Acknowledgments & References







Tamagotchi and Aspectual Shape

For any thing (object or event) we encounter in the world, we bring to bear a certain conceptual context, built up from our previous interaction with that thing or similar things. This context is called "aspectual shape", and it provides a fundamental building block for many modern theories of Mind, Language Acquisition, and Cognitive Development. George Lakoff, a prominent Cognitive Linguist at Berkeley has founded his career on the idea that through embodied experience of the physical world and metaphorical extensions we can account for much of human conceptual structure. He has gone about the task of making our metaphorical extensions explicit in fields ranging from politics to mathematics, often revealing the curious bases for beliefs and convictions we held to be self-evident.

Informal application of similar methods will, I think, prove illuminating in the further discussion of Tamagotchi:

"It is not a game. You're looking after a space creature whose lifespan depends on how you care for it." Tomio Motofu, spokesperson for Bandai Co., Japan

"It is more than a toy, it is a learning device. It teaches people to be responsible." Mary Woodworth, spokesperson for Bandai Co., U.S. Division

Here we have two very obvious examples of metaphorical extensions. The first proposes that TAMAGOTCHI IS A LIVING CREATURE and the second that TAMAGOTCHI IS A LEARNING DEVICE. Both claims negate a competing metaphorical extension: TAMAGOTCHI IS A GAME (OR TOY).

If TAMAGOTCHI IS A GAME (OR TOY) then certain entailments follow from this. The owner of a Tamagotchi is playing a game, and time spent interacting with a Tamagotchi is (in our culture) time spent on entertaining oneself. Successfully playing the game for a longer period of time implies only that the player is skillful, and the failure to play the game for very long means only that the player is unskilled at the game.

If, on the other hand, TAMAGOTCHI IS A LEARNING DEVICE, then the owner/user of the Tamagotchi is a student. Time spent playing the game is probably considered beneficial, or self-improving (especially since the intended lesson is responsibility). Success at the objectives of the Tamagotchi indicates that the user is a responsible person, just doing poorly indicates irresponsibility.

And if we accept that TAMAGOTCHI IS A LIVING CREATURE then the owner is in some sense an altruist. Time spent playing the game is selflessly devoted to the care and maintenance of an "other" that would perish without direct intervention. Success with the device means that the Creature continues to live, failure means that the creature has died, and either way the responsibility is directly attributable to the actions of the owner.

The moral and social implications of each of these scenarios are quite different. Imagine being introduced to people at a social gathering:

"This is Bill, he's proven himself very bad at playing video games."

"This is Jane, she has demonstrated problems with learning to be responsible."

"This is Doug, the guy who let his pet die after a few days of purchasing it."

Reciprocally, implications of success with the device are quite different depending on the context:

"This is Amy, she's very good at playing video games."

"This is Jim, he's a very responsible guy."

"This is Kate, a compassionate pet owner."

In recent months, stories abound in the Japanese press about seemingly bizarre Tamagotchi-related events. By applying the various metaphorical models outlined above in a descriptive fashion we can begin to understand (if not condone) the behaviour of Tamagotchi-owners.

A large number of adults have found the challenge of maintaining a Tamagotchi while holding down a steady job somewhat taxing. Anecdotal reports are everywhere of businessmen postponing or prematurely adjourning important meetings in order to care for their "virtual pets". Office workers sneak off to the bathroom in order to use the device without being noticed. If Tamagotchi is a video game, these people are acting selfishly and irresponsibly. Video games are a form of personal entertainment, and most employers are generally not very tolerant of such habits. An easy way to conceptualize this is if a boss walked in on his employees playing Pac-Man rather than working. We expect the undependable worker should be castigated, in hopes of improve their commitment to the job.

If, alternatively, the device is a living creature for which the employee is personally responsible, then we could see some form of lenience being extended - after all, few people generally enjoy being responsible for the death of a living thing, especially an animal that has particular emotional import to some other person.

Another often noted incident involved a woman driving a car in traffic, who is momentarily distracted by the beeping of her needy Tamagotchi, resulting in an accident. If the Tamagotchi is a living creature, then while her actions may have been clumsy, at least her motivations were good. If the Tamagotchi is a game, then again we feel that the user the user is both irresponsible and self-indulgent, with priorities so skewed as to threaten her own life and the lives for the sake of doing well at a computer game.

Lastly, there's the case of the woman aboard a jet who, shortly before take-off was requested to turn off her Tamagotchi device. As a side note, it should be mentioned that without a screwdriver it is very difficult to turn off a Tamagotchi. This, I suspect, was her primary motivation in refusing to follow the flight attendant's request, and ultimately exit the plane before take-off and refuse to fly with that airline again.

