From Tamigotchis to Nintendogs, virtual pets have had many manifestationsTrogain

Just over a month ago, thousands of rabbits lost their food source when a Cease & Desist order was issued against the person feeding them. And with their steady stream of sustenance cut off, all have since perished.

Thankfully, the rabbits aren’t real. They belonged to a brand of virtual pets called Ozimals whose creator, Malkavyn Eldritch, was forced to deactivate the server responsible for providing them ‘food’. So, while the pets remain on their owner’s computers, they have descended permanently into ‘hibernation’. And despite the patent absurdity of a forced digital cull, it’s hard not to find some kind of pathos in the situation — whether towards the owners losing their pets or the bunnies themselves.

Of course, attachment to non-human things is itself nothing new: the first commercialised stuffed animals were manufactured in 1880 by Steiff, while many thousands of years before that humans first domesticated dogs. Regardless of this history, though, there is a clear hierarchy: an adult with a dog is acceptable, where an adult with a stuffed animal is not; similarly, a 10-year-old attached to a stuffed animal is acceptable, where that same 10-year-old being attached to an imaginary friend is not. It seems the less real the thing, the less seriously taken the attachment (however genuine that might be).

“Children viewed Furbies as “sort-of-alive”; and that, while being different from normal living things, this was perceived as a legitimate form of life”

Virtual pets then are an anomaly: they are neither real nor unreal. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, found that children viewed Furbies as “sort-of-alive”; and that, while being different from normal living things, this was perceived as a legitimate form of life. But, this doesn’t entirely explain away their perceived illegitimacy. One reason might be that it’s hard to divorce virtual pets from their primary identity as machines. In Free Creatures: The role of uselessness in the design of artificial pets, Frédéric Kaplan theorises that machines accrue personality under our eyes specifically when they fail to perform the function for which they are designed. This ignorance of our command allows us to import upon them “a kind of ‘intentionality’”.

Indeed, it’s not uncommon for people to lash out at non-functioning pieces of technology as if scolding something autonomous. Kaplan continues to say that this means: “[Artificial pets are] one of the first times in the history of machine building, that engineers have to design apparently ’useless’ creatures.” Using this perspective, we can see how the traditional power balance is reversed; machines normally work for us, but with virtual pets, we work for them. We attend to them, feed them, push their buttons.

On a very base level, it is hard to rewrite the internal wiring that a utensil should serve, not be served. Another reason is that virtual relationships are perceived as dangerous to development. Especially when they were first introduced, worries about the damaging effect of virtual pets were rampant. In their 1999 paper, Disposable Love, Linda-Renee Block and Dafna Lemish recount two borderline surreal anecdotes:

The first is that the Rabbinate in Israel felt it necessary to issue a decree announcing that Tamagotchis could not be fed on the Sabbath, and the second is that schoolchildren in Hanoi were sold baby chickens, at a fraction of the price of virtual pets, under the guise of them being ‘Tamagotchi-compatible’ (i.e. substitutes for a machine which is itself a substitute for the real pet they just bought).

Block and Lemish see these as examples of how virtual pets are warping perspectives of love, relationships and reality. But this conclusion relies on the Luddite-esque fallacy that the presence of virtual relationships necessitates the absence of real relationships. And sure, if a pixelated horse is the bread and butter of your emotional upbringing, then that isn’t a stable diet — but owning a copy of Nintendogs doesn’t preclude you from owning a real-life dog. Besides, if someone is caring for a virtual pet because they can’t accommodate a real one, what’s lost there? The real problem here is how tempting it is to see the lineage of real pets, to stuffed pets, to virtual pets as a straightforward abstraction — whereas in reality, they each serve distinct purposes.

Stuffed toys are often ‘transitional objects’, a term coined by Donald Woods Winnicott, which act as a psychological salve to anxiety, whether for children or adults. Real pets, on the other hand, are more likely to be seen as microcosms of human life—they teach children about responsibility, and also about death. Block and Lemish assert that the ability to just start a new Tamagotchi once the old one has died means that they are not a suitable method for learning about mortality—but why should they be? Video games have the same issue, but these are seen as relatively harmless.

Virtual pets are their own entity. Not a substitute for the real thing, or a simulacrum, but an independent phenomenon. (Further, flesh-and-blood pets themselves are not devoid of artificiality: they’re bred into such domesticity that they no longer reflect their natural selves). As previously discussed, their function is stress relief for those who cannot afford—as a result of time, money or allergies—to have a real pet. Similarly, they provide lessons on responsibility all of their own: they may illustrate to their owners that they are not up to the task of caring for a real pet, thus saving stress and pain for both parties involved.

In this sense, attachments to virtual pets pose less threat than attachments to stuffed animals, given that they promote a form of responsibility, and a questioning of one’s relationship to machines, that simply isn’t there with the latter. Provided they are no replacement for human attachments, there seems no reason to treat them as worthless, or inferior — simply different