The Tamagotchi Effect: How digital pets shaped the tech habits of a generation

A woman showing off Tamagotchis to the camera | How Tamagotchi shaped technology
Xavier Rossi/Getty Images

Tamagotchis, the virtual pets that were the obsession of kids and the scourge of many parents and teachers in the late 1990s, are back. This July, a new generation of devices, priced at $59.99, will make their debut: desperately trying to carve out a corner of a gadget market infinitely more crowded than the one of 20-something years ago.

Targeting a new generation of digital natives sometimes referred to as “iGen,” it remains to be seen whether these new Tamagotchis can become close to the cultural phenomenon they were before. However, for older users, the return of so-called “Tamas” is a welcome dose of technological nostalgia.

For a lot of people reading this, Tamagotchis helped shape their views on technology; potentially covering everything from social media to smart devices. Who knew these strange egg-shaped devices were so influential?

The aliveness of a Tamagotchi

“Is my Tamagotchi alive?” Some variation of this question lit up grade school playgrounds everywhere in 1997; the year Bill Clinton was sworn in for his second term as President, the first Harry Potter book was published, and an oddball handheld digital pet went on sale in the United States and ended up selling, at its peak, a reported 15 units every minute in the U.S. and Canada.

A Tamagotchi was, by design, supposed to simulate aliveness — complete with the messy realities that come with owning a pet

Tamagotchis (a mash-up of the Japanese words for “egg” and “watch”) were not, kids realized, really alive in the same way as a parent, sibling, or even a family pet. But, like some kind of digital life remix of Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, they also weren’t not alive. On a spectrum of aliveness, a Tamagotchi seemed less alive than a flesh-and-blood creature but more alive than, say, a family computer or even a beloved games console. It was “alive enough.”

In being so classified, Tamagotchis represented an important development in tech history. Researchers had been noticing since the 1980s that a large number of people attributed some level of mind to a personal computer. However, this was in a more abstract sense, such as our amazement that a programmed opponent in a computer game might beat us.

A Tamagotchi was, by design, supposed to simulate aliveness — complete with the messy realities of pooping, exercising, eating and other biological requirements that no self-respecting PC ever thrust upon its owners. It was helpless without its users and, in return for our raising it, an emotional bond was formed.

Parents might have scoffed at the idea, but many subconsciously bought into it, too. Case in point: Some of my friends were given Tamagotchis as “training wheels” to prove they were responsible enough to look after a real animal.

The tricky subject of death

The question of the aliveness of a Tamagotchi was never more painfully articulated than when, by any metric, your Tama was no longer among the living. For a generation, Tamagotchis were among their first experiences of death: something which could, and did, result in a protracted mourning period among users. Alan Turing, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, suggested that we judge the intelligence of a computer by whether it can trick a human into thinking they are conversing with another person. Should we, then, attribute a level of aliveness to a comparatively rudimentary program that is nonetheless able to provoke real tears and sadness in a human?

“I left him in my room and when I came back he was dead.”

The death of a Tamagotchi was made all the more painful by the knowledge that you, the user, had likely played a part in their death. While older Tamas could die of natural causes, far more likely was the fact that you had not properly cared for them.

Unlike even your family pet, which your parents looked after, Tamagotchi owners were made to shoulder the guilty burden of knowing that they alone had been responsible for the death of their pet by not being there to feed them or clean them when they needed it the most.

Even today there remains — in the flickering GIF candlelight of forgotten internet websites, where the piped-in funeral music comes in MIDI form — several Tamagotchi “cemeteries” where bereft owners can share their sorry tales with a sympathetic audience.

The Tamagotchi Cemetery
A cemetery for Tamagotchis. Getty Images

“Here lie proud and honored Tamagotch’s [sic],” reads one such website. “Please keep noise to a minimum and respect their rest. If u are and unfortunate owner [sic] and have lost your beloved Tamagotchi please make your way to our undertaker who will attend to all your needs.” (The “undertaker” in question is an online form, allowing bereft vpet owners to tell the world the name, age, and cause of death of their beloved Tama. They also have space to write a brief obituary and, if desired, can email over a photo. Sadly, the email address no longer appears to be active.)

Such things may seem odd in the cold light of 2019, when the owners of Jimmy (cause of death: “[dropped] it and it made a weird beep sound”) and Toe-Tam (“I left him in my room and when I came back he was dead”) are presumably grown-up soccer moms, accountants, and corporate lawyers. But it shouldn’t do. Tamagotchis raised some big questions about artificial life. We didn’t realize it at the time, but our little plastic egg-shaped devices were giving us a crash course in A.I. ethics.

How did Tamagotchis change the world?

A little over 20 years after Tamagotchis made their debut, their influence remains widespread. In Japan, there are stories of young men, known as Otaku, who conduct text message-based romantic relationships with virtual girlfriends on handheld devices.

Is it a coincidence that kids growing up obseessed with Tamagotchis graduated to obsessing over social media?

As the cultural theorist Dominic Pettman writes in his essay “Love in the Time of Tamagotchi,” Otaku are fully aware that the object of their affections is not, strictly speaking, real. “But this does not diminish the erotic charge and psychological impact of the text- messages they receive in response to their SMS courtship,” Pettman observes.

