They didn't do anything but poop, walk around, age, and die, but we treated those little pixelated pets like family.
On November 23, 1996, Aki Maita and Yokoi Akihiro created a needier world. Maita and Akihiro had developed an egg-shaped virtual pet that dies on its owner daily unless afforded generous love, care, and attention. They were a wild success, and we all loved them. Though it's been nearly 20 years since the Tamagotchi trend hit the fever pitch that had helicopter parents juggling to keep their kids' toys alive ("I wake up every morning and something is dead," stay-at-home mom Madeline Sayer Umans said at the height of the craze), those demanding digital pets are still kicking around in various incarnations.
Since their invention, 79 million Tamagotchis have made their way into the grubby palms of the middle-school set. They were Pogs plus personality, My Little Pony plus the risk of imminent death, Magic: The Gathering minus the brainwork. The Tamagotchi could hang around your neck and signify, "I am not in the upper echelon of kids that are already making out with each other, but I have also not yet met social death." Obviously, a 90s kid couldn't bring Tickle Me Elmo or buttered-popcorn-scented Gak to class. But you could stick your Tamagotchi—or in my pathetic case, Tamagotchis plural—under the table, feeding your little pet while feigning interest in fractions at the same time.
Like a needy lover, we confused our Tamagotchi's digital clinginess for devotion. But why did we fall so hard?
They were attached to us—literally
The Tamagotchi had "a prosthetic of presence" that made it less of a toy than an extension of self, Duke University Anthropology professor Anne Allison told VICE. This intimate connection was precisely the dream of its co-creator Akihiro, who was touched by a television commercial in which a boy packing for vacation put his pet turtle in his suitcase. The Tamagotchi, Allison writes in Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, was "if not the first virtual pet of all time, the form in which this cyborgian fantasy was popularized and (re)produced as mass culture." Also, of course, they were on a keychain.
They made us consider the deep questions
One of the Tamagotchi's most loyal adherents is Natalie Silvanovich, a 29-year-old Information Security Engineer on Google's Android Security Team and an off-duty "Tama hacker." As a child, she and a friend would track their pets' behavior by drawing pixels on a graph. "One day I grew up and realized: I'm an adult, and I can figure this stuff out," she told VICE. Over the past few years, she's tracked down a Tama-Go—a larger version of the 90s classic—at Walmart, and one of the Tamagotchi Friends models at a Toys "R" Us. Silvanovich dumped the code, determined to answer what she jokingly calls "the deep questions": how it turns into a boy or girl, which character it becomes. She tinkered with the circuit board, directing the Tamagotchi's actions; as Joaquin discovers in Her, many outcomes could be controlled, but others were purely random.
"I'm sure even in ancient Greece, the children wished their dolls were alive. It's a human dream." —David Cheok
They had the same problems we did
Control is both the premise and the point of the game. Users like Silvanovich connect on devotee sites such as TamaTalk and Tamazone; they worry their Tamagotchis are too skinny, or too fat. Snacks are a problem. User Yukiyuna frets about Tama hygiene; hers won't wash itself. "I thought maybe it was because I was giving her baths without her asking so I waited for her to ask on her own but she never did," she writes. In all the ways that count, it's a parenting blog; panicked posts such as "MY TAMAGOTCHI WON'T MARRY" force the comparison. The Tamagotchi wasn't trying to collect a million bananas or jump through flaming hoops. They did what we did—just with higher stakes.
Zoya Street, Editor-in-Chief of game e-zine Memory Insufficient, told VICE that "Tamagotchi is part of [the idea] that a handheld plastic thing is OK for girls to play with, and that girls playing with these things doesn't threaten the masculinity of the gamer identity as it had been constructed back in the 1980s." It played into existing societal structures, rather than challenging them.
