I bought a Tamagotchi last week—not out of some fit of 90s retromania, but as an experiment in attention.
This happened the same week I met someone in real life who I'd been speaking to online for nearly a year. We would chat over WhatsApp and Facebook every day, and now, offline at last, he had nothing to say. I gave him an awkward hug, painfully made small talk. He gave me a blank look and moved on.
Keeping a digital pet alive is a lot like an online relationship, I thought. The beeps and constant maintenance teach you to channel affection through a tiny interface, just like someone demanding attention through a smartphone.
The Tamagotchi Digital Friend is bigger than the old device I remember, bulbous, unfriendly to pockets and handbags. When I screw the battery lid on, the screen activates and asks me to choose one of three eggs. I adopt one with a heart on it, and it takes a minute to hatch. I feel a sudden tenderness towards my unborn digital monster, and briefly wonder if I am ovulating.
The Tamagotchi launched in 1996 and soon attained "craze" status. This current version looks like a Fisher Price rendition of an iPhone, powered by oblong AAA batteries. The packaging says "suitable for age 6 and up" and it features near field communication, allowing users to send messages to other Tamagotchi owners: It strikes me that this is training for a smartphone, the same way the Electronic Dream Phone functioned as a crude dating simulator for girls.
Now our cell phones contain many Tamagotchi in the form of human relationships
Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case writes in her Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology that "the structure of the cell phone is very similar to that of a pocket pet."
"Text messages, phone calls to friends, and email now live on many students' mobile devices…" she explains. "This makes cell phones a real-life Tamagotchi, where multiple creatures exist inside each device, and relationship maintenance becomes a push-button system."
I emailed Case to ask her thoughts on the parallels between digital pets and online relationships. "I used to give a talk about Tamagotchis as a kind of technosocial training wheel for future socialization," she replied. "The Tamagotchi was a device that demanded our attention: We had to feed it, remember to clean it and take care of it."
"Now our cell phones contain many Tamagotchi in the form of human relationships. We Like or text or reply to them to keep them alive. We can see the digital labour we need to perform based on the digits and numbers on the notification icons on our screen. The Tamagotchi interrupted class and attention, just like we're interrupted now by phones."
Some relationships start as amorphous blobs. Then later they grow legs, or turn into monsters.
A Tamagotchi grows a year for every day, bypassing the complexities of development. It never gets acne, its voice will never break and it will never gets its period. It communicates only the simplest of needs—"LET'S PLAY!," "I'M HUNGRY"—and when these are satisfied it begins to love you.
Throughout my history of talking to men on the internet, they have mostly asked for the same thing. They want me to listen, to see the two WhatsApp blue ticks or the "Seen" alert on Facebook. They want to be asked about things, and consoled, and agreed with. And then at some point they want to talk about sex.
It's about the chase: The dopamine hits from text alerts take the place of real affection. If you conduct a relationship over WhatsApp, you are going through the motions from the start.
Apparently over time the Tamagotchi gets to know you. Mine, after four days, shows no signs of doing so. But it's not like I've given it anything to work with—how much personality can be conveyed with those three little buttons? It seems content, still, bouncing off the walls of its digital room.
But it cries polyphonic sadness when neglected. I later discover there's a meter for happiness and hunger, and that both are very low. It's a sobering moment, like an intervention from a loved one. Without affection the Tamagotchi will not grow, and will eventually die. It is the digital version of that nightmare boyfriend who tells you he'll kill himself if you leave.
I try to be better; with every shrill beep I dig for it in my bag. It draws comments and cries of disbelief and familiarity from friends.
I resist the urge to let my Tamagotchi go bad. I contemplate giving it a terrible, pretentious name, like Aloysius, or Elvira. It is tempting to let the screen crowd with turds in vengeance, to leave it to a slow and putrid death. But I check up on it in bathrooms and under tables, engaging in boring Tamagotchi games while leaving texts and WhatsApp messages unread. It becomes my main responsibility, over communicating with people. I'm terrified of squinting into that dim screen one morning and seeing the Tamagotchi Angel of Death.
The problem with getting very close to someone through messaging is that you're required to remain on the same wavelength. This is patently impossible, a mutual illusion entered into for fun. You might not be in the same time zone. You might not be in the same mood. Sometimes you have to just pretend and go along with conversations, letting the other person speak. Other times all you want is to vent and all they want is to ask what you're wearing.
As with anything requiring consistency, I rapidly begin to resent my Tamagotchi. It gets out more than I do for walks. It eats a more balanced diet. I envy the ease with which it falls asleep at eight o'clock, and I loathe its loud beeping when it wakes up twelve hours later.
My life is now populated with ringing and buzzing and plaintive automated yelps. The Tamagotchi goes off in the library again, and people give me pained looks.
This little automated fucker. This electronic brat.
I thought having a Tamagotchi might help me make peace with those lost hours of online flirting. But instead it has deceived me with cuteness into being a full-time digital carer, just as its designers intended.
I had become a digital pet, for a while, before he got tired of the maintenance
Though digital pets were later designed with a male audience in mind (the Devilgotchi and the Tamahonam Gangster Pet), the Tamagotchi was historically gendered as a girls' toy. Wikipedia cites an article in Next Generation magazine from 1997: "Tamagotchi were originally designed for teenage girls, to give them an idea of what it would be like to take care of children."
Those teenage girls will now be closer to middle age, very likely maintaining online profiles and communication as a form of hyperemployment which goes beyond office hours, a permanent "third shift" which began long ago with that Tamagotchi. They remain tethered to tiny screens.
Gradually, I let the messages take over my life, until I was writing them by the minute, staying up so that I could chat to someone in a different timezone. I passed through life zombified, drunk on alerts, ignoring real life conversation.
I was as isolated as a Tamagotchi in its little digital shell.
A pet is "kept": its owner dictates the world it lives in, instead of its natural habitat. The internet makes it all too easy to morph into the impossible Cool Girl who can be all things to all men: waiting for alerts night after night, I kept one foot in life and the other in virtual space.
"To call a member of your own species 'a pet' is profoundly insulting," writes philosopher Gary Verner in a paper entitled "Pets, Companion Animals, and Domesticated Partners," addressing the dehumanisation which comes with trying to make somebody live on your own terms. After bending my life around someone for months only to be blanked in public I feel disposable, like someone let my batteries run out or my room fill up with digital turds. I had become a digital pet, for a while, before he got tired of the maintenance.
It disturbs me that when one Tamagotchi dies, another takes its place on the same device's screen. Now old messages from old relationships sit in my inbox alongside ones from a new person I'm seeing—who I have pointedly asked to see offline as much as possible.
No more feeding the Tamagotchi people, and no more being one in turn. When you spend so many months becoming a ghost in someone's machine, you make yourself vulnerable to being suddenly switched off.