These Pigs Were Taught To Play Video Games. They Were Actually Not Too Shabby

Yorkshire pig operating the joystick. Image credit: Eston Martz / Pennsylvania State University

Pigs have a "remarkable” ability to learn how to play video games — an ability that's nothing to be snorted at. The pigs are unlikely to be taking home an E-sports trophy anytime soon, but their aptitude for learning this skill has highlighted their surprisingly high level of intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

Their exploits were recently the subject of a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The research saw two Yorkshire pigs, named Hamlet and Omelette, and two Panepinto micro pigs, Ebony and Ivory,  being taught how to play a simple video game. The pigs were trained to move a joystick with their snouts in front of a computer screen. If they successfully moved the pointing using the joystick toward one of the targets on the screen, they were rewarded with a snack. Even once the pigs stopped receiving the reward, they were able to complete tasks using only verbal and touch cues.

The researchers, who have previously explored the depths of chimpanzee cognition, described their ability to pick up this skill as "remarkable."

"It is no small feat for an animal to grasp the concept that the behavior 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 Candace Croney, lead study author and a professor at Purdue University and director of the Purdue Center for Animal Welfare Science, said in a statement.

Micropig.
Panepinto micro pig Ebony operating the joystick. Image credit: Candace Croney

Plenty of research has shown that pigs are among the animal kingdom’s most intelligent beings. Scientists have even observed Visayan warty pigs, a critically endangered species native to just two islands in the Philippines, using tools in captivity.  Although the pings in this study did not perform to the level of mastery expected by a chimp or another non-human primate, the researchers believe this could be explained by the nature of the experiment, which was designed for dexterous and visually-oriented mammals.

Considering pigs are farm animals, the research also raises some ethnic questions. If, as this study suggests, pigs are deeply intelligent creatures with certain cognitive abilities that are comparable to chimpanzees, should that change the way we treat them in agricultural practices? 

"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," Croney said.

"Informing management practices and improving pig welfare was and still is a major goal, but really, that is secondary to better appreciate the uniqueness of pigs outside of any benefit we can derive from them," remarked Croney.

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