August 18, 1997 12:00 PM

CAUTION: EXCESSIVE VIDEO-GAME playing may lead to swinish behavior. Take Hamlet, for instance. He grunts. He snorts. He stuffs his face with M&Ms and Skittles, and he has gained 350 pounds in only six months.

This behavior, however, is no surprise. Hamlet, after all, is a pig. So is his half brother Omelette. Together they’re the stars of an experiment that Stanley Curtis, 55, a professor of animal sciences, is conducting at Penn State University. The porkers aren’t playing Myst yet, but they have shown that by using their snouts to manipulate a joystick—sometimes for hours a day—they can maneuver a cursor through ever-changing patterns on a computer screen. “When I first saw them play,” says Candace Croney, 27, a Ph.D. candidate working with Curtis, “it was a matter of my jaw falling on the floor.” In fact, Curtis says his subjects took to the games like teenage boys. “They got the point within minutes,” says the professor, who rewards his pupils with the candy. “Pigs are always on the prowl, looking for the next mouthful, and because of that, they’re very, very curious. They’re very observant. With these rudimentary games, they’re similar to primates.”

So what, you ask? Curtis believes the games will help researchers further understand the minds of pigs and perhaps one day enable humans to communicate with them. “A lot of animals have a lot more going on than we think,” he says. “I think it’s distinctly in the realm of possibility that pigs are going to be recognized as bright creatures.” One sure sign: Hamlet and Omelette, who are being replaced by three new sets of pigs, have already suffered video-game burnout. “They have moods all the time,” says Croney. “If they don’t want to play a game, they’ll sit on the controls—and there’s nothing you can do to get them up.”

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