Lifestyles

Virtual caregiving

The current craze for pint-sized cyber pets

JUDITH TIMSON July 21 1997
Lifestyles

Virtual caregiving

The current craze for pint-sized cyber pets

JUDITH TIMSON July 21 1997

Virtual caregiving

Lifestyles

The current craze for pint-sized cyber pets

JUDITH TIMSON

Summer is supposed to be a carefree time for children, but this season thousands are begging their somewhat skeptical parents for the opportunity to feed, care for and clean up after a small bird-like creature that flourishes if looked after properly, can turn ugly if neglected and beeps infernally one way or another. A Japanese invention, the Tamagotchi (“lovable egg”) is a digitally operated virtual pet the size of a stopwatch that hangs from a chain around the neck or from a belt, and requires constant attention. It swept Tokyo last winter, sparking four-hour lineups, arrived in North America in late May, and faster than you could say ‘Tickle Me, Elmo,” became, along with its many imitators—Nano Pets, Dino-Pets,

Giga Pets—the latest gottahave-it toy on the market.

Along with the usual “it’s truly flying off the shelves” reports from such major retailers as Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us came a smattering of sociological theory: this pet, or game, or gizmo is also supposed to teach children responsibility.

“What kind of virtual caretaker will you be?” reads the somewhat moralistic challenge on the cleverly packaged Tamagotchi, the most sophisticated of the cyber pets.

Well, for roughly $25—often culled from their allowances— kids can press a button and check on the status of their battery-powered little charge. Is he hungry? Then shovel in some nutritious food or ruin him with snacks! Does he crave attention? That’s good! Well, unless he’s been neglected and then, that’s bad! The more neglected he

is, the more he beeps. He needs to go to sleep at the right time, wake up at the right time, and receive discipline, “or he will grow into an unattractive, bad-mannered alien.” He even secretes bodily waste, to be whisked away with a press of the right button. Left unattended, some cyber pets die outright others discreetly fly

off to another planet, but all of them can be rehatched—oh death, where is thy beep?— with a flick of the reset button.

Children of varying ages got hooked fast on the toy. Before school ended, teachers reported that some students panicked in class when their pets’ beepers went off, and later, on soft summer nights, families sat in their

favorite outdoor eatery with their children looking as self-important as adults with cell phones while waiting for the next beep. The runaway success of the virtual pet, suggests Edward Gould, spokesman for Wal-Mart, is part of a larger trend towards more interactive toys. But Sandra Bekhor, marketing manager for Bandai Canada, the giant toy company responsible for Tamagotchi, has a softer explanation: “All kids want something on which they can pour out their affection,” she says. “It’s a very creative answer to not having a pet.”

Of course, the only trouble with virtual parenthood is that it gets in the way of real life. “Sometimes,” said a 10-year-old Toronto girl with her mouth full of fries, “Dinkie Dino can be, like, very annoying, because he beeps when you’re eating and stuff.” One Montreal mother, decorative artist Sara Waldston, skilfully solved the “who will mind the cyber pet?” problem by charging two of her young daughters five cents a day to babysit their Nano puppies while they went off to day camp. Many parents began predicting there would have to be a virtual orphanage for all the cyber pets now languishing underneath beds. And one savvy gift-store proprietor in downtown Toronto said she was not ordering any because “my sister just got back from Hong Kong and the craze is finished. Kids find it irritating after a while.” Still, some children have surprised their parents with their devotion. Toronto mother Susan Gold-

berg was thrilled when her rambunctious nine-year-old son, David, began caring for his Dino-Pet instead of playing battle-oriented computer games. When David’s pet developed a glitch, his mother suggested he exchange it for one that hadn’t gone mute. But David was aghast. “You wouldn’t send back a baby with a problem,” he told his mother. “I’m keeping him.”

That kind of attachment has caused a major headache for at least one summer day camp. Rochelle Wise, director of Crestwood Valley Day Camp in Toronto, recently wrote a note requesting that all cyber pets be left at home. According to Wise, some campers as young as 4 were so mesmerized by the toys that “they didn’t have a life,” let alone a camp day. Despite her edict, Wise said she was impressed by what the virtual pets brought out in her campers: “I wish all parents took care of their children as well as those kids took care of their cyber pets.” □