Acknowledgments & References







Tamagotchi as Distraction

As I am somewhat of a novice to Critical Theory, my commentary here will be sparse - I've chosen instead to provide quotations that seem to accord with the phenomenon, and offer my reasons for choosing them.

"In contemporary America, children must be trained to insatiable consumption of impulsive choice and infinite variety. These attributes, once instilled, are converted into cash by advertising directed at children. It works on the assumption that the claim that gets into the child's brain box first is most likely to stay there, and that since in contemporary America, children manage parents, the former's brain box is the antechamber to the brain box of the latter." -Jules Henry, Culture Against Man, 1963, p 70

This is perhaps the most obvious way of construing the social role of the Tamagotchi - as consumer item and status symbol. After several disappointing weekend mornings spent watching cartoons in hopes of catching a glimpse of Tamagotchi advertising aimed at children, I was convinced that the product might sneak into the American market relatively unnoticed.

Amazingly, children seemed to just know it was coming (perhaps through word of mouth on the playground, or from the few news reports during the weeks leading up to the release). However they found out it worked. A journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle reported that many of the people waiting in line outside of FAO Schwartz the morning the toy arrived were parents sent by their children that didn't even know what they were purchasing.

"In France, there is nothing - whether object, individual or social group - that is valued apart from its double, the image that advertises and sanctifies it. This image duplicates not only an object's material, perceptible existence but desire and pleasure that it makes into fictions situating them in the land of make-believe, promising 'happiness' - the happiness of being a consumer." -LeFebvre 1984, 105

While undeniably similar to other toy-crazes in many of the status-symbol and fashion aspects, one key aspect that sets the Tamagotchi cultural event apart is the relative importance placed on what LeFebvre describes as the object's double. This is to say that the purpose of purchasing a Tamagotchi is not merely to own it, but to use it, and in doing so, experience it.

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes has quite a lot to say about this "use" aspect of toys:

"French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by myths or the techniques of modern adult life... There exists, for instance, dolls which urinate... This is meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping, to 'condition' her to her future role as mother. However, faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy."

The similarity of the Tamagotchi and Barthes' urinating doll are striking - each attempt to simulate a social relationship (we are reminded of the Bandai Spokespersons' statements above). Barthes wants to claim that this simulation fails to hold the import of the real experience, and the decontextualization leads to something grotesque. Clearly caring for the Tamagotchi also puts the child in the position of the "user" rather than creator, using the toy that Bandai made. In some sense, it marks an improvement - the child is at least allowed some creative power - the power to determine the toys eventual fate. Even so, the selection from which the child picks is predetermined and the meanings are spelled out. There is little exploration or newness, only the logical progression from the beginning to the end.

I wonder what Barthes might say then about the adult use of toys. In his collection of essays about Japan he gives some commentary on another even more popular game enjoyed by adults, Pachinko (a sort of hybrid slot machine/pinball game):

"The Western machine sustains a symbolism of penetration: the point is to possess, by a well-placed thrust, the pinup girl who, all lit up on the panel of the machines, allures and waits. In pachinko, no sex (in JapanĚ sexuality is in sex, not elsewhere; in the United States, it is the contrary: sex is everywhere, except in sexuality). The machines are managers, lined up in rows; the player, with an abrupt gesture, renewed so rapidly that it seems uninterrupted, feeds the machine with his metal marbles; he stuffs them in, the way you would stuff a goose; from time to time the machine, filled to capacity, releases a diarrhea of marbles; for a few yen, the player is symbolically spattered with money. Here we understand the seriousness of the game which counters the constipated parsimony of salaries, the construction of capitalist wealth, with the voluptuous debacle of silver balls, which, all of the sudden, fill the player's hand."

Surely he'd locate similar motifs in the interaction with the Tamagotchi: both devices demand systematic actions from the human over a sustained period with an anticipated return. Just as the human feeds the machine ball by ball waiting for a return in kind, so the toy owner makes discreet emotional investments expecting the regurgitation of the digital analog of the same.

(This is banner I found advertising free virtual pets... I assume there must be a catch. Perhaps the owner can play with it for a few days, just enough to get attached, and then the program shuts down at the end of a "free trial period", leaving them wanting more... I followed the link, but it lead to a site that seemed to completely lack virtual pets of any kind.)

Tamagotchi as Simulated Experience and the Trajectory of Virtual Relationships

Domesticated dogs have existed in human society for over twelve thousand years, and archaeological evidence points to the conclusion that these animals, like our pets today, held social positions within the culture. Today the United States of America is home to hundreds of millions of pets, and pet owners and spend billions of dollars annually on pet food, flea collars, litter boxes, aquariums, veterinary bills. But pet ownership is a cultural experience that extends beyond the limits of our nation - the practice of raising animals for "non-utilitarian" purposes has been documented by anthropologists in a wide variety of societies throughout the world. Many feel that apart from human beings, animals (especially pet animals that exist within human society) represent the most morally significant portion of Earth's population.

