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I'm Not Kitten Around: Fighting Gendered Gaming With Furistas Cat Café

Anyone who frequents this blog with any semi-regularity (being real generous with my popularity here) will know that I’m a big fan of iPhone games. I’m invested in dismantling the concept of a “fake gamer,” which includes acknowledging that every game need not be narratively focused, attached to a console, or—we’re being blunt here—marketed to men in order to be deemed worthwhile by the community. I’ve spoken before about how the check-in, grinding nature of most iPhone games make them perfect for filling previously dead time, but that’s also a pretty disingenuous reading of a culturally beloved entertainment. Sometimes simple is better and when it comes to iPhone games I think simple is paramount.

Take, for example, Runaway’s Furistas Cat Café.

With the exception of when I first misread the title and thought I was downloading something about furries, this game has yet to do me dirty. The premise is that you run a cat café and… that’s about it. You adopt cats, pair them with customers, decorate your space, and play mini games to earn more coins. Though when I say “game” here I’m talking toddler level intellect required. This customer wants these ingredients in their salad, so drag the appropriate pictures onto the plate and hand it over. Your cat wants attention! Pet them with your finger until the bar fills up and then collect your reward.

A real cat from a real cat café and yes, it was as magical as it appears

Obviously this sort of mindless grinding is nothing new—mobile, console, and computer games alike rely on the addictive nature of repetitive action, to say nothing of the recent concerns regarding gambling-like tactics—but Furistas takes that simplicity and, rather than just banking on the expectation that games will include such mechanical gameplay, turns it into something worthwhile. Something soothing.

Or maybe that’s just me. I admit freely that this is an entirely subjective reading, but I find the game and all it’s easy-going tasks to be quite relaxing. Because they’re easy-going. That’s why grinding remains addictive. It might be boring, but when the rest of your life is going to shit at least you get a quick dose of serotonin for completing your tiny, skill-less task. Furistas combines that “Yeah I did it!” feeling with the knowledge that even if you do somehow fail there are no real consequences here. You don’t lose coins for not petting the cat enough; grabbing the wrong salad ingredient results in a polite X over the screen and the chance to try it again. This is an entirely safe, non-judgmental space.

You know all the tumblr vids with “Sound on!!” attached to the reblog because people assume that you’re missing a crucial element if you don’t listen to the cat’s soft meeps alongside watching its cute face? Same here. Furistas gives you sleepy piano music to indulge in and happy little sounds of contentment when you complete a mini-game (along with congratulatory text). Want a free app to validate you? Look no further. Best of all are the recordings of purrs that sound when you pet the cats or feed them their treats. To quote our dear Rosa Diaz of Brooklyn Nine-Nine fame, I never understood why people loved their stupid cats until my roommate got a stupid cat and I started googling expected jail time for stealing someone else’s pet. Now, if anything happened to her, I’d kill everyone reading this post and then myself. I’m out of state for the summer and this game is a poor substitute for that kitty…but it’s a substitute nonetheless.

Furistas is a healthy dose of calm in an otherwise hectic world. There are no deadlines for completing your normal tasks (special events are an exception) and, as said, no repercussions for making mistakes. Only the prospect of more rewards when you finally get it right. I completed one of those special events and won a giant cat shaped bookshelf. Am I tempted to try and recreate that in real life? You know it. I saved up and bought a cat rug and a yellow cat chair and, amazingly, a gothic cat portrait. In case you somehow missed it, this game is all cats all the time. You get to watch them doing all the stupid things real cats do like twist themselves into pretzels, or face-plant dramatically into a cushion (#mood). If all that doesn’t brighten your day then I’m honestly gonna be That Person and question whether you have a soul.

In all seriousness though, I get it. Cats have a bad rep. Or rather, our assumptions about people who love cats has gotten a little iffy over the years. Picture the decrepit cat lady who never married and is now clearly someone to pity. Think about teen girls’ obsession with cat videos and how they’ve come to represent everything inane and time-wasting about the internet. Think of misconceptions about how cold cats supposedly are (they aren’t) and what sort of person would choose one over a dog. It might seem like I’m stretching a bit—a lot even—but there are very real aspects of gender at play here and those in turn tie right back into our gendering of video games. That then impacts how seriously we’re willing to view those games, both socially and professionally.

