Researchers successfully taught pigs how to play video games

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Researchers taught pigs how to play video games.
Image: Purdue University

Countless people around the world turn to video games as a way to unwind and have fun. In many cases, they’re also used to test knowledge and abilities—though that occurs more frequently with artificial intelligence (AI) than humans.

Now, researchers from Purdue University have taken gaming beyond the realm of humanity and algorithms. According to Digital Trends, the researchers successfully taught pigs how to play a simple, “Pong” style game.

While it’s unclear what the implications of this study will be, it is the furthest that scientists have pushed the cognitive limits of pigs. The team’s research was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

When Pigs Play Video Games

Although pigs might never gain the ability to fly, as the saying goes, they may be a lot smarter than humans give them credit for. Previous studies have shown that pigs can respond to simple commands like “sit” but haven’t gone much beyond that. Most research on animal cognition involves primates or dogs.

In the experiment, four pigs were given a joystick controller to nudge with their snout. The goal of the game is to move the on-screen cursor over a colored target. In the first level, the pigs were given four “walls” to aim for, making it relatively easy to win. The second level removed a wall and the third did the same. As the game continues to progress, the walls get smaller and harder to hit until there is only a single square left.

Candace Croney, a professor of animal behavior and well-being at Purdue tells Digital Trends, “Almost all of our pigs got to the one-sided target. 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 the pigs were able to hit the smallest possible box or the moving target. However, the pigs moved beyond the realm of random chance. The researchers noted that they moved past, “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,” the researchers add.

Interestingly, the pigs continued to play the game successfully even after they stopped being rewarded with treats. They instead responded to verbal encouragement from the researchers.

More to Come

As noted, this research is pushing the boundaries of what we know about the cognitive abilities of pigs. However, it could also have wider applications within the animal world.

Croney tells Digital Trends, “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.”

It will be interesting to see where this research goes in the future. Given its promising nature, there is no shortage of follow-up studies to pursue.

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