For these reasons, it is in everyone's interest to understand what it means to simulate the experience of pet ownership. Can raising a virtual pet act as a substitute for the experience of owning and caring for the real thing? Clearly the current models, like Tamagotchi and the other "products" on the market offer a somewhat impoverished and ultimately unconvincing simulation of the actual experience, but better models are always coming out. Researchers at the International Computer Science Institute have successfully demonstrated a chain of supercomputers capable of real-time simulating the neuronal activity of a brain composed of one million cells with an average of one thousand dendritic connections each. While the computational power required for this experiment was immense, and the simulated brain comparable in complexity to that of a fly, the recent history of processor development suggests that it's just a matter of time before we can affordably simulate the behaviour of a dog or a cat with astonishing accuracy.

And what if, once the initial novelty has worn off, people choose to keep and continue using their virtual pets? Some suggest that virtual pet paradigm is preferable for a variety of reasons. Some point to the customization and potential for personalization. Others suggest that so long as we're subjecting some creature to our (at times abusive) whims, we might as well make them virtual so the real things don't have to suffer. A more common suggestion floating around on newsgroups and web sites is the idea of using a virtual pet as a training device, through which children can demonstrate their readiness to own a real pet. But this raises serious concerns. As Myron Krueger writes in his Foreward to Michael Heim's The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality:

"Will real action lose its immediacy when it is but a recapitulation of simulated activity?"

On the other hand, there may be a pragmatic value to these virtual animals. Current research into the therapeutic benefits of pet ownership among the elderly, disabled, emotionally disturbed children may intersect with cutting-edge psychotherapy theorists suggesting that "it is probable that the ultimate potential of [Virtual Reality} for therapy lies in the simulation of the social, as opposed to the physical, environment." (Glantz, et al. 1996) Perhaps virtual pets could be used as quasi-neutral participants in a holistic therapeutic landscape.

Some social theorists have not been so optimistic in considering the overall impact of virtual reality. Michael Cranford, a Social Ethicist at USC suggests that the degree to which simulated experience lacks the constraints of the real world determines our ability to apply substantive ethics. In the case of virtual-pet ownership, the "virtualness" is unsatisfactory in as much as it fails to result in real-world social consequences.

But the thing that makes these simulations interesting at all is that there are some form of real world consequences, though admittedly not the same as those of the real experience. This is evident in the example of another simulated experience directed strictly at children that raised significant controversy: the Cabbage Patch Kid. The Cabbage Patch Kid was a doll marketed as a simulation of a real world event - adoption. The child owner of a Cabbage Patch Kid received an Adoption Certificate to fill out and retain as a consecration of the parent-child relationship. The company selling the doll also mailed out a "first birthday card" for the doll, exactly one year after the child received it, so as to reaffirm the relationship. Adoption agencies. Adoption-related institutions responded immediately - either denouncing the doll's manufacturer for belittling the emotional and difficult lives of adopted children, or praising them for giving adopted children a context in which to feel special and wanted.

While no animal advocacy groups have made any strong statements about Tamagotchi or other virtual pets, it is clear that people's real-world lives have been effected by their existence. Whether taking off work to stand in thousand person lines to purchase one, or logging on to a web site to express one's grief, humans have been effected by the mere existence of Tamagotchi.

Philip K. Dick, one of the earliest science fiction writers to deal with issues of simulated experience wrote about he impact of virtual pets in his canonical work "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep." He imagines a post-apocalyptic San Francisco where, as a result of wide spread extinctions brought on by the reckless use of technology, society has elevated pet ownership to one of the highest virtues. Those that cannot afford to buy the real thing fake it, with robotic cats, sheep and other animals. We are privy to the anguish of Rick Deckard, the story's protagonist who lives with the shame of own an ersatz animal, trying throughout the plot to somehow acquire a real animal.

But what's most interesting about Dick's novel is how he uses the virtual pet owner relationship to explore a broader set of questions. As one futurist virtual pet pundit with their own website puts it: "virtual pets [with robotic bodies] could be made to look like anything, including people." Dick forsaw this possiblity, and invents a form of virtual slavery - synthetic people kept as property by human owners. As the results artificial life become more and more indistinguishable from the real thing, humans are forced to hastily redefine the borders of humanity and human society. In the novel, Deckard becomes skeptical of the reality of everything around him, even of his own humanity, resulting in paranoid fear and confusion.

I propose that our shift toward self-anxiety has already started. Pets have existed in human society for thousands of years, and the introduction of virtual pets is a subtle cultural iteration toward our increasingly cybernetic future.