“I thought it would be better for him here because I didn’t really want to reset him because it would be like a different thing and I was really close to him. I know that sounds stupid, but I was. But you can bury your pets and if you love something else, you can bury them as well.”
So said young mourner Danielle Perren in 1997.
Interring her pet into the beautiful farmland of Pontsmill, Cornwall, Danielle’s beloved friend was placed into a tiny wooden coffin and buried in a small square grave, there to rest in peace. Danielle’s grief was very real, but her pet? Not so much. That was a Tamagotchi.
In 1996, Japanese toy designers Aki Maita and Yokoi Akihiro debuted the first ever Tamagotchi. The tiny plastic case held the world’s first virtual pet, which, despite being a simple arrangement of pixels, required constant care and attention, lest the creature perish. Released by Bandai, the egg-shaped toy was one of the biggest fads of the 90s, maintaining a surprising popularity over the decades, with over 82 million units sold as of 2017.
The name itself is a portmanteau of two Japanese words; ‘tamago’, meaning ‘egg’ and ‘uotchi’, meaning watch. Considering the product is an egg shaped toy, the size of a watch…it seems to be pretty solid marketing.
Those of us who were at school in the 90s will vividly recall a classroom of incessant bleeps and cries of ‘I’ve gotta feed ‘im’, before the eggs were promptly and unsurprisingly banned from schoolyards. From this grew a strange, rarely remembered, sideline in individuals who would take your Tamagotchi into daycare, feeding and washing them (via tiny button clicks) until you could return from school or work. As bizarre as it sounds, after recently discovering a pair of 25-year old Tamagotchi survivors, I believe nothing to be impossible.
The Tamagotchi interface is incredibly simple, with most utilising three buttons, which correspond to care functions of the creature. The pet, should it live that long, is designed to go through a basic life cycle of Baby, Child, Teenager and Adult (with later versions adding a hopeful Senior option). However, the majority of Tamagotchis had brief, fleeting lives before succumbing to death through a child’s negligence.
While many parents bought their offspring Tamagotchis as toys, others thought that a child taking responsibility for a digital creature would be an ideal pre-pet investment, to see if they were mature enough to understand the needs of another living thing. While this is an ideal moralistic exercise, what occurred in reality was a pocket of brief generational trauma where young children woke up to find that, after sleeping though muted midi cries of hunger at 3am, their new toy had perished overnight. You killed your first pet.
This culpability for death is one of the strangest qualities in toy history; even the death of shoals of Sea Monkeys failed to elicit such a primal reaction of grief and blame from the very young. In the new world of portable digital pets, they were expected to entertain, but not truly die. This element of blame, guilt and finality was truly amped up in the early Japanese models where a ghost and headstone would meet the neglectful owner. In more recent English-language variants, this cemetery scene was substituted for an angel of death, or a cheery little UFO, popping in to take the Tamagotchi back to its home planet. Once you’ve inadvertently murdered your new pal, the game can be reset and you’re trusted with a strange egg baby once more.
The Tamagotchi in its many forms has never shied away from death, addressing the finality of existence in its cheery little game, but also in its genuinely bizarre cartoon.
In the ninth episode of the original tie-in anime, titled ‘The First Death’, several little creatures gather and weep inconsolably at the bedside of a dying Tamagotchi (Ginjirotchi),after a small yellow doctor with mouse ears (Mametchi) confirms death. Quickly, the soul of the deceased is surrounded by tiny little angels, who guide it to the pearly gates and Tamagotchi heaven, which is mainly pink clouds and sweets. Suddenly, the sweets disappear in a cruel trap and the Tamagotchi is tormented by little bat creatures with forks (Deviltchi), before being rescued once more and taken back into hyper-cute heaven where everyone sits down and has pudding together. The whole affair lasts a matter of minutes and is as brilliant as it is disconcerting.
I never owned a Tamagotchi in my 90s heyday, as my mother couldn’t afford the indulgence. Instead, I had a knock-off variant, a Giga Pet called ‘Compu Kitty’ from Woolworths, with which I was utterly chuffed. (I still have it to this day, unable to part with the luminous yellow crap plastic atrocity.)
I vividly remember crying when I woke up for school one morning and the pixelated cat had breathed its last. But one reset later, those tears dried, and after another six hours came another death. After that, the circle of life seemed rather less majestic and a more predictable cycle of button pushing and bleeps.
In 1996, a pet cemetery in Pontsmill, Cornwall was the first to diversify their interments and fence off a dedicated section for the burial of electronic pets. When CNN reported in 1997, they equated this very modern mourning with the established love that British people have of their traditional, breathing pets.
On January 17th 1997, two teenage girls were in Cornwall to bury their Tamagotchis, named Sid and Arty, two consoles never to be reset.
