A new study published this month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology confirms that pigs are so intelligent that they can be taught to play video games. The study highlights four pigs at Pennsylvania State University—Hamlet, Omelet, Ebony, and Ivory—who were successfully trained to complete a joystick-operated video game task.
Co-authored by Candace Croney, director of Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science, and Sarah Boysen, professor of psychology at Ohio State University, the paper builds on the research into pig intelligence started in the 1990s by scientists working with Dr. Stanley Curtis, a pioneer in the field. According to Croney, humans have an “ethical obligation” to understand how pigs think. She stated:
This sort of study is important because, as with any sentient beings, how we interact with pigs and what we do to them impacts and matters to them. We therefore have an ethical obligation to understand how pigs acquire information, and what they are capable of learning and remembering, because it ultimately has implications for how they perceive their interactions with us and their environments.
Hamlet, Omelet, Ebony, and Ivory were trained to complete a joystick-operated game developed to test chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys. The pigs used a joystick to move a computer cursor across a screen toward a wall. Once the cursor hit the wall, the pigs got a tasty snack.
The game became increasingly difficult, yet all four pigs excelled. Croney explained that much of the experiment went well beyond what could be taught:
We could train them on how to manipulate the joystick and how to attend to the screen but they had to independently figure out the connection between what they were doing and where … their behavior was actually having an effect. You cannot teach that. The animal either figures it out or they don’t. And there is nothing in the natural behavior or evolutionary history of the pig that would have suggested they could do this to any degree.
Hamlet’s video game prowess was so impressive he was featured in a short documentary produced by the BBC. The documentary compared Hamlet’s abilities to master a video game with the struggles of a Jack Russell terrier who couldn’t learn a joystick game despite a year of training.
An animal’s ability to play video games should not determine their treatment. As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham said, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” But studies like this show how incredible farmed animals truly are and that there is no meaningful difference between them and the animals who share our homes.
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