Disclaimer: I am not a “cat person,” or for that matter a “dog person.” If anything, I would be an “animal person,” but that is neither here nor there.
I recently played a card game called Kittens in a Blender. The purpose of the game is to save your own cats from a blender, while blending all of the other players’ cats. Now, before a call to arms is issued, some amount of the proceeds from the game go to cat shelters and it does not support animal cruelty by any means. That being said, I still found playing the game to be difficult.
I would say that we started out playing the game correctly, with the right amount of spite and vicious kitten blending, but that quickly degenerated as the game went on. Eventually the purpose of each round turned into trying to save every kitten we could. It wasn’t really a game at that point.
Maybe it’s because I’m not an overly competitive person, or maybe you just look into a poor little kitten’s eyes and determine that no amount of points could make you want to put the adorable fluff-ball in a blender. I mean, the kittens have names like M.C. Catnip, Paco and Ninja. I could not possibly blend a cat named Ninja.
It was only when we started tallying up the points and organizing the cards again that I really stopped to consider the fact that we had moments ago been frantically struggling for the lives of completely fictional cats. We had been scheming and joining forces for just a few pieces of paper.
I wish it was simply because they were adorable and had cutesy names, but I will be the first to admit that I grew emotionally attached to some of those cats, particularly Pancake, a gray, pink-eyed kitten, who got a little too curious for his own good. I fought inordinately hard to keep Pancake in the game. It wasn’t really a logical reaction. All of the cats were worth the same number of points, and that’s all they really were — points — but it couldn’t be helped.
Much like a children have their favorite Disney prince, princess and talking animal sidekick, I had my favorite cat to save from the blender. And, as if to mimic my reaction every time Ursula fights Ariel, my indignant yells when Pancake got blended must have been heard at the farthest reaches of my building.
It goes well beyond Pancake or princesses. Somehow I always find myself rooting for and caring entirely too much for the fate of characters that don’t exist. Michael Scott leaving the office, Eric Foreman getting his heart broken, Harry Potter losing his godfather, and countless other situations that have all kept me hanging on the edge of my seat or clinging to a backlit screen.
I understand that the point of most stories is to tug at the heartstrings, to make the reader or audience care to tune in repeatedly — and my emotional connection to these characters only plays into their entertainment gig. But as cheesy as it sounds, I would like to think of it as a prime example of human empathy. Even if that empathy is ridiculously misplaced.
These people are living lives I wish I could emulate or lives that I can relate to all too well. Practically every plot twist and conflict turns into a matter of personal importance. It’s no wonder that it has become all too easy for me to grow attached to fictional characters. Even the cat lady from The Simpsons has gained my affection. Which is why, despite having known those kittens for all of two minutes, I was already hoping to save them from the cold, steel clutches of a blender.
This means that, somehow, I find myself caring about hundreds of characters, which makes me wonder exactly how many real people I can say the same of.
Sure, I would count all of my friends and family among those whose fates I care about. But beyond that? I really couldn’t say.
Sometimes it seems like most of the people around me are just extras; those other hundreds of students in a lecture hall are filler, which I know is about as far from the truth as possible. All of those people are real and deserve far more of my attention than do a bunch of lines from a script. I just need to turn around, introduce myself, shake some hands and make those people part of my world. If I just cared a bit more about the person sitting in front of me instead of the employees of Dunder Mifflin, maybe class would be more enjoyable.
Once a name has been put to a face, a few inside jokes have been made and some common human similarities are established, the person in question has gone from being all but fictional to someone real, someone that deserves my care and sympathy — something I wish I reminded myself of more often. The possibility for emotional investment is there, whether it’s a real person or even just a cartoon cat on a playing card.