Tamagotchi, originally a hand-held device containing a virtual chicken, is widely considered the first true virtual pet. Released in Japan in November 1996, and the U.S. in May 1997, the toy’s release sparked a craze of popularity that has seen it sell over 76 million copies as of 2010, with various iterations of the toy appearing through the years.
This case study will mostly concern the original 1990s Tamagotchi as the progenitor of the virtual pet. Most of my research comes from this study of Tamagotchi from 2001, conducted by Jef Samp at UC Berkeley.
The illusion of life
A Tamagotchi is described as a ‘virtual chicken’, but can in fact take a number of forms, beginning life as an amorphous blob and growing into one of several different creatures depending on its condition in early life.
Caring for a Tamagotchi involves monitoring its ‘happiness’ meter whilst keeping an eye on its weight and its overall health. Feeding or playing with a Tamagotchi increases its happiness, while feeding also increases its weight; overfeeding a Tamagotchi can cause it to become sick and require medicine. A Tamagotchi will also defecate after eating, and failure to clean this up in short order also leads to the creature becoming unwell.
The balancing of these three metres is what gives the Tamagotchi the sense that it is an independent creature by simulating the requirements of care for a real animal. What Tamagotchi uniquely introduced was an ‘always on’ feature, meaning that the pet required constant vigilance on the part of the user. Where most game software is designed to be switched on and off to suit the user’s lifestyle, Tamagotchi demands that the user alters their lifestyle to suit the pet.
By demanding a real-world commitment, albeit much simplified, like a real living creature, Tamagotchi effectively reinforces the idea that the virtual pet really is ‘alive,’ an observation borne through by the reports of many users who felt genuinely attached to their electronic devices.
Growth and adaptation are the other ways Tamagotchi creates the illusion of a living creature. Every Tamagotchi (the pet within the device, rather than the device itself) has a lifespan, which is altered by the level of care given it by the user. A well cared for pet will live longer than a poorly kept one, with an inferred goal of the system being to keep your pet alive as long as possible.
A Tamagotchi also changes form as it gets ‘older’, and the form it takes is influenced by the level of care given it by the user during its formative stages. A well-cared for pet will grown into a more attractive creature with a more desirable behaviour and a longer lifespan; this effectively simulates the ‘nurturing’ of a real animal, with users feeling directly responsible for the future wellbeing of the virtual pet. As a result, users feel both more engaged with the early stages of development and more attached to the adult creature as a result.
There is, however, an element of randomness to the proceedings, a simple bit of coding that gives the impression that each creature has its own ‘personality’. This random element means there is no sure-fire fixed way to grow a Tamagotchi as you desire, creating a simplified version of the nature/nurture debate considering in raising real pets.
The Tamagotchi unit consists of a small plastic egg with a simple LCD screen and three buttons. The top of the egg has an attachment for a keyring, emphasising the unit’s portability. The user’s entire interaction with the devices is performed with the three face buttons.
The user interface is incredibly simple due to technological restrictions of the time; the tiny screen cannot display a large amount of pixel data. In idle mode, the entire screen is given over to display of the virtual pet, with other interface elements appearing when the user interacts with the unit.
Using the face buttons, players can assess their pet’s needs, represented as a ‘hunger’ meter, a ‘happiness’ meter and a ‘discipline’ meter. These can be managed by performing actions with the pet; feeding, playing and scolding respectively. Users can also view the pet’s age and weight, the former simply increasing over time and the latter being affected by how often the pet is fed snacks.
Users will also need to clean up after their pet when it goes to the toilet and give it medicine if it becomes sick, functions which can be accessed by selecting icons on the user interface. Managing all of these needs effectively leads to a better-behaved, more attractive and longer-lived pet. From the original Tamagotchi instruction manual: ‘If you keep Tamagotchi full and happy, it will grow into a cute, happy cyber creature. If you neglect Tamagotchi, it will grow into an unattractive alien.’
The core interaction loop of Tamagotchi involves short, regular play sessions designed to maintain player engagement over time. This model of interaction can be seen in many mobile games today, particularly those that use an ‘energy’ meter to restrict simultaneous user actions and encourage regular repeated actions. Tamagotchi enforces this model with bleeping sounds emitted whenever one of its needs requires attention; a good Tamagotchi owner must be attentive to the vocalisations of their virtual pet.
This system, too, can be seen in many of today’s mobile apps, which use ‘push notifications’ to remind us of important app information and to bring our attention back to the app in question. In 1996, however, this was a unique feature, and this persistence gave Tamagotchi much of the appeal that led to record levels of user engagement.
Tamagotchi is widely considered to be the original virtual pet; at launch in 1996 it was marketed as “the original virtual reality pet.” While it was in fact predated by some PC franchises including Petz (1995) and Creatures (1996), the portable, persistent nature of Tamagotchi distanced it from prior desktop-based software and its instant market success set the template for virtual pet design to this day.
Reports state that the the virtual pet sold out almost immediately upon launch in all countries, both due to genuine demand for the product but also due to a distribution strategy by publisher Bandai, who allegedly held back orders of certain models in order to create a sense of rarity and drive consumers into a frenzy. This ‘artificial scarcity’ model was relatively new for children’s toys at the time, and was so successful in generating buzz for Tamagotchi that similar sales tactics have survived to today. Most recently, Nintendo have been accused of creating artificial scarcity to drive sales of their popular Amiibo line of toys-to-life figurines.
Through a combination of clever marketing and genuine consumer interest the Tamagotchi line was phenomenally successful at launch, and has remained so to this day, with subsequent generations of Tamagotchi running all the way up to 2013 and appearing on platforms including PC, Playstation, Nintendo handhelds and iPhone.
People became genuinely attached to their virtual pets, with many stories circulating of children being barred from school for playing with their Tamagotchi, and adults being caught at work being distracted by the device. This article from VICE does a good job of highlighting why people found the devices so engaging, and the level of attachment some people had for their virtual pet.
Certainly some of Tamagotchi’s enduring success can be put down to novelty; the original model launched in a time before mobile phones were ubiquitous, when owning a persistent interactive digital device was largely unheard of. Samp suggests that the form factor of the device itself, a plastic shell that could perceivable be said to contain a creature, gave it an appeal greater than the desktop-based virtual pets of the time, which had to share screen real estate with word-processing software and early internet browsers.
Today, the mobile app market is filled with software that emulates and iterates on the design of Tamagotchi, including versions of Tamagotchi itself. None, however, has seen the kind of success experienced by the original Tamagotchi. And while Tamagotchi itself has remained popular, it has never seen the fever surrounding its 1996 launch repeated.
This would suggest that the overwhelming success of the original Tamagotchi has much to do with societal factors at the time of launch, and as time has gone on, a string of imitators coupled with the ubiquity of mobile software has erased the novelty of the handheld virtual pet. The Tamagotchi craze, then, is likely to remain a one-off event, and modern virtual pets won’t be able to rely on the same novelty to achieve success. It is undeniable, however, that Tamagotchi set the scene for the entire virtual pet market, with design elements featured in the very first models still being very much a part of virtual pet design to this day.