The Tamagotchi was a small, egg-shaped, hand-held LCD video game that was created in Japan in 1996. It became wildly popular in Japan, the United States, and other locations across the world, but only for a very brief period of time. According to one scholar, “manufacturers and distributors claim rarely to have seen such a meteoric rise of a product followed by such a phenomenal crash … practically overnight” (Bloch and Lemish 286). At its most popular, fifteen Tamagotchis were sold every minute in the U.S. and Canada. Manufactured by the Bandai Corporation of Japan, it was marketed as “the original virtual reality pet” (Lee 305). The toy was the brainchild of inventor Yokoi Akihiro. Motivated by a TV show in which a young child going on vacation put his turtle in a suitcase to bring it with him, Yokoi sought to make a "pet" that could travel everywhere, and thus the Tamagotchi was born. The toy was composed of an LCD display screen, a hard and usually brightly-colored plastic case, several buttons, and a keychain. The images displayed on the screen were basic dot images that, despite their simplicity, managed to be incredibly engaging and entertaining. Multiple generations of the toy were manufactured, and it was also mimicked by several different companies.
The name “Tamagotchi” is a wordplay on the Japanese “tamago,” which means egg (Gilson 368). Appropriately, the game begins with a tiny egg, from which hatches a virtual animal. The object of the game is to care for the animal by performing various functions, including feeding it, playing with it, disciplining it, allowing it to sleep, and maintaining its hygiene. If the caregiver does a good job, the little animal thrives and evolves into more sophisticated, attractive forms of itself. If the animal is neglected, however, it becomes ugly and unruly. Eventually, the animal “dies,” though nurtured animals do “live” longer than neglected ones. After death, the player can reset the toy and begin again with a brand new Tamagotchi egg.
The Rise of the Tamagotchi
As a robot toy originating from Japan, the Tamagotchi has its roots in several other mechanical characters, including "Mighty Atom" and "Doraemon." The first robot playmate, Mighty Atom, originated from a comic book published in the 1950s. Mighty Atom's background story explains he was built as a companion for a father who lost his son. In the U.S., Mighty Atom became known as Astroboy. The second noteworthy robot character, Doraemon, came about in the 1970s. This creature was a robot cat with an over-sized head, sent from the future to guide a young boy. From these examples, one can easily see a connection between Japanese character robots and their ability to connect with humans (Gilson, 367). These robots, modeled after familiar forms, were popular because they attached themselves to real ideas within human psychology. By promoting realism, they became something intimate to the user. This nurturing image of the emotionally bonded robot repeats itself only a few times, before finally meeting with the worldwide success of the Tamagotchi.
Initially marketed toward young school children, Tamagotchi took off with high school age Japanese girls. Bandai, its manufacturer, recovered from a serious business slump and immediately began exporting the toy all over the world. Within 5 months, Tamagotchi had been introduced in the U.S. and foreign sales exploded. Other Japanese characters at that time took years to build a following. Sailor Moon, a superhero schoolgirl cartoon, took three years to break into the market, whereas Power Rangers took a whopping eight (Allison, 163). At its peak, Bandai sold over 20 million Tamagotchis in Japan alone and another 20 million in foreign markets, including the U.S.
Marketing and Advertising
The original idea behind the Tamagotchi was to create a pet or playmate that could be taken anywhere. In marketing the idea of this essential toy, advertising tapped into three social resources at that time: the psychological mindset of children in Japan, the reputation of robot characters to be friendly and form personal connections, and the rising popularity of personal technology.
The social structure in Japan during the 1990s allowed for the instant and surprising popularity of the Tamagotchis. For example, many families were unable to afford real pets due to cramped space and busy lifestyles. In addition, Japanese children pressured by school and busy with familial obligations reacted to these relationship-building toys immediately.
According to research author Anne Allison:
“Because of inner connection, Tamagotchi also evokes the sensation of an interpersonal relationship, something children told me keeps them company in what is an age rife with dislocatedness, flux and alienation” (Allison, 183).
It was this space or gap in children’s lifestyles at the time that allowed for the Tamagotchi to step in and gain widespread popularity. The interactive relationship between child and Tamagotchi built a simulated reality, one that was dependent on each Tamagotchi user's understanding of their influence over their virtual pet’s life (Kusahara, 300). A digital toy that could respond and interact with children in a way that simulated real life, despite a simple interface design, was destined to start a marketing trend, if not change the concept of "mass media" entirely.
