Maybe a Tamagotchi Will Help

Why digital pets are sparking joy right now

Photo: Xavier ROSSI/Getty Images

My Tamagotchi, which I’ve named Tamagotchi III, chirps beside me as I doomscroll. I detach my eyes from Twitter and attend to Tamagotchi’s needs: He is hungry but refuses the apple pie I offer him, opting instead for a bottle of milk.

He’s my third Tamagotchi hatchling; the first, Tamagotchi I, died — I forgot about him for a day, so he starved. The second, Tamagotchi II, grew fat and happy and returned to his home planet. Now I nurture Tamagotchi III all day every day so that he will hopefully do the same, making way for Tamagotchi IV.

Though my mother says I had a Tamagotchi when I was a kid — which she claims was “so annoying” — I don’t remember it at all. Therefore, I consider this Tamagotchi device, which has birthed the above three hatchlings so far, my first. The product, a Hello Kitty Tamagotchi that launched in December 2020, is the latest in the device’s parent company Bandai’s yearlong attempt to reintroduce Tamagotchi to a younger American audience 25 years after its initial 1996 launch.

Here’s the thing: I love my Tamagotchi. I love that it gives me a momentary respite from my phone or computer. I love caring for this odd little alien (Tamagotchi, canonically, are aliens) so that he’ll grow up happy and healthy enough to return home. I love how straightforward, easy, and accessible the job of taking care of him is. I love the product’s smooth, egg shape, and I love that when I’m bored or tired or stressed out by the world, I have a little creature who not only is fun to play with but actively needs my attention to survive.

For these reasons, I think you should consider coughing up the $15 to $58 (depending on the model) for your own Tamagotchi and get one for your kid while you’re at it. For some folks, the pleasure gleaned from the nostalgia factor makes it worth the money alone. Others, like myself, will appreciate how simple and rewarding it is to nurture a Tamagotchi from a freshly hatched baby to a full-grown, