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Ham-mazing! Pigs are learning how joysticks work to save their video game bacon

By Benjamin Bullard
A pair of pigs in the sun

No worries, humans: It doesn’t sound like Ganon’s in danger anytime soon of having his Hyrule schemes thwarted by a game-playing litter of upstart, joystick-wielding piglets. But if the playful porkers from a recent study keep honing their screen skills, the barn door may already have been thrown wide open for pigs to one day hoof their way up the gaming leaderboards.

Thanks to a new study published at the Frontiers in Psychology journal, we may think twice the next time we encounter porcine video game characters like The Legend of Zelda’s Ganon or the Banjo Kazooie franchise’s Chris P. Bacon — especially after learning, via the study, that real-world pigs show an apparent aptitude for using a joystick to control the action they see onscreen.

Purdue University researchers placed each of the four delightfully-named pigs (Hamlet, Omelette, Ebony, and Ivory) in a scenario in which each had to use its snout to manipulate a joystick, which in turn controlled a cursor on a computer monitor placed in front of them. The screen displayed a rudimentary video game activity; one that required each little piggy “to move the cursor to make contact with three-, two-, or one-walled targets randomly allocated for position on the monitor.”

If the pigs performed well, they got a food treat, as well as “verbal and tactile reinforcement after each successful trial” (think gentle words of encouragement and maybe even belly rubs.) And remarkably, they did perform well. Even though they only brought their snouts to what clearly was a task more suited for the human hand, all 4 pigs “were significantly above chance on first attempts to contact one-walled targets,” indicating that, “despite dexterity and visual constraints, pigs have the capacity to acquire a joystick-operated video-game task.”

The study aimed to test farm animals’ “adaptive behavior in complex, dynamic environments,” but we’re betting that Old Macdonald has few other animals in his stable that can match the performance of the pigs —  long believed to be among the animal kingdom’s most highly intelligent creatures. If Hamlet & co. already can do better than average using a test setup designed for humans and not for BBQ, it’ll be interesting to see how the pigs score when the researchers repeat the test (something the study says they’re interested in doing)…only this time, with video game gear that’s more suited for swine. Give those pigs a VR headset!

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