Despite the fact that Tamagotchis were oddly-shaped, animated creatures that lived inside plastic, egg-shaped key chains, their realistic behaviors created the illusion that they were actually "living." Users could even name their digital pets and give them unique, personal names in addition to the already branded name "Tamagotchi." This act alone brought the users closer to their virtual pets, because it marked the pets as their own personal property. As the Tamagotchi grew, the user was able to feel pride or revulsion toward the creature, depending on how effectively he or she cared for it. Playing with the Tamagotchi was not simply entertainment, but an interdisciplinary activity, where users also had the dual role of a virtual caregiver (Allison, 172). Furthermore, the eye-catching and personal technology of the Tamagotchi made it easier for users to feel connected with their virtual pets. The ability to communicate through a small, unconventional, hand-held medium promoted the idea that each Tamagotchi was a unique creature, a fact that made its owner feel influential and important (Kusahara, 300). This interface represented a distinctly different prototype, one that allowed users to become active in the new media rather than simple observers. Ultimately, Tamagotchis created in their users personal biases and preferences toward their digital pets.
The Tamagotchi: Patent number: D398659 Filing date: Feb 20, 1997 Issue date: Sep 22, 1998
Social and Psychological Implications
The Tamagotchi and Children
Children were undoubtedly the demographic among whom Tamagotchis were most popular – though there is documentation that the toys were also prevalent among teenagers and adults. That Tamagotchis possessed both positive and negative consequences for children is evident. On the one hand, they encouraged responsibility and nurturing behavior. In contrast with the often violent computer games and television shows that most children, and particularly boys, enjoyed, Tamagotchis were a vast improvement. They were also unique because they were equally popular with both boys and girls. Bloch and Lemish concisely explain this phenomenon when the write, “in some respects, the Tamagotchi can be seen as the blurring of the gendered nature of the toy itself: it is neither a fuzzy animal nor a vehicle or a mechanical toy, neither a soft plastic doll nor a violent computer game. In short, it does not lend itself to any particular gendered stereotype” (296). Furthermore, because of its small size, children could carry Tamagotchis around and easily compare their pets to those of their friends. In this way, the game became a competition; whoever’s pet was the healthiest and lived the longest “won.” Thus, in order to succeed, the child must prove the most caring rather than the most violent.
The Tamagotchi was not flawless, however. Because the creatures could always be re-born, the toy created unrealistic perceptions of death. One critic writes that children “can become confused about the reality of the relationship. Children will no longer treasure companionship with their pets because even if the pet ‘dies’, it can be brought back to life by changing the battery. The lack of such moral responsibility will cultivate a negative psychology which eventually will do harm to society” (Lee 305). Tamagotchis also became distracting. Because children have less self-discipline than adults, they often had trouble separating time spent caring for their Tamagotchis from time for school work and time for friends. As a result, children began to neglect their studies and their real, non-digital relationships.
The Tamagotchi and Teenagers/Adults
One scholar writes that “[the] Tamagotchi proved that a simple system with dot-based graphics could communicate a fairly strong sense of reality not only to kids but also to teenagers and adults” (Kusahara 299). Indeed, like the children, both the young adults and adults that played with Tamagotchis felt a real sense of responsibility for their digital pets. Two major factors that contributed to the affection between caregivers and their pets included the entertainment provided by the pets and the interactive nature of the toys. Tamagotchis were also appealing to the extent that they promoted a culture of disposability (Bloch and Lemish 290). At the time that Tamagotchis became popular, society was increasingly concerned with “the disposable,” or with convenience. Tamagotchis neatly fit into this category. They fulfilled certain human desires – such as the desire to nurture – without requiring the resources needed to fulfill those desires in the non-digital world. Unlike with real pets, if people became bored or uninterested in their Tamagotchi pets, they could simply throw them away. The toys also provided consistency and the illusion of control. No matter what might be happening in a caregiver’s non-digital life, he or she could at least control the fate of his or her Tamagotchi. In a sense, the caregiver was able to “play God” because he or she was fully responsible for the creature’s entire lifecycle. Finally, the Tamagotchi provided a sort of “instant gratification” because, where real pets and children take years to mature and thrive, the Tamagotchi pets did so in a matter of days.
One thing worth noting is that many users were intensely attached to their digital pets. In fact, one of the primary downfalls of the Tamagotchi was that the pets died so easily, which led to frustration and depression among their caregivers. These sentiments became so strong that online “cemeteries” were actually established where people could go to mourn the deaths of their virtual pets. Ultimately, “the Tamagotchi is a metaphor of our times, representing the blurring of boundaries between real reciprocal relationships and surrogate, one-way imaginary ones. It highlights the dominant role of technology in our lives; no longer simply a tool for use in science and industry, but now a substitute for human relationships” (Bloch and Lemish 295).