Most likely, the employees of the airline approached the Tamagotchi device with a very different conceptual context. From their perspective, it was (at least primarily) a small electronic object that threatened to interfere with their ability to safely fly an airplane. Furthermore, there was no significant moral value to keeping it turned on (as is true of most games and toys). From the passenger's perspective, the Tamagotchi represents a living creature with intrinsic value, toward which she had invested some significant amount of attention.

So for her, the implications of "shutting-off" her creature were akin to killing a real animal. If the airline employees came to the situation with the same conceptual context, they might have simply stated that such devices are not permitted on board the plane or perhaps the airline could provide some sort of shielded container in which the animal could be safely stored during take-off. If it was, for instance, a mouse or a cricket the passenger had brought on board, whatever the airline regulations were, they wouldn't have recommend that the lady kill her pet.

Something common to all these scenarios is the strange implications of the TAMAGOTCHI IS A LEARNING DEVICE metaphor. If the Tamagotchi is intended to teach responsibility by forcing the owner to make certain sacrifices as if they owned a real pet, then we might say that these people are indeed learning to be responsible in some sense. From a more pragmatic and absolute stand-point, this lesson of responsibility is a pyrrhic victory at best - a passenger is missing her flight, a driver is failing to attend her own safety and the safety of those around her, and employees aren't focusing on the jobs for which they've been hired, all in the name of teaching responsibility.

Even if the device is aimed specifically at teaching children responsibility (as the driver of the Brinks truck which delivered the first shipment of Tamagotchi to the San Francisco FAO Schwartz suggested) we have to wonder what these children are doing with the devices during the day. In Japan, where a higher proportion of mothers choose not to take jobs outside the home, Tamagotchi-sitting is somewhat easily managed. By comparison, many more Tamagotchi-owning children in America have both parents working outside the home, so they are forced to neglect the animal, or take it to school with them and neglect their classes. This situation hardly provides an ideal model for responsible behavior.

So we've seen good examples of instances where Tamagotchi-owners have employed the TAMAGOTCHI IS A LIVING CREATURE metaphor to their interaction with the device. Further examples can be found on Tamagotchi web-sites offering communal spaces where users can chat with each other. In these social areas, owners share anecdotes about the lives of their creatures, and tips on how to best care for and maintain them. Perhaps most interesting are the graveyards. Particularly indicative of the belief, on some level, that Tamagotchi is a living creature, is the fact that owners describe the device as "dead" at all.

Despite the ability of a user to "reset" the device and begin playing again with a functionally identical "virtual pet", many seem very attached to particular incarnations (perhaps in the same way that children often reject a new animal purchased as a replacement for a recently deceased pet.) As Tsuyoshi, a Japanese Tamagotchi owner recently wrote in an on-line forum:

"Those who say we feel no pain at resetting the game have not raised a Tamagotchi on their own."

Tsuyoshi clearly acknowledges both the game and creature metaphors, but like the Bandai spokespersons, suggests one is more accurate than the other; anyone that "raises" a Tamagotchi will acknowledge that empathy and pain are involved in the "death" of a "companion".

In on-line Tamagotchi discussions adults and children, Japanese and North Americans alike have expressed their grief and sorrow at the passing of their virtual pets. Whether we consider such feelings are natural, beneficial, or pathological, they exist.

Observations of my own Virtual Chicken

As part of my studies into the world of Tamagotchi, I acquired an American-release of the toy began "raising it" a little over a week ago. In specific, I wanted to detect the differences between this and other video games that lead people to classify it as a living creature.

As a general impression, I was reminded of Professor Ken Goldberg's Tele-garden, a web-based project where users can plant and water seeds in a small garden through the use of a remote robotic system. In a presentation on the project, Professor Goldberg mentioned a shift from the Paleolithic Hunter/Gatherer state of the World Wide Web (brief forays into the world of technology for the purpose of apprehending some piece of information) and the Neolithic Husbandry model supported by the project (where users must devote sustained interest and effort to foster growth).

The Tamagotchi is indicative of a similar shift in video game modeling. The majority of video games (especially popular video games) hinge on a model of conquest and succession - temporally limited tasks with set goals attainable through skill and reflexes. Key examples range from Pac Man and Galaxians to Super Mario Brothers and Mortal Kombat. Player/users identify with the "main character" of a simple narrative - "destroy or be destroyed". Having completed a set amount of destruction, the player/user rests for a moment before taking on a progressively difficult level.

Notable exceptions exist. The most popular of these is the Maxis line of Sim- products, including SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimEarth, SimAnt, and others. Here we see the stirrings of the "Neolithic shift". The user is responsible for the growth and maintenance of a town (or world, or ant colony, or whatever) and the ultimate goal is to simply "flourish".

The Tamagotchi differs from the Sim- model not in spirit, but in execution. Pets, (like house plants), are under our direct supervision, and so they take on more personal importance than entire cities or worlds. Consequently, we tend to feel more directly responsible for the welfare of a virtual animal that we "care for", than for the welfare of a community we virtually govern.

