Sn-outer this world: Pigs are playing videogames to enable better farming practices, according to scientists

Written on 02/11/2021
Ciarán Mather

Yes, you read that headline right.

Scientists from the Perdue University in Indiana have revealed that pigs can use a joystick in order to move a cursor around a screen for rewards.

This is actually quite impressive, as animals need to understand the link between moving around a joystick and what’s happening on a computer screen, and then link what’s happening on the screen to getting a reward. The pigs were all able to do this to some extent.

The study used four pigs in the process to determine how pigs acquire information and what they are capable of learning.

Lead author Dr. Candace Croney, a professor at Purdue University and director of the Purdue Center for Animal Welfare Science, explained to Phys.Org: 'It is no small feat for an animal to grasp the concept that the behaviour they are performing is having an effect elsewhere.' 

'That pigs can do this to any degree should give us pause as to what else they are capable of learning and how such learning may impact them.'

Dr. Croney was assisted by Sarah T. Boysen, who is known for her work on chimpanzee cognition.

Eventually, researchers upped the difficulty of the tasks, sending the pigs to new 'levels' that they currently had not completed. 

However, this may be because the original experiment was designed for monkeys, who have the added advantage of opposable thumbs - instead, the pigs have to (rather adorably) move the joystick with their snouts.

Although it may seem like a strange experiment, it is actually nothing to snort at: understanding animal cognition gives us fundamental insight into how animals perceive the world around them. 

Another related article from The Conversation adds that this experiment could help stave off boredom for the pigs, and given that group housing is now the norm in the EU, it is now more important than ever pigs need to keep track of social interactions. 

The article elaborates: 'Farms are also increasingly using automated feeders which the pigs have to operate themselves, and in some farms – mainly organic ones – outdoor access means animals need to be able to navigate more space.'

In the case of pigs, the results of this experiment can help us to better understand how they view the world, thus enabling us to have a better sense of empathy for pigs and being able to ensure better farming practices and an improved quality of life for them. 

Pigs are well-known for their intelligence: they are widely accepted as being smarter than young children of at least three years of age, dogs, and even some primates.

In addition, pigs have a great sense of memory and direction: they can find their way home over large distances and can even reach up to 11 miles per hour whilst running.

The study has since been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

One must wonder what these piggies would think if they ever played games that heavily feature pigs, such Minecraft or Angry Birds.