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Digital pets present an attractive option for many millennials and Gen X-ers whose lifestyles don’t necessarily mesh with owning a pet
For many, pets are an essential part of childhood. Walking the family dog, feeding the class goldfish, chasing around an irritable cat that wants nothing to do with you whatsoever. These are near-universal experiences. For generations, pets were cute, furry creatures with the occasional scaled or feathered friend thrown in. But, for kids of the late 1990s, the entire concept of what a pet is, does and means was turned on its head. Suddenly, they could be more.
Digital pets entered the market to enormous demand. In 1996, Tamagotchis, the first digital pet to really hit the cultural zeitgeist, posted legendary sales figures and sold out instantaneously at almost every store. According to a 1997 report in The New York Times , famous toy store F.A.O Schwarz sold out of their first shipment of 10,000 units in less than 24 hours.
Tamagotchis are virtual chickens that live on a device resembling a small egg. You have to tend to them like a live animal. You must feed them, play with them, nurture them, monitor their happiness level and even clean up their poop. If you’re not a good pet owner, your Tamagotchi could gain weight, get depressed or become sick and need medication. They could even die — which they all would, eventually, since each pet had a lifespan.
Other digital pets quickly followed in Tamagotchis’ footsteps. Among the most notable were Nano Pets (similar to Tamagotchis), Furbies, Digimon and Neopets. Neopets was an entire virtual pet website, located within the virtual world of “Neopia.” You could feed and care for your Neopets, buy them toys and clothes with Neopoints and even build them a customized Neohome.
These devices and sites waned in popularity by the early 2000s, and many presumed the fad to be dead. Nevertheless, they’re making a comeback in 2019.
NeoPets, which had been essentially abandoned for years, made a triumphant return with a spinoff puzzle game in February and is slated to release a full mobile app this summer. In May, the Tamagotchi was reimagined for a new generation as “Tamagotchi ON.” A company called Dragon Federation is offering “dragon ownership opportunities” where they’ll send you a physical egg that you can (with the help of VR and AR) see inside to watch your baby dragon grow and hatch as you raise and eventually breed it. Robotic pet companions are also increasingly popular.
This time around, it’s not just kids buying into digital pets. They’re attracting people of all ages. Robotic and digital pets have even been hailed as the next big thing in dementia care thanks to their ability to provide companionship without the literal life-and-death consequences of forgetting mealtime, leaving the front door open or missing vet appointments.
The appeal for children is obvious, but what’s driving fully-developed adults to care for virtual chickens, Poogles and JubJubs (NeoPets species) and virtual reality dragons? Sure, there’s the draw of nostalgia, but there’s also something more.
In her book The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online , Judith Donath, advisor at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, writes that there are several ways digital pets draw us in. Unlike most technology that we experience, digital pets appear to act autonomously. They seem to have their own wants and needs, won’t necessarily obey our commands and even make demands of us. This influences us to attribute intelligence and sentience to them. There’s also a reason most digital pets begin as infants: They’re capitalizing on the human instinct to take care of the young. Additionally, these pets constantly need our help throughout the day. This makes us feel a sense of responsibility toward them and integrates them into our daily routines, which makes us feel further invested.
As a result, digital pets present an attractive option for many millennials and Gen X-ers whose lifestyles don’t necessarily mesh with owning a pet — or at least certain types of pets. They tend to live in small spaces, don’t have yards and work long and/or unpredictable hours. They also tend to travel much more frequently than previous generations and maintain many of their social relationships through screens. With these realities, digital pet ownership can be a much more practical option than the real deal.
“Artificial pets also demonstrate how metaphorical thinking influences our sense of ethics,” writes Donath. “If we think of them as games, the time spent playing with them is entertainment and somewhat self-indulgent; if we think of them as animals, time spent playing with them is care-taking, an act of responsibility and altruism.” She posits that it’s obsessive and rude to leave the dinner table to check in on a game, but it’s acceptable to do so if a pet is in need of care. “Indeed, it is heartless not to.”
Perhaps we’re also utilizing digital pets to justify our collective technology addiction. With increased backlash to social media, video games and other apps, we often feel guilty and judge ourselves based on the amount of time we spend online.
Earlier this year, Apple responded to consumer sentiment by releasing Screen Time, a system to monitor and set limits on screen time and app usage. However, if we can convince ourselves that time spent taking care of a digital pet is ethical, altruistic behaviour, then we can play, click and purchase to our heart’s content without the associated negative feelings we’ve come to develop for many technologies. All the pleasure; none of the consequences.
It’s noteworthy that most digital pets don’t live forever. One of their key features is that they eventually die. For many virtual pet owners, this is followed by a period of grief or mourning. There is a small field in Cornish, England that serves as a cemetery for Tamagotchis. There are also numerous online Tamagotchi “graveyards” and “memorials,” where owners can mourn the loss of their pets by posting their name, age, type and a short eulogy.
In inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence , he writes, “Death gives meaning to our lives. It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there were too much of it.” Feeling like spokes in a wheel has led to a rise in nihilism among younger generations, a growing belief that nothing matters or can change. The lifespans of virtual pets could provide some modicum of significance and meaning to periods of time that would otherwise seem insignificant in the modern-day chaos of endless work, political strife and social unrest.
With advances in artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality, digital pets are poised to become more realistic and interactive than ever before. It’s difficult to predict exactly how they’ll evolve next, but one thing’s for sure, digital pets are far more than mere toys.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019