Thursday, February 02, 2006

Virtual Petting

Tamagotchi: Can't buy me love

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, December 15, 1997 -- [Image]
I thought virtual pets, those little hand-held
electronic key-chains that supposedly respond to the user
like a living creature, were in the same category as sea
monkeys and mood rings: they seem fantastic to the
seven-year-old (and this I know from firsthand experience
of a healthy, happy sea-monkey family) but absurd to the
respectable grown-up. Then I learned that more than one
of my adult friends are a die-hard Tamagotchi owners, a
fact that has left me more than a little puzzled.

For those who missed this recent craze, the first
Tamagotchi "eggs," produced by the Japanese company
Bandai (makers of the Power Rangers series of toys),
landed in the U.S. in May, causing the latest toy-lust
craze that made lines form around the block at F.A.O.
Schwartz. Reuters reported that 13 million Tamagotchis
had been sold by September of this year. Meanwhile, lots
of copy-cat products have cropped up, such as the "Giga
Pets" by Tiger Electronics, and a new breed of screen
savers that require user TLC.

A Tamagotchi, which I've seen translated loosely as
"lovable egg" or "egg watch," is basically a pixelated
LCD display housed in a flat, plastic, egg-shaped case.
It comes in many colors, although a shortage of the white
model (perhaps because of its similarity to a real bird's
egg) has prompted higher demand. The catch is that it is
marketed as needing "your love" to stay "alive." This
means you must care for your virtual pet by pushing one
of three buttons that supposedly feed it, administer
medicine, offer discipline or play, and of course clean
up the little devil's excrement. According to the product
packaging, "if you neglect your cyber creature, your
Tamagotchi may grow up to be mean or ugly."

Once again, consumer culture has exhibited its
perversity. After craving no-effort, couch potato
gadgets, we're now buying millions of a product that
requires extraordinary maintenance. Huh? It's absurd, but
it's also a brilliant marketing scheme: you get the
illusion of nurturing and responsibility without the mess
or hassle of a real, live creature. Tamagotchi owners
claim that watching their virtual pet die or having to
perform euthanasia causes great pain. As someone who
recently had to put her cat up for adoption, all I can
say is yeah, right.

Virtual pain, perhaps, but this thing is the ultimate in
fast-food, instant-gratification consumption. It's
formulaic, like buying a friend. And if your first hand
at parenting doesn't work out, well, you're in luck, just
press a button and presto, a new infant Tamagotchi is
created. Isn't that convenient? What other
pet/friend/living thing gives you the satisfaction of a
"happiness meter" that shows exactly how appreciated your
attention is?

Tamagotchi fans claim it's a great product because it
taps into the nurturing side of human nature, but the
whole concept still sends Orwellian shivers up my spine.
It is a keychain. It's not alive, it's programmed (and
quite primitively at that). It is bad enough that the
Japanese public has already fallen in love with a virtual
performer (her name is Kyoto Date and she has a cult
following), but putting a virtual creature into the hands
of millions is going too far. Don't we still value the
life of the slow-and-steady turtle? Or how about the
humble but athletic hamster? Sure, cleaning up virtual
on-screen turds is much less nasty than the traditional
variety, but please, folks, if you want your kids to care
for another living thing, give them another living thing
and save us from enduring another glimps into the world
of robotic companions.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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