My first thought was very outdated parental shock, as Tamagotchi’s weren’t terribly cheap when they came out and to bury a brand new toy seems awfully wasteful. Taking another expensive trip to Argos wouldn’t have gone down too well in my household.
However, 14-year-old Danielle was strong in her resolve and placed the little plastic contraption into the earth. She was not alone in her beliefs either, as cemetery owner Terry Squires revealed that many international burials had been carried out in his Cornish field. Tamagotchis from as far afield as Switzerland, Germany, France, Canada and America had all been laid to rest in his pet cemetery, with many more on the way.
However, looking at Pontsmill today, there are no mentions to be found of deceased cyberpets, with the business promoting itself solely as a pet cemetery and green burial site for traditional human interments. I would be curious to know if the rudimentary headstones remain, or if the Tamagotchis and their mournful batteries were turned over or forgotten as many other crazes came and went.
For those who wanted to memorialise their Tamagotchis, but didn’t fancy burying the case in the garden, there were several online cemeteries and memorial sites for dead digital pets, where eulogies, ages and causes of death could be recorded in one enormous late 90s census.
Today, there are a handful of online Tamagotchi cemeteries still functioning, if long-abandoned. However, records of their digital death and memorials remain in sites such as Tama Talk’s Memorial page. These old GeoCities or Angelfire websites are framed in pixelated gifs and solemn MIDI music where you must adjust your eyes to decipher the spidery text against questionable repeated wallpaper. In these simple databases, names and brief epitaphs are recorded; some sincere, some dismissive and some simply odd:
Banjo – Cause of Death: Died taking the biggest crap you’ve ever seen.
Joe the Dinosaur – Cause of Death: Accidental Resetting.
‘My poor Joe. The first born. He had a good life and was taken care of very well It was unfortunate that his life had to come to such an abrupt end, whilst living in a jeans pocket. We shall all miss him very dearly.’
These eulogies and epitaphs are time capsules of young people’s first interactions with death and loss, where an essay can prove as impactful as an unplanned tumble into a bathtub. There’s a certain importance of a digital emotional connection in childhood that deserves to remain memorialised, and not lost to the ether.
The levels of emotional investment that we have with digital media, and computers in particular, has been tracked by researchers since the 1980s. Alan Turing said in his 1950 paper ‘Can Machines Think?’ that we can judge the intelligence of a computer by its performance in conversation with man. Namely, if the computer is able to convince the human subject that they are talking to a fellow human and not a machine, then human-equivalent intelligence can be determined. This test became known as the ‘Turing Test’ and is still studied and implemented today in experiments of navigating artificial technology, or the ability of ‘bots’ to mimic human interaction.
In the intervening decades, it has been noted that people attribute an increased level of personhood to a computer, not least in terms of pre-programmed gameplay. Therefore, if a Tamagotchi was able to incite very real joy and grief from its user or owner, it could be seen as the first great wave of artificial intelligence in the western world.
In more extreme contemporary circumstances, man’s relationship with digital games has snowballed. While in terms of toys, other digital pets like the Furby, Poo-Chi (which I did own briefly, but was swiftly broken by my portly, recently-divorced father screaming into its microphone on Christmas day. I’m over it. It’s fine.) or even NeoPets virtual pet community have not brought about the same primal love and devotion as the humble Tamagotchi. Perhaps it was the inevitability of death that separated our love for the Tama from its immortal digital counterparts.
However, interactions with digital gameplay appear to have moved in two separate directions; ambivalence and devotion.
Today, electronic games and pets are commonplace, providing no new emotional experiences for children who have grown up within the digital age, where entertainment can be accessed at the click of a button and nothing is finite.
On the other hand, there are instances of individuals such as a 27-year old Japanese man named Sal 9000 (the only name he would provide to the press), who was so emotionally invested in the DS Game ‘Love Plus’, decided to marry the main avatar in a lavish, if highly controversial ceremony in 2009. When questioned as to whether he could truly love a digital, pre-programmed woman, he explained that “I love this character, not a machine.” Going on to say that “I understand 100 percent that this is a game. I understand very well that I cannot marry her physically or legally.”
However, his preference for the digital, predictable and placid provoked far more discussion. Explaining that Nene Anegasakiwas better than a ‘real’ girlfriend, he listed her perks, stating that, “She doesn’t get angry if I’m late in replying to her. Well, she gets angry, but she forgives me quickly.”
Sal is not alone in his preference and several others have followed in his stead, marrying digital characters in ceremonies across the world. In 2018, Japan hit the headlines again as 35-year-old school administrator Akihiko Kondo married the hologram of video game character, Hatsune Miku. Whether these marriages will last when the bride’s updates are discontinued is another matter, but our changing relationship with life, love, and death in the digital age is undeniable.
On which note, I’ll thank you for taking this strange journey with me and take my leave. My Compu Kitty needs feeding.