayed this ability is something huge. In fact, the experiment design didn't account for pigs' dexterity and visual abilities. It was originally designed for non-human primates that could easily operate a joystick using their hands. However, a joystick probably wasn't the best option for pigs, who simply don’t have that kind of dexterity. The design forced the animals to operate the joystick with their snouts, meaning they had to constantly look up and down rather than be able to focus. They likely would’ve had a much easier time operating a touchscreen.

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In addition, pigs are farsighted, so researchers had to move the screen farther away from the pigs than they had planned just so the animals could see it. But despite the dexterity and visual constraints of the experiment, the four pigs were able to play the game with impressive skill. Their performance was notably better than it would’ve been had they been randomly moving the joystick hoping for the best, making it clear that they had a conceptual understanding of the game.

What Does All This Say About Pig Intelligence?

As simple as it might sound to us, navigating a cursor on a screen requires more than just a little intelligence when you’re an animal. The pigs had to make the connection between the joystick's movement and the ways that it corresponded with the cursor's movement, making them the first farm animal that’s ever been able to process that information. That, on top of the motor skills needed to not only understand what to do but also to make it happen, truly impressed the researchers in charge, Drs. Candace C. Croney and Sarah T. Boysen. Dr. Croney is the director of Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science, and Dr. Boysen is a senior researcher at Purdue.

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Neuroscientist and director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, Lori Marino, also commented on the groundbreaking research in an email to Gizmodo: "What makes these findings even more important is that the pigs in this study displayed self-agency, which is the ability to recognize that one’s own actions make a difference." This, according to Dr. Croney, represents a level of mental sophistication that people have long underestimated in farm animals but particularly in pigs.

Not only did the pigs succeed at the game, but they also seemed to enjoy playing, thanks to both the treats they were given and the positive reinforcement they received from their trainers. Dr. Croney wasn’t entirely surprised by this — she worked with established pig researcher Stanley Curtis over 20 years ago at Purdue when he was conducting various experiments to determine the animals’ intelligence.

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During a 1997 interview, Curtis revealed that the pigs "beg to play video games...to be the first ones out of their pens" to hop onto the computer. So it's no wonder that the four pigs in the recently published Frontiers study, two Yorkshire pigs named Hamlet and Omelet and two Panepinto micro pigs named Ebony and Ivory, were also pumped up to get back to playing. Ivory was the star of the experiment, though whether her enjoyment while playing contributed to her success remains unknown. No matter how many walls were up on the screen, she always performed above chance. Even more impressive is that she was hitting the one-wall targets 76% of the time.

Animal Cognition Testing Is Entering a New Era

Scientists use video games to test animal intelligence because they provide a way to easily investigate many different animals and then understand the exact spatial and temporal parameters of their responses. In addition, researchers can better test how animals learn new information over time thanks to the wider range of stimulus flexibility that video games offer.

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Humans have long underestimated pig intelligence — and the intelligence of farm animals in general — but this research may very well provide a turning point in that perspective. With this new piece of positive, peer-reviewed research on farm animal intelligence on the books, more sophisticated studies looking into pigs’ cognitive and learning skills are likely to follow. And now that science has given us the tools to more thoroughly study just how smart animals are, there's no looking back. It will be interesting to see how the new information transforms the role animals of all kinds play in our lives and how it may one day help us devise new methods of communicating and interacting with them in a positive way.