Plays of the real across the digital

tamagotchi effect
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What do you intend to make out of a digital mode of amusement, one of those addictive games at that, that takes over so much your fancies that you can’t help but revert to it the very next moment after you had just somehow resisted its lure? That sounds much like some teenage stuff of childish inclinations, rooted in such plays tricked into by exerting that web of obsessive charisma over the brain, serving nothing more than helping you indeed to while away precious chunks of your time- very swiftly at that as well- while having you neglect the more essential practical issues, or let’s say pursuits, of life. And yet, with indeed all such characteristic features imbibed into its being, but persisting still in the face of chidings by parents and teachers alike has been a certain toy fad that emerged in the 1990s and experienced instant popularity, maintaining its surge along the lines of immense craze well into the 2000s and continues to dominate fairly the scene of even the current times, more than two and a half decades after its breakthrough emergence. The Japanese digital toy Tamagotchi is the tiny being overriding such notorious attributes of the gaming world and one that has been delivering through its existence in relative simplicity over the years such ‘life lessons’ that is what has perhaps led to retain its charm and not see a wipe out still in spite of the more than obvious unwanteds that it harbours.

A release by Japanese toy maker Bandai, the Tamagotchi burst into the national scene in 1996 and the very next year saw an equally swift spread in other parts of the world, picking up more than accelerated a pace even in its limited domain of intended catering. Marketed exclusively for teenage girls and holding in spirit- something quite unusually evocative for what is a digital game- the largely female universal instinct for nurturing and caring, the Tamagotchi caught on with the masses perhaps in its rather uncomplicated premise of play. A portmanteau of the Japanese words tamago meaning egg and uotchi meaning watch, the Tamagotchi brought to life its literal essence across its working strategy as well. As a digital pet housed in the tiny egg shaped handheld devices that served as the interface across which the game would play out, these mere toys however encompassed a uniquely human power within them- of evocating emotions out of their owner to such extents that made them no less realistic than any living pet indeed.

The idea from where the Tamagotchi begin to found expression in its unique indeed concept of being more than just a toy to fiddle with and asserted instead its identity as a veritable pet, one that successfully elicited an emotional response out of its users and also thereby one that was ingenious yet revolutionary a tap by the technical into the nature of the human, rested along an incident of very ordinary manifestation. As Akihiro Yokoi, the eventual creator of the adorable egg toy that one fostered in very much real an awareness of petting, charted out the emotions running through a TV commercial of a young boy wanting but not being able to bring his pet turtle along on a holiday, what he came to dwell in was this warm indeed idea of creating instead such a pet that wouldn’t be confined by its limits in physical movement. And thus he toyed indeed with the egg watching prospect, seeking to make it a reality of comparable status relating to the watching over of a pet in all its fending and fondling though interestingly, the uotchi reference wasn’t intended to deliver the notion it ended up doing. Rather it was in its initial envisioning as a wristwatch that endowed upon the Tamagotchi its name but that which stuck despite the alternate reality it came to encompass, though retaining its appropriateness in calling even across a different assertion.

The success of the Tamagotchi has been as remarkable as the thought in novelty from where it ranged- with a whopping 83 million units of the ‘pet’ sold across its equally remarkable span of popularity over the past 25 years and updates and newer versions released in as much popularity every year, the social phenomenon that the creature proved to be in its very debut year had indeed been one that was perhaps unprecedented. At least as unprecedented was also the very basis that led to the roll out of the Tamagotchi, as it touched upon an area of human vulnerability in all the right intentions. In such endearingly simple modes of its playing that required one to take care of her Tamagotchi through carrying out of ordinary tasks of feeding it, playing with it or even potty training it, the pet could be made to live in all happiness, growing and evolving along the very definite stages of life for as long as one could commit themselves to the tasks. Faced however with neglect and the Tamagotchi would die a death unpleasant enough to leave its owner in a real state of sadness or even guilt, even when it isn’t an actual life that has been lost. That itself makes up for a tremendous treading of space as far as being occupied with something as addictive as games is concerned, magnifying the intensity of this attachment even further with definite emotional links as well, but what made the obsession with the game, or the pet even more consuming of its players was its gameplay dedicatedly pursuing the demands of continuity.

tamagotchi on chain
Source: Pricepulse

As a game that does not pause even when one isn’t actively playing with it, and perhaps one of the first ones at that, the Tamagotchi effectively dealt with the essential nature of emotions characterising humans to offer itself as an unavoidable pursuit in chasing. It’s almost like choosing to care for a pet in real, constantly checking on it and stuff and that’s a premise rather well exploited by the makers of the game endowing therefore upon what is really a lifeless entity such semblances of existence that make it impossible to ignore. And specifically tapping into the motherly tendency believed to be naturally harboured by the female humans, even though that itself might be a trait derived from societal notions of its catering, the game unlocked indeed the secret code that led it to being the device one couldn’t really put aside even when they possess more than enough resilience to check on with that in all addiction. What emerged therefore was a craze that swept over teenage girls the world over, worrying teachers and parents alike about the disruption experienced in more real assertion whether in schools or at homes but one that retained still its humongous control through such means that could be interpreted as rather positive.

For one, despite its obsessive fanning, the play of the Tamagotchi heralded the blur of the lines between the digital and the real, offering itself as an alternate universe that was curiously charming in its offering of the experience it did. The premise though wherefrom it charted out its coursing through success was one that was rooted in ironies. In the mindset of its making that sought to garner a female userbase, the game itself did break away from the largely prevalent notion of digital games, or perhaps technological leanings being a sphere of interest for males. But the route along which it embarked to take the diversion was one still deriving of the stereotype that associated the instinct of nurturing to females. And yet, even in its seating in conformity with cultural notions and its catering to the social conventions that prevailed, the play of the Tamagotchi presented still such opportunities that could help further a whole lot of such innate skills essential for life in general. Delivering perhaps lessons in relationships and bonding and fanning emotions in the youth to help them become more aware of the exact essence of the human identity that they allude to, this tiny being that demanded to be entertained in all its whims and fancies almost round the clock could be interpreted as a tool for emotional development of its users.

Tamagotchi-Bandai-1997-Egg-Key-Chain-Manual
Source: CRO-MG

The Tamagotchi has been also more daring than what most games tend to be, even today. Even in its focus on the fostering of life, the digital play pored instead into the despair of death to assert the immense significance held in life, driving the ones responsible for it to such realisations that make for an invaluable life experience. In arousing grief and guilt in their owner, the Tamagotchis effectively yielded love and concern out of their human nurturers, perhaps even coercing them into such actions that might be wholly enriching experiences in themselves but still have been resident in such realms of the psychological that somewhat classify as being imbued with such negative behavior of controlling. Naturally therefore, the game itself has not been immune to criticisms and has even stirred controversies. Alleged citing of teen suicide plagued the game at one point in time even as the Tamagotchi Cemetery came to be rather real an assertion of what was still ‘only a game’ leading to such explorations as those governing the basis of what has been named the Tamagotchi Effect. With the level of attachment that one could grow to form with their Tamagotchi pet in both positive and negative assertions entailing out of it in more human specific understanding, like a better perspective into interpersonal relationships on one hand and over reliance on others, whether real or otherwise on the other, this has been a game potentially pervasive in the way in which it has pricked upon the conscience and permeated into existences even when catering to merely a fraction of what makes up the human population in all its diversity.


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