They were every child's fantasy: a toy that came alive
The Tamagotchi followed in the footsteps of disparate technologies; rag dolls, stuffed animals, the Pokemon game. Video game historian Carly Kocurek credits Star Wars with paving the way for adorable androids and living electronics. And as special as the Tamagotchi felt in that sunny 90s moment, its basic features are now everywhere. Street says that mobile games like Farmville, Puzzle & Dragons, and Neko Atsume, as well as video games like Monster Rancher and Digimon, the demonic Furby, and the Nintendogs DS series each draw inspiration from the Tamagotchi.
Adrian David Cheok, Director of the Mixed Reality Lab, calls the Tamagotchi "the right toy at the right time." "I'm sure even in ancient Greece, the children wished their dolls were alive. It's a human dream," Cheok told VICE. "But until the technology caught up that couldn't happen. This was the intersection of what children have desired for millennia, and what technology could provide." Cheok predicts that within 25 years, instead of jointed cyberdogs and screen interfaces, we'll have viable robotic friends, pets, and true lovers.
"There are the naysayers who say that if you have an electronic connection, it's an impoverished form of connection; the best is face-to-face, and anything other than that is degraded. Others ask, is Tama really a lesser connection? It's a different kind of connection," Allison explained. "Does that mean it doesn't have its own benefits and attributes?"
We knew our time together was precious
As with most passionate connections, the Tamagotchi never promised forever. One of Tamagotchi's distinguishing features is its unwillingness to shield users from life's most difficult reality. In the Tama world, your tiny alien can die from:
- Contact with octopus ink
- Polar bear attack while napping
- Failure to clean up droppings
- Severe neglect
- Being stepped on
- Barring all else, old age
Prolonged mourning is a symptom of the 'Tamagotchi effect,' an over-dedication to one's robot.
In the Japanese version, the Tamagotchi becomes a ghost, then a tombstone. In the Tamagotchi Friends 2014 America version, it simply packs its bags and leaves, which is as American as anything.
TamaTalk hosts a Tamagotchi Memorial for those unable to reset and forget their plastic egg. Some lament their errors, such as poisoning by ice cream, with a bit of comic distance. Others are shattered, as in this entry:
Akbar was a friend, a brother, he was always there for me in my darkest times he made me feel happy on the inside, Akbar made me a better person, he was a part of me just as I was a part of him, we understood each other... I can't believe he's gone, be free Akbar, fly with the birds in tama heaven...
Kocurek refers to this prolonged mourning as a symptom of the 'Tamagotchi effect,' an overdedication to one's robot. "After the Japan bubble crash of 1991, the economy has never bounced back. Unemployment is way up, a lot of people seem nervous about earthquakes and nuclear disaster, the birth and marriage rates are way down. There's a real sense of insecurity," Allison told VICE. "One woman in Japan said, 'My kid is kind of a loner, thank God he has a Tamagotchi.' She was totally sincere. She was pleased that her child had something that he connected with."
In 1998, at the height of the world craze, a pet cemetery in the English countryside dedicated a section of its real estate to our ovate brothers and sisters, who were placed in wooden coffins, lowered 6 or so inches into the ground, and memorialized with little placards reading "Zena," "Maryan," "Sid," or "Arty." Their owners left tiny flowers. The cemetery owner said he had buried Tamagotchi bodies for devotees from Switzerland, Germany, France, Canada and the United States. The same year, in Hungary, tamagotchis were packaged in clay urns.
Futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote in the prologue to his classic The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, "Death gives meaning to our lives. It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there were too much of it." It seems indisputable that by 'our' he meant himself and his Tamagotchi.
They last forever in our hearts
Even 20 years later, reactions to Tamagotchi are varied, and typically declarative; they're "cutesy," or "annoying as fuck," or "creepy," or "fun." Many Americans still carry their little buzzing electronics to the toilet. Technological dependence didn't start with the Tamagotchi; it didn't end with it.
What made their advent such a memorable moment in time? Fervent caring, combined with the illusion of control, makes a strong imprint on the young mind. In the words of The Little Prince, "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed." They were ours.
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