It has been 25 years since the first Tamagotchi cracked out of its egg. That’s right, 25 years. If you’re a ’90s kid, you either owned one yourself or spent every recess looking over the shoulder of someone who did. But while the toy has pretty much disappeared from schoolyards these days—replaced by smartphones—many of its key features had a significant impact on the video game industry and live on in major games today.
The Tamagotchi, which was first released by Bandai in Japan on November 23, 1996, had only a 32×16 pixel screen and three small buttons. Each of these buttons served some simple function, like feeding your Tamagotchi (which was both the name of the device and the little creature you were tasked with taking care of), turning off the lights in its room, or playing a game with it. Functions also included cleaning up your Tamagotchi’s poop—at times so frequently that you could not help but worry about the health of its colon.
Fail at these simple tasks and your Tamagotchi suffers a gruesome, neglectful death. After a bunch of ear-piercing beeps and a little wiggle, the Tamagotchi disappears into cyberspace—forever. What remains is some stars and text saying how young the Tamagotchi was when it passed. (From diarrhea, probably.)
Despite the creature being only a 10-pixel blob, school students were willing to earn themselves detention for checking on it during class rather than deal with an ill-timed death (the Tamagotchi’s life was not pausable). In the United Kingdom, there were pet cemeteries that went so far as to dedicate sections of their lots specifically to the digital pets of children whose neglect resulted in the Tamagotchi’s death. It all makes you wonder: Would millennials have ever learned to care for their offspring if not for the persistent grief of losing their beloved Tamagotchi?
This “continual play” feature, which the Tamagotchi was one of the first to utilize, was revolutionary in the video game industry. In the years that followed, it became a key feature of many hugely popular games.
“After the first Tamagotchi launched in 1996, it became not just a toy fad, but a social phenomenon,” says Nobuhiko Momoi, managing director and chief Tamagotchi officer at Bandai, the company behind the Tamagotchi. Since its release, Bandai has sold more than 82 million units of the Tamagotchi—and the company still releases and sells new versions every few years.
The new versions still have three buttons, but in other respects they’re a lot fancier. They have colorful graphics, nice editable apartments the Tamagotchi can live in, a built-in camera, and even a function that allows players to connect with others online to complete activities and play games.
Considering the device is literally an egg watch—tamago means egg in Japanese and uotchi is watch (the original version was initially meant to be a wristwatch)—the toy’s popularity seems a little ludicrous.
“We thought it would do well, but we didn’t expect it to be such a huge success, to the point that production could not keep up with demand,” Momoi tells WIRED.
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The Tamagotchi's success, according to Bandai, is because it appeals to the human nurturing instinct, in this case the urge to care for a digital pet—following its growth and development and making sure it doesn’t die. It offered children a sense of responsibility, and they accepted it with extreme enthusiasm.
“We had given birth to a totally new toy category,” Momoi says.
A Pioneer of Continual Play
The Tamagotchi’s simplicity is a stroke of genius, says Adam Crowley, professor of English at Husson University. He researches how achievements in virtual worlds can offer a sense of accomplishment that may not exist in the real world.
The Tamagotchi captured many aspects of games that make them fun to play, he says. For example, it managed to provoke strong emotional responses and attachments in players due to a sense of responsibility. It also gave players a sense of duty or obligation, because the continual play required them to check in every few hours to keep their digital pet alive and healthy.
The Tamagotchi was a pioneer of this type of gameplay, where the game does not pause even if you turn off your device. This was largely unheard of before the Tamagotchi’s release but now lives on in some of the world’s most popular games, like World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls Online.
“In those games, very much like the Tamagotchi, the game never really ends,” says Crowley. “It is one of the most popular forms of games now, and in a very simplistic way, the Tamagotchi popularized the idea of a game never ending. And that has had significant consequences in the 21st century.”
But importantly, Tamagotchi was also one of the very first video games to be marketed primarily to girls. When consoles like the Nintendo were first released, according to Crowley, they were placed on the shelves exclusively in the boy’s section of Toys “R” Us. With the Tamagotchi, the opposite happened. It challenged the hyper-masculinity that was associated with video games back then, he says.
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“The Tamagotchi provided access to people who had been ignored over the last decade in the video game industry,” Crowley says.
Ironically, it did so by playing into the gender stereotypes that were dominant at the time, and to an extent still are. It was a toy that appealed to girls through what were seen as stereotypical female traits—like the mother instinct or the concept of nurturing. For girls to be allowed to play video games, they would have to assume the role of a caretaker.
“The Tamagotchi very much reflects the social conditions of its moment of emergence,” says Crowley. “So on the one hand, we’re finally offering it to girls, while on the other hand, it was saying like ‘this is what girls do, this is what’s appropriate.’”
The Past and Future of Virtual Reality
If not the first, the Tamagotchi was an early example of a video game that blurred the lines between the digital world and the real world, or virtual reality.
In 1997, the Finnish addiction specialist and sociologist Teuvo Peltoniemi issued a gloomy warning about the Tamagotchi in the South China Morning Post: “Virtual reality is a new drug, and Tamagotchis are the first wave. It's not just some fad that will go away. [Tamagotchis] are an ideal example of the possible threat of a virtual world becoming, in the future, a real dependence problem needing treatment.”
As an addiction specialist, Peltoniemi became increasingly worried when he saw kids glued to their Tamagotchis in schools and at the dinner table. In his work, he used the Tamagotchi to show how children and adults could develop over-the-top emotional responses to virtual characters.
“The Tamagotchi, I think, was the first little tool that was accessible to the average consumer where you could find virtual reality, and its most important feature was that it appealed to people’s feelings and sentimentality through care,” Peltoniemi tells WIRED.
“People developed really strong emotional attachments to their Tamagotchis because they, in a way, had a relation with the digital pet, to the extent that people felt they had enough human features to hold funerals when they died,” he continues.
For some, the Tamagotchi has kept its appeal even into adulthood. Kim Matthews, 32, from Australia is one of those people. In childhood, her “tama” was one of her favorite toys. In adulthood, it still is—though now more for nostalgic purposes. She was given her first Tamagotchi for her eighth birthday and immediately fell in love—competing with her friends to see who could keep theirs alive the longest.
“Tragically, my first Tamagotchi unknowingly went for a swim with me in the pool one day,” says Matthews. “I was devastated.”
With a collection of 71 Tamagotchis amassed over her lifetime, Matthews still struggles to explain what makes her care for them so much, even after 25 years.
“I just think they’re neat,” she jokes, a reference to a Marge Simpson meme. “Maybe it’s a ’90s kids’ thing.”
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