Network: A game of cat and mouse

Virtual pets have arrived. George Cole chooses a kitten
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For the past week, a kitten has been living inside my computer. Every day I feed, stroke, groom him and play games with him. The computer may be a little cramped, but he is a happy cat.

Before you report me to the RSPCA, I should add that this is no ordinary feline. He's part of the latest craze to hit the world of information technology: computer pets. Unlike the real thing, Petz, to give them their proprietary name, are cute, lovable, don't make a mess and won't eat you out of house and home.

My kitten was created by the Californian company PF Magic. Its first title, Dogz, allowed PC users to "adopt" a puppy. It was a raging success: more than 200,000 copies were sold in the US alone. The follow-up title, Catz, will be launched on 16 September to coincide with National Cat Week.

Users of Catz can choose from five kittens, each with its own personality - there's a lazy fat cat, a playful cat and a scaredy-cat, for example.

What makes the program different from other animal software is that it uses artificial intelligence. This enables your pet to interact with you. Stroke the cat (by moving a hand icon) and it purrs; play games and it shrieks with pleasure; spray it with water and it howls in protest and runs away.

What's more, if you underfeed your cat, it gets thin. But every day, the cat grows, until you end up with an adult cat. You can even take photographs and form your own cat album. The program includes a screen- saver, and your cat can also protect your PC with a password system.

But who wants such a "pet"?

"When I brought a couple of copies of Dogz back from the States, I thought it would be a seven-day wonder," admits Jim Mackonochie, sales manager of Mindscape, which publishes Catz and Dogz in the UK. "But weeks later, people were still playing with their pets."

Mackonochie says kids love their computer pets - as do office staff. "Not long after Dogz was launched on CD-Rom, we were getting lots of requests for a floppy-disk version - because many office PCs only have floppy drives."

The pets titles are not marketed as games, and users need only spend a few minutes a day with their pet. So employers are less likely to object to a computer pet than with employees playing games or surfing the Internet for hours.

Claire Bessant, chief executive of the charity Feline Advisory Bureau, says the behaviour exhibited by the computer cats is realistic.

"I expected the program to be gimmicky, but it's accurate and well based on cat behaviour," she says. "There are only a few human-like features. People have a cat because they want a bit of feedback and a bit of love, and with this product, the cat does interact with you."

One in five homes in Britain has a pet cat. Would PC moggies make suitable substitutes?

"I think so, but remember, you can't cuddle a computer."

Keeping a pet is good for you, and stroking a pet lowers the blood pressure. Petz could well serve a similar purpose for the times when the demands of the keyboard get too much.

Further Petz projects areplanned. No doubt Birdz, Rabbitz and even Ratz will soon invade a PC near you.

Catz and Dogz are on available on CD for Apple Mac and PC, pounds 14.99 each, from Mindscape: 01444 246333.

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