Cute, intelligent and delicious with a tendency for totalitarianism, pigs have a lot going for them. But they're also capable of grasping video games – of a sort.
Writing in the Frontiers in Psychology journal, US researchers explained how they were able to train two Panepinto micro pigs and two Yorkshire pigs to "manipulate a joystick that controlled movement of a cursor displayed on a computer monitor."
Heck, that's pretty much sysadmin territory already.
The swine were convinced to nudge the joystick with their snouts via treats (dog food pellets), and 10-minute training sessions took place once a day, five days a week, until they were able to do the task on command. After two weeks, "the pigs reliably performed the behavior."
The porky quartet were then trained individually to "watch the screen", again through the dispensing of snacks. The "watch the screen" command was then paired with "joystick", and when the pigs bonked the controller they were rewarded with, you guessed it, more snacks.
The game element of the study required the pigs to move the cursor to collide with three, two or one-walled targets in random positions on the screen, which would trigger a "bloop" sound – and more food.
The two Yorkshire pigs struggled with three-walled targets but performed "above chance", meaning it was clear they weren't doing it by accident, on two and one-walled targets.
That was until the pair, who started the study at three months old, were deemed too mature – and too fat – to dabble in computer games any longer (some of us are beyond help).
"After 12 weeks of training, Hamlet and Omelet were terminated from the experiment because they had grown too large to stand long enough to complete sessions, and also no longer fit within the constraints of the test pen," the boffins wrote.
Two-year-old Ebony and Ivory, the micro pigs, were trained and tested for much longer, though their performance was less clear – both did better than chance on three walls or one, but only Ivory succeeded on the two-walled targets.
Concluding, the researchers wrote: "Overall, all pigs performed significantly above chance on one-walled targets, which indicates that, to some extent, all acquired the association between the joystick and cursor movement.
"That the pigs achieved the level of success they did on a task that was significantly outside their normal frame of reference [is] in itself remarkable, and indicative of their behavioral and cognitive flexibility. Their high level of social motivation to perform the task was also noteworthy. Although food rewards associated with the task were likely a motivating factor, the social contact the pigs experienced with their trainer also appeared to be very important."
However, they noted that the experiment could have been improved because the equipment had been designed to test the cognitive abilities of monkeys and apes – creatures who actually have hands. The subjects were also known to be far-sighted, which may have made tracking the cursor's movement difficult.
But the results are clear: pigs are smart enough to play rudimentary video games. And while we can all agree that four legs are good, chilling in front of a screen with a controller and snacks is infinitely better. Consider that the next time you tuck into your sausages and bacon.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I know what I'd like for lunch. ®