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From Tamagotchi to Nintendogs: decoding the rise of virtual pets as loyal companions in the cyberspace

By Sam Wareing

May 21, 2022

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Let’s face it, we all love pets—be it a dog or a cat, a bird or a rabbit, fluffy friends bring immeasurable joy to our lives. For some, however, due to financial or logistical reasons, a pet just isn’t a feasible option. But who said a real one is your only option? Do you want a pet that is relatively inexpensive, can fit in the palm of your hand and can still provide the same amount of serotonin as the real deal? Then a virtual pet is the perfect choice for you! Don’t know what we’re on about? Well, you’re in for a ride into one of the most wholesome subcultures on the internet today.

What is a virtual pet?

A virtual pet, put simply, is an artificial human companion. These cute critters come in many different varieties but they all share the same goal—to give you the opportunity to easily raise a pet with love and care. But that’s not all. Most pets require you to feed, play and groom them, just like their real-life counterparts. Some of them can even evolve into different forms depending on the device you are using. They, of course, have no real physical form other than the gadgets they are housed in, which are often small, palm-sized and delightfully portable—making them perfect for those who didn’t have a pet but wanted one oh-so-badly.

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Virtual pets can range from portraying actual animals like the Petz series to fantasy creatures as can be found in the Tamagotchi and Digimon series. They are also not limited to the tiny pocket devices mentioned earlier, some virtual pets are web browser-based while others are part of video games like the widely loved Nintendogs collection by Nintendo. But where did these adorable digitised creatures originate? It’s time for another gaming history lesson.

A virtual past

Back in 1991, a video game company by the name of PF Magic was set up somewhere in San Francisco, California. This little company would go on to make the first virtual pet game ever in 1995, called Dogz. The great success of this entry prompted them to release Catz just a year later—ultimately birthing the Petz franchise. Little did they know at the time that they had just started one of the biggest crazes the 90s would ever witness…

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In the same year that Catz was released, Bandai Namco brought Tamagotchi to the masses. Probably the most well known virtual pet to this day, Tamagotchi took the world by storm when it was released internationally in 1997 and had you feed, play games with and cherish a little alien you’d carry around in your pocket. If you did all this you would be rewarded and your little friend could grow up or morph into one of many different characters available. The fad had the entire US in a chokehold, to a point where they were actually banned for disrupting children’s school work as they needed constant attention to survive.

In 1998, Nintendo also jumped on the bandwagon and released the Pocket Pikachu, following the phenomenal success of the Pokémon franchise. The toy housed the series’ mascot, the electric mouse-like creature Pikachu, but worked a bit differently from those that were launched before it. Instead of having to care for Pikachu, owners would attach it to their belt and use it as a pedometer. For every 20 steps taken, Pikachu would give the player one Watt, a currency that could be used to buy the virtual pet presents online.

Fast forward to 2022, although the initial craze has died down significantly from the 90s, virtual pets (and the nostalgia that surrounds them) are still going strong. Don’t believe me? Well, Bandai Namco actually released Tamagotchi Smart in 2021 as part of its 25th anniversary. The new device is designed to resemble a smartwatch—complete with a rechargeable battery and a slot for special memory cards which allows you to download additional accessories, characters and food for your Tamagotchi pal. Technology never ceases to amaze us, am I right?

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My pet is better than yours

Over the years, we have seen countless virtual pets enter the market. So many pixelated friends came and went. But which ones were the most popular? Let’s take a look.

1. Tamagotchi (1996)

Credited as the start of the portable virtual pet craze, there’s no doubt Tamagotchi should be in the top spot. Bandai really hit the nail on the head with this one, selling millions of units in Japan and North America alone, as well as many other iterations of the accessory years down the line. Your task was simple—take care of your little baby Tamagotchi until it grew up into a healthy adult. If you neglected your little friend then it, well… died. Sad times. It wasn’t long before kids started holding funerals for their late pets. Your zeros and ones won’t be forgotten, little guy.

2. Digimon (1997)

Probably more well known for the popular animated TV series, Digimon was Tamagotchi’s successor, but this time marketed with ‘boys’ specifically in mind—it was the 90s after all. On top of looking after your digital monster, you could also level up your Digimon’s power and using the built-in connectivity features, link up with friends and battle it out to see who had the stronger monster. Digimons are, in fact, the champions.

3. Pocket Pikachu Colour (1999)

Pocket Pikachu Colour was the second entry in the Pocket Pikachu series and incorporated probably one of the coolest features of a virtual pet at the time. Remember those Watts I mentioned earlier that you could save up? Not only could you look after Pikachu and take him on walks, but by connecting it to Pokémon Gold and Silver via the infrared sensor on the Game Boy Colour, the Watts could be traded to the video game.

Depending on the amount traded, the player could receive a variety of items in the game. This feature wasn’t seen again until the release of Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (HGSS), remakes of Gold and Silver, which came packaged with the Poké Walker accessory—a device that let you transfer a Pokémon from HGSS and take it for a walk, earning Watts as you go. Nintendo’s out here, always trying to get us to exercise—one way or another.

This is just the beginning

Since their birth in the late 90s, virtual pets have slowly declined in popularity, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Bandai Namco has just celebrated Tamagotchi’s 25th anniversary and released a new device to accompany it. More and more virtual pet apps are also appearing on both Google Play and App Store as we speak. The shift from physical hardware to apps may just be the way to go, since practically all of us have access to a smart device of some kind. There’s even research that shows virtual pets are good for our mental health. Who knew back in the 90s playground, when you were showing off your new Tamagotchi or Pocket Pikachu, that it would be helping people nearly 30 years later find their peace of mind?

So, if you’re feeling lonely and need a little companionship, maybe a virtual friend is all you need. But remember—a Tamagotchi is for life, not just for Christmas.