As a mobile toy that promoted an intimate relationship, the Tamagotchi experienced several different controversies. There were two primary conflicts that centered around two facts: the digital pets required constant attention and the relationships between the robot characters and humans were both realistic and absorbing.
Early Tamagotchi toys were not provided with a pause button (as were later models) and so the relationship between users and their Tamagotchi became difficult. Without continuous play, the virtual pet would die. This led to banning the toy in many schools, both in Japan and the United States (Allison, 175). Without setting ground rules or removing the Tamagotchi from the classroom, the toy would otherwise take up all the students’ attention.
In addition, the toy had to be altered for American children because the idea of virtual death was thought to be disturbing. Instead of dying, later generation Tamagotchi characters would pass on to another world, sprouting angel wings and flying away (Allison, 176). This concern for the psychological well being of Tamagotchi users was the foremost issue in the argument against the toy. As the users and digital pets interacted, they came to communicate on an equal level, and users spoke to and cared for their Tamagotchi as if they were real beings. This reality was then transposed onto other aspects of life and affected the way users saw other life forms (Kusahara, 300). Also, the Tamagotchis were though to be therapeutic for children who were in need of companionship and communication. This raised questions as to what might cause such void in children and how to overcome the issue without the use of toys or digital pets.
Despite these arguments, supporters of the Tamagotchi were able to respond with the significant impacts the potentially useful toy could have. Within schools there was a small group of parents and teachers who appreciated the nurturing and positive qualities promoted by use of the toy. In contrast to other virtual games at the time that focused on fighting and action, the Tamagotchi functioned by cultivating positive feelings and attributes (Allison, 175). These attributes are also purported to have contributed to sex education and birth control classes within the United States, although the long term affects are still in question (Allison, 182).
Overall, the major controversies reside with the use of the Tamatotchi as a companion, and its role within the societal framework of childhood.
The Decline of the Tamagotchi
The success of the Tamagotchi was short-lived. The toy broke onto the scene in 1996, yet its heyday was over just two years later, by the spring of 1998. The fall of the Tamagotchi was rapid and its cause is a topic of speculation. The fact that they were banned from many schools did not help sales. Rather, it discouraged parents from purchasing the toys for their children. Since the toys demanded constant attention and died so easily, many users became frustrated with them. Whatever the reasons, manufacturers quickly reached a point where they could not sell Tamagotchis even at highly discounted prices. Though Tamagotchis are still in existence and are still manufactured by Bandai, their level of popularity never quite recovered.
Despite this, the failures of the original Tamagotchi toys actually proved useful. By learning from them, designers were able to create more enjoyable and engaging interactive digital toys that included features such as “enhanced autonomy” and “intelligence” (Kusahara 301). In other words, they performed the same function as Tamagotchis, but did not require as much attention. They were just as entertaining, but also liberating. Kusahara notes that “after the great success of the Tamagotchi toy, a variety of virtual pets ‘living’ on computer-game platforms and personal computers have been developed. They have apparently ‘evolved’ from the simple dot images of the Tamagotchi” (299).
Indeed, the toy's legacy of "techno-intimacy" continued with the rising popularity of Hasbro’s "Furby," a small, fluffy, interactive robot, and with the Sony "AIBO," a responsive and highly endearing robot dog. The Furby debuted in September 1998 and the AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Robot) debuted in May 1999. Both are described as “communication partner robots.” This description of a connection formed with a robot, as opposed to mere objectivity, signified a desire for “soft” electronic goods instead of “hard” electronic devices (Allison, 189). In addition to "pets" in a variety of handheld forms, Tamagotchi also paved the way for cell phone games, computer software and interactive children’s television. Because Tamagotchi popularized the non-traditional interactive toy, when coupled with technological advancements, it became more than a mere plaything. It became an integral part of its user's lifestyle.
Allison, Anne. "Tamagotchi: the Prosthetics of Presence" in Millenial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. 163-191.
Bloch, Linda-Renee and Dafna Lemish. "Disposable love: the rise and fall of a virtual pet" in New Media and Society. London: Sage Publications Ltd., 1999. 283-303.
Gilson, Mark. "A Brief History of Japanese Robophilia." Leonardo, Vol. 31, No. 5, 367-369.
Kusahara, Machiko. "The Art of Creating Subjective Reality: An Analysis of Japanese Digital Pets." Leonardo, Vol. 34, No. 4, 299-302.
Lee, Shang Ping, Adrian David Cheok, Teh Keng Soon James, Goh Pae Lyn Debra, Chio Wen Jie, Wang Chuang, and Farzam Farbiz. "A mobile pet wearable computer and mixed reality system for human-poultry interaction through the internet." Pers Ubiquit Comput, Vol. 10, 301-317.