NextFest 07: Mutant hamster genius takes gamers to school

A hamster named Luden virtually murdered me in a videogame today. I happened upon the little fella by chance at Wired’s NextFest in Los Angeles, the annual technology expo aimed at dethroning the Chicago World’s Fair as America’s premier Gadgetopolis. A kind young man from Singapore approached me while I waited in line to play a virtual pinball game created by flamboyantly brilliant German torturers (look for that story in a few days). The gentle Singaporean pleaded with me to meet his pet hamster over at a cozy green booth from which lapping waves of sleepy-time IDM issued. His polite and eager demeanor, combined with the hypnotic music, swayed me.
Within a mere five minutes, I was staring helplessly as my bloody entrails smeared across a PowerBook’s screen, a jittery hamster dancing in his nearby cage. It must have been sweet cold revenge for all the times I had microwaved his grandfather in Maniac Mansion. Total unhinged brutality. The Kill Bill chipmunk has nothing on this guy.
Hit the jump to read what it’s like to get teabagged by a lab animal. 

If the obtuse video above didn’t make this clear, Metazoa Ludens is a human-animal interactive gaming system. Unlike Nintendogs or Barbie Horse Adventures, a biological animal actually controls its on-screen representation. The best news is, hyperbolic headline aside, the game can be operated by ordinary household pets. The hamster I challenged was not endowed with X-Men like mutagenic powers. The basic drive to find a nice place to burrow propelled him through our game together. This drive apparently outweighed my competitive streak, because he ripped me to shreds quickly after our game began.

When I sat down to play, my screen contained a tiny white man on a top down three-dimensional plane. They assigned me the mission of collecting cactus coins (don’t ask) scattered throughout the landscape, while simultaneously running away from a crazed hamster on the loose who was intent on killing me. Which begs the question: For a game that supposedly seeks to “engage and improve interactions between home owners and their pets,” why does Hamtaro want to eviscerate sweet little Chia Wei? No joking — when the hamster avatar catches up with the human avatar, your onscreen heart rate monitor jolts down, and a flash of blood appears around your character.


As you can see from the chart, the game had a, should we say, “elementary school science fair” flavor to it. The play mechanics in the game certainly felt stilted; my character ran forward in short awkward bursts. I imagine this prevented the real hamster from getting thwacked in the face by the bait pole that roamed his cage, so I’m willing to loosen my harsh videogame criteria for such a novel experience. Every few seconds, I had to dart my eyes from the laptop screen to watch my furry compadre chase me around his cage. Jesus, if this wasn’t a cool feeling. The guy played with such panache that he easily put to shame some of the lower life forms I’ve encountered on Xbox Live.

The technician on hand told me he hopes to extend the game’s applications to include interactions with cats and dogs. He even hoped to create a version that would allow children to face off against tigers in a zoo. How rad is that? It will be several years before the game makes it into homes, facing the dual hurdles of mass production feasibility and the inevitable protests from misinformed animal rights groups. As a vegetarian myself, I’m throwing my weight strongly behind the ingenious creation that MXR Singapore has cooked up. The idea may seem simple, but it has wide ranging implications that I can’t help but be excited about. It serves as one further step toward the eventual paradise all biological creatures will hopefully inhabit — a cybernetically linked peaceful coexistence dominated by the spirit of discovery and play.

After writing that sentence, I’ve been informed I’m no longer allowed to call myself a man.