Life is busy. Yet, it is sometimes more important to take a step back from the stress of everyday life and escape to another world. This past week, at the urging of my friends but against my better instincts, I downloaded Neko Atsume, the cat simulator game. There is no way to win this game. The sole goal of the game is to attract as many virtual cats as possible to your virtual home with gifts and cat food. There is no interaction with the cats in the game except for the ability to take virtual pictures of them, which are then stored in the app’s "catbook." The cats do nothing more in the game than lounge about in your virtual home.
Like many other free-to-play games, Neko Atsume rewards patience. You can spend real money to buy more effective cat food and toys, or you can simply wait longer until you amass enough in-game resources to buy those items with the game’s currency. A good number of my friends criticize the game as meaningless, an absolute waste of time. And yet it has been downloaded over 10 million times. The game was recently profiled in the New York Times and the columnist who profiled it even admitted that she was obsessed with it in spite of its mundane nature. I agree with that author. I will readily admit that I have become obsessed with this silly game about collecting cats. Not every game or cultural artifact needs to have a deep meaning in order to be enjoyable.
My colleague Azza Cohen wrote a few weeks ago in the pages of this paper about the importance of setting aside time for the most important things in life, but I will argue that there is still a case to be made for escapist culture. Indeed, it is the escapism that Neko Atsume and other similar cultural artifacts provide that makes them so appealing. My expectation for this game was to be entertained by images of cartoon cats rolling around in macaron costumes, and that’s precisely what the game delivered. It delivers all of the enjoyment of seeing a cat roll around without having to clean up after the cat afterwards.
As I’ve written before, significant portions of the campus population report feeling some form of depression during the school year. Life at Princeton can sometimes be very stressful. Our time is certainly precious, but it is always important to be able to take some time to decompress. A frequent refrain among students is that they are "too busy" to take part in activities on campus, which in my opinion helps to create a "culture of busyness" of sorts, a mental block that prevents us from tackling larger problems in our lives. We have to remember to take some time off occasionally from the busyness or the perceived busyness of our lives to rest and recover, and escaping the burdens of our lives from just a bit can be a part of that time off. From an economic lens, the utility lost from the five minutes that are not spent studying for International Relations will be counteracted by the significant gain in utility from taking a short break.
Meaninglessness can actually be a meaningful form of escapist fun. It allows us to lose ourselves in the world of something as esoteric as digital cat collecting. Perhaps the ability to escape can then allow for greater introspection on the things that constitute the “busyness” in our lives. If we have clearer, more rested minds, it can allow us to look more objectively at some of the larger problems we face, given that it is far too easy to lose ourselves in our everyday issues. Does this require surrendering all of our time to a pursuit like the collection of cats? No, but we need to recognize that there is a place for escapism in our lives. And if that can sometimes be filled by indulging in cat collecting, I’ll take it.
Nicholas Wu is a sophomore from Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.