If aliens ever visit the earth, they will no doubt puzzle over many of the things that we do. One of the things that they might struggle to understand is the Tamagotchi, a virtual digital pet that was popular with the pre-teen set in the 1990s. This tech toy was incredibly popular, and was the cause of many tears, and much confusion from adults as to why children cared about the death of an animated character.
The name Tamagotchi comes from an combination of the Japanese word たまご (Tamago, or egg) and ウオッチ , (Uocchi, or watch). So, a literal translation would be Egg Watch. Fortunately, the manufacturer Bandai decided to stick with a romanization of the Japanese name: Tamagotchi.
This odd toy was created by Bandai employee Aki Maita, with assistance from Akhirio Yoki of the WIZ toy company. According to interviews, Maita came up with the idea after seeing a TV commercial where a Japanese child took his pet turtle to school. Because many Japanese children are not able to have pets, she came up with the idea of a virtual pet which the child could care for and watch grow. After researching the target market of young girls, she came up with the idea of making it a small, egg-shaped device that was easily pocketable, but which required attention to grow and thrive.
The first Tamogotchi was launched in 1996, and was an instant hit in Japan. Bandai had been unsure of the appeal, so they had only made a few thousand, which sold out immediately. The company quickly made more, and ended up selling millions in the first year. It proved to be an equally huge hit in the USA, with FAO Schwartz selling 10,000 in 24 hours, and making deliveries to stores in armored trucks.
“I was teaching modern Japanese society in Honolulu at UH when the fad was at its peak” recalls Merry White, professor of Anthropology at Boston University, who studies Japanese culture. “Municipal swimming pools there had to hire tamagotchi-minders so that a kid’s pet wouldn’t die while they were swimming.”
This was because of a fundamental flaw (or deliberate design decision, depending on how you look at it) in the first generation of Tamagotchis: there was no way to pause or suspend the life cycle. Once your creature was born, you had to keep looking after the creature, constantly feeding, cleaning and tending it without pause.
The Life Cycle of the Tamagotchi
When you first turn on a Tamagotchi, you are confronted with an egg on the screen. After a few minutes, this hatches, and the baby pet emerges. In the original version, this infant creature is called Babytchi.
You care for this mewling infant by using the three buttons on the front of the device for functions like feeding, turning the light on or off, cleaning up when it poops, or disciplining it.
If you don’t feed the creature enough, it can fail to grow or even starve. If you don’t clear up the poo, it becomes ill, and you must give it medicine.
You make the character happy by playing simple mini games, not feeding it too much and disciplining it when it is naughty. Eventually, the creature grows to the next level, called Marutchi in the first version. From here, the creature can become female (Tamatchi) or male (Kuchtamatachi0), and progresses up the evolutionary ladder, changing as it grows into different creatures on a long evolutionary path.
To grow, it requires constant attention. If you fail to feed it, give it too many snacks or don’t play the games enough, the creature gets sickly, and eventually dies. In the original Japanese version, a gravestone marked the passing of the pet. In the US version, this was softened somewhat to an animation of the pet with wings, flying off the screen. Bandai explained in the instructions that the pet had “returned to its home planet”.
Even with this carefully worded explanation, children were upset by the loss of their pets. The New York Times quoted parents at the time saying that their children “cried hysterically and went crazy”, or became extremely sad and depressed”.
This attachment was later referred to as the Tamagotchi Effect, where people become emotionally attached to robots or software programs. After the success of the Tamagotchi, this became a standard part of the designer’s lexicon: make people care about you product on an emotional level, not a logical one.
Later versions of the Tamagotchi added the ability to pause the device, so you could suspend the device and get on with your life. They also added more features such as the ability for your pet to have children, get married, communicate with other Tamagotchi and connect to a PC. Other versions added the ability to send your pet to school, or choose a job. There is a comprehensive list of the many versions that were released over the years at the Tamenagerie. But as the features got more sophisticated, the basic idea remained the same: you tended and guided the creature through its life.
There is some debate on the longest that anyone has managed to keep a Tamagotchi alive. A collector called Kyliesmum claims to have kept one alive for 5 months (or 145 Tama years) before it succumbed to a lack of tending after she forgot to set her alarm when traveling. Others claim to have kept them living for longer, but this is hard to verify, as the device itself only keeps track for 99 Tama years.
The technical aspects of the Tamagotchi have also attracted some interest. A hacker called Natalie Silvanovich has dug into the device, finding a hidden debug mode and disassembling the code that runs it to glimpse into the hidden soul of the Tamagotchi. She also sells debugging boards that allow you to program some versions of the device.
So what is the attraction of the Tamagotchi? “Some said they were popular among young girls because they gave them something to take care of — the maternal ‘instinct’ demanding its object” says Professor White, who wrote one of the most respected books on Japanese adolescents, The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America. “Now that older young women have such creatures too it seems social commentators want to say that it is in place of the babies they aren’t having. Japan is suffering a huge birth deficit, lowest birth rate I think in the world, save Italy perhaps. 1.2 births per woman of reproductive age. So… conservative commentators blame the ‘selfishness of women’ who want other lives than motherhood — considering the huge responsibility motherhood entails…”
If you didn’t experience the joy of Tamagtochi the first time around, don’t despair: you can now get a free Tamagotchi app on your cell phone, and Bandai is planning a comeback, hoping that this digital pet will be the must-have toy of the 2014 holiday season. The new Tamagotchi Friends is already available in the UK, and will have a wider range of characters than the original, complete with videos that show their life in dream town.
So why is the Tamagotchi a gadget we miss? Because it broke new ground, showing how people could make an emotional attachment to technology. Before people spoke of loving their iPhones or started yelling at their laptops, the Tamagotchi showed that you could really care about technology, and that it was okay to do so. So, for that, the Tamagotchi is a gadget we miss.
Top image from Wikipedia Commons