Both adventure and simulation games make use of repetitive action, but many still turn their nose up at something like Stardew Valley because it’s “just” planting/harvesting crops. As if we can’t claim that a FPS is “just” shooting/looting the bodies. Each game requires its own skillset (planning, strategy, patience for both), but one is consistently deemed too cute to be a “real” game. Mobile games, as said, have a number of other marks against them, but I can’t help but wonder as to what sort of reaction the aesthetics of Furistas might generate. Meaning, putting aside its grinding elements, or the fact that it’s played on an iPhone, or any other potential black mark that’s not genre specific, how would people respond to the cutesy nature of it? The premise of the game itself: running a café and hanging out with cats. Sadly, I don’t think Furistas has (yet!) achieved the level of popularity needed to see how major and potentially contrary subsets of the gaming community perceive it—in the way that we can now examine diehard Stardew Valley fans vs. those who uphold it as an example of everything “wrong” with current gaming culture—but I bet we can make an educated guess.

I play a lot of other “girly” games and I know they’re deemed “girly” based on their color schemes, their domestic focus, and how they’re advertised/received by the community at large. Not because I deem them “girly” myself. I’m confident that Furistas would garner a similar response because I’ve been a gamer all my life and this stuff is pretty cyclical. I’ve taught video games to a male dominated classroom and there was a distinct aversion towards any game preemptively deemed too cute. A definite sense of, “I don’t need to research this game, let alone play it, to know that it’s bad. I know going in because it’s brightly colored, features themes about love, and/or doesn’t involve any action. That’s a game for my sister, not me.” Cliché as it is, that mindset is still alive and well. Funny thing is though, you have to play games when they’re assigned for homework and most of those boys came back liking them. Many ended up reveling in having an excuse to play them. Plausible deniability and all that. But of course, that excuse shouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

Even more than teaching experience, I can picture the reaction to Furistas based on how specific iPhone games are marketed to equally specific people. Over the last six months or so I’ve been collecting screenshots of the ads that pop up in the games I play and let me tell you, they paint a fascinating picture:

The painted nails are an obvious marker. What’s the easiest way to gender a generic matching game? Make sure everyone knows this is a woman playing it. Sure, we could potentially argue something more complex: this is evidence of the community’s growing acceptance that women game at all and I’d be more willing to read it that way if this sort of advertising weren’t limited to the mobile form and, notably, if all the hands weren’t white. It’s not a very progressive message if we acknowledge that women are gamers… but only beautiful, thin, white women and only if they play these types of games. It makes it that much harder to advocate for mobile games as a whole when the community continually claims that’s all I should be interested in. I simultaneously want to shout about how much I love World of Warcraft while reminding everyone that I shouldn’t have to justify my label of “gamer” with these more widely accepted choices. Playing something like Furistas should be enough.

And the other ads are just plain ridiculous. The “OMG my mom/girlfriend is beating me??” joke remains frustrating—see above—and I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to do with the cheating dude in the towel, creepily watching me save his kitchen. I’ll admit that I know next to nothing about the algorithms involved in this kind of marketing. Every other day you hear stories about how Facebook is collecting more data on us, or your Alexa is tailoring its ads based on the conversations it’s overheard. So for all I know I’m seeing so many woman-focused, highly gendered, in many respects insulting ads because I, as an individual, enjoy the sort of mobile games that are supposedly only for women. Circular logic, but that hardly makes this any better. These mobile games suck, but not because they’re mobile games. It’s because of the misogyny attached to them. The issue is not the fact that my ads contain painted nails. The issue is what those painted nails supposedly convey about gaming: who has access to it and what precisely they have access to.

All of which is to say that Furistas—and all the other games like it—are functioning at a rather unfair disadvantage. It’s one thing to play silly mobile games while killing time on public transport; it’s quite another to suggest that we incorporate them into syllabi, or even just recommend them seriously to a friend. Especially if that friend is a guy. Which is a shame considering what something like Furistas can offer gamers of all types. I honestly believe we’d have fewer issue among the community as a whole if there was more open and unashamed admissions of loving these kinds of mobile games; if we acknowledged the ways in which “simple” or “cute” doesn’t equal “undeserving of our attention.” Not because people need to love those specifics—cats, customers, cafes, etc.—but because these details represent larger genres and themes that a lot of gamers automatically reject out of a learned loyalty to “real” games. That isn’t cool.

So I encourage everyone, but particularly those of you who might not seem like the sort to have this downloaded on your phone, to give Furistas a try. Because it hits that sweet spot when it comes to addictive tasks. Because the gameplay is soothing after a long day at work. Because there are engaging customer backstories that include queer identities. Because the art is fantastic and clearly reflects the love these creators have poured into their work.

Because simply put Furistas has a lot of the elements that make up a great game and who knows? You just might like it.

Image Credit


#2-13: Personal photos and screenshots

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