To these users, the demands for a virtual relationship has graduated from the caring paternal or maternal relationship enjoyed with a Tamagotchi to a more adult relationship built around other desires (and hopefully with less cleaning up of poop.)

Most of us, of course, haven’t gone down this route — but the Otaku are not distinct from us; they just take things one step further. The attachments that users formed with their Tamas may have laid the groundwork for our willingness to go out in droves and invest in cute Roomba vacuum cleaners and robot pets, in addition to smart “always listening” speakers like Google Home and the Apple HomePod. Tamagotchis helped to lay the groundwork for artificial beings which are viewed as pets — or even friends.

Sony Aibo Robot Dog
Aibo, the robot dog. Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Some companies have run with this idea. For example, Microsoft’s Xiaoice is a massively popular A.I. assistant with a personality modeled on that of a teenage girl, which communicates predominantly through text messages. In addition to answering queries, Xiaoice can tell jokes, compose poems and songs, tell stories, play games, and more. Not only did Tamas introduce us to the antecedent of such tools, it taught us to accept digital entities which didn’t necessarily look like anything recognizably living. Unlike cuddly Furbies, which enjoyed an explosion of popularity at much the same time as Tamagotchis, there was nothing inherently cute about the hard plastic form factor of a Tama.

Tamagotchis might have helped prepare us for the world of social media, too. Is it causation or simply correlation that the kids who grew up obsessing over Tamagotchis graduated to obsessing over social media? Is there really all that much of a difference between rushing to tend to the attention-grabbing beeps and instructive icons of a virtual pet and tending to the similar demands of social media users, many of whom we may not even know in real life? Both Tamas and social media require frequent tokenistic interactions (feeding, watering, “liking” holiday and baby pictures) to keep the relationship going if it is to continue living. Tamagotchis were among the first to capitalize on these strange biological quirks of the brain, rewarding dopamine-driven feedback loops of regular reward.

“Being able to marry your character with your friend’s [Tamagotchi character] without a cable really blew me away at the time.”

Finally, they acclimated us to a world in which carrying around devices wherever we go is the norm. Most devices are designed to fit into our existing lives, which used to mean waiting until we wanted to use them. Tamagotchis disrupted this natural order. Mealtimes were broken and classes interrupted. At the height of Tamagotchi fever, there were reports of Japanese businessmen cancelling meetings so as to be able to feed their Tamas at the right time. An airline passenger allegedly disembarked her flight and vowed never to fly with that airline again, after being told that she must turn off her Tamagotchi: something that would have had the result of resetting it.

Today, the kids who were pre-teens when Tamagotchis made their debut are in their late twenties or into their thirties. They are almost all smartphone owners, and many likely contribute to the 73% of adults who report experiencing anxiety if they are temporarily separated from their phones. They most likely do not question a world in which our availability at all times is almost assumed. The distracting beeps of Tamas have been replaced by the vibrating of a smartphone in the pocket.

Don’t call it a comeback

All of which brings about the (potentially) billion dollar question: Will the next generation of Tamagotchi succeed? This isn’t the first time that such a comeback has been staged. In the mid-2000s, Tamagotchis returned with the “Tamagotchi Connection” series of devices. These upped the level of pseudo-aliveness, and further blurred the line between the real and digital worlds, by adding more interactions, such as the ability to interact with your friend’s Tamas in a way that simply wasn’t possible the first time around.

A 10-year old shows off his Tamagotchi Connection
In the mid-2000s, Bandai released the Tamagotchi Connection, which introduced new features like infrared technology that could connect two Tamagotchi pets, allowing them to play games, exchange presents, and give birth to offspring. Paul Irish/Getty Images

“My intro to Tamagotchi was through my older sibling,” Crystal Koziol, one of the hosts of Tama Tea, a Tamagotchi-themed podcast, told Digital Trends. “I later got my own V2 and became obsessed with ‘connection culture.’ Being able to marry your character with your friend’s without a cable really blew me away at the time.”

But Koziol doesn’t necessarily hold out too much hope for the return — at least not in terms of attracting new users. “Simply put: no,” she said. “I think a comeback for the brand is possible, but I think the time for a huge vpet resurgence, as influential as the original, may have passed. Western children play with toys less these days, and with a price point so high parents may opt for cheaper ‘higher entertainment value’ items at the same price, like a video game. A Tamagotchi comeback of any sort is probably most wanted, and would be supported by, nostalgia-fueled adults.”

Koziol’s co-host, Destiny Carroll, agrees to some extent. “I don’t think Tamagotchis will ever have the same craze that they did in the 90s, considering the new technology that kids play with today,” she said. “Tamagotchi fit into that society so well back then — but I definitely think there’s a smaller place for them now as well, with people who grew up with them or smaller children.”

Regardless of how the comeback goes, however, Tamagotchis have had a lasting impact that helped shape our use of technology. In the coming years, that influence may only become more apparent.

Even if, as Koziol predicts, the 2019 Tama comeback amounts to little more than a chance for thirty-somethings to atone for that time they left their digital pets to starve to death, back when they were in grade school.

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