A small virtual-pet industry has developed in the past few years offering many desktop mounted alternative pets that lack the appeal of the Tamagotchi (as measured by market impact). Perhaps the failure can be linked to the limits of a keyboard/monitor interface. With a desktop pet, there is no portability or tactility. While the Tamagotchi is hardly "pet like" in appearance (encased in a small ovoid plastic case), there is still a physical area that the "pet" can be said to occupy. The portability of the unit allows for another important feature: continuity. Unlike desktop counterparts, the Tamagotchi can never be paused or turned off for periods of time. The user is expected to remain in more-or-less constant contact with the device, or arrange for surrogate care, and in this sense, it retains one of the most important aspects of real pet care. Simulations cease to be as convincing if we can just walk away whenever we feel like it.

Perhaps the most striking way in which Tamagotchi seems real involves human folk methods of attributing consciousness, and a Japanese children's game.

While using the Tamagotchi, it is frequently necessary to "play a game" with the simulated pet in order to "keep up it's spirits", and maintain it's "health" (by keeping it's "weight" low). This game within a game is a simplified version of a Japanese schoolyard game known as Achi Muite Hoi, not unlike "Peek-a-boo" or "Paper Rock Scissors". In the Tamagotchi version, the owner/user selects one of two buttons to indicate which direction he or she anticipates the virtual pet will turn to face. By rebuking the player to attribute mental properties (even as simple as the intention to turn left or right) this game provides an insidious context for humans to treat the device as a real animal.

Morality of the Tamagotchi-Human Cyborg

"If you keep your Tamagotchi full and happy, it will grow into a cute, happy cyber creature. If you neglect Tamagotchi, it will grow into an unattractive alien" - Bandai instruction booklet

Following Donna Haraway's classification of "dynamic, self regulating homeostatic systems" involving organic and technological interaction, as cybernetic we can speak (again, using metaphorical extensions) of the Tamagotchi-Human Cyborg. Such a term makes explicit our shift of focus: we are no longer concerning ourselves with the ontological status of the Tamagotchi as an entity.

Instead we concern ourselves with the ethical lessons implicit in the cybernetic system. A necessary assumption we must make is that those actions which lead to success of the Cyborg are good, and those that lead to failure are bad.

Success and failure are measured in part by the life-span of the cybernetic relationship - the amount of days the Tamagotchi keeps the human interested and the human keeps the Tamagotchi "alive". The instruction booklet provided by Bandai suggests that 0 - 10 days is below average, and more than 17 days is exceptional. This accords roughly with the average lifespan reported in online forums. The current record is 26 days.

The other broad scale of success is the ultimate form of the Tamagotchi - Bandai has also provided users with web-access a chart of the evolutionary significance of the different Tamagotchi forms. Users are given a value-laden rubric against which to compare the results of their efforts, which correlates directly with the animal's lifespan. An early investment of time and effort toward caring for the Tamagotchi leads to less involvement in the long-run as the virtual pet evolves.

This seems to support some convoluted form of the traditional Horatio Algiers Myth - we all start out the same (or at least our pets do) and through our diligence or lack of resolve we succeed or fail at our goals in life. For the Tamagotchi, the emphasis is on early intervention. Consistent care in the first 6 or 7 days of life will produce the "ideal" adult form, described as possessing good health, leading a long life, and offering no complaints. What this means for Tamagotchi owners is minimal interaction, which we might question as an ideal model for ideal interaction.

This "investment" model is echoed in the daily maintenance of the virtual animal's health and happiness. A happiness indicator gauges the animal's mood, and when it decreases (a regular event) the recommended course of action is to play with the animal, or feed it a snack. Due to peculiarities of the interface, and the nature of the two actions, feeding the Tamagotchi a snack takes about 3 seconds, whereas playing a full round of the game requires about one minute. As a side effect, feeding the animal a snack causes it two gain two ounces (grams in the Japanese version) and playing the game causes it to lose one ounce, possibly as a result of the exercise. Weight must be maintained at a fairly reasonable level, or else the Tamagotchi will become ill (a condition requiring yet more time to resolve, and potentially detrimental effects to its lifespan.)

So in order to maintain a healthy and happy Tamagotchi, a user that feeds the Tamagotchi a snack as a "short cut" to happiness will inevitably need to invest even more time in the long run eliminating the excess weight. If, by contrast, the owner makes the early investment of one minute to play the game, time is saved, in the long run.

Then again, the moral lessons inherent to the system may not have as great an influence as we might expect. Despite the claims that the Tamagotchi's development is determined by the quality of interaction, some users seem convinced that the fate of their pet is at least partially determined by chance. Kwon Myong Mi, a dedicated Tamagotchi owner told Reuters that "some chickens are born to be good, and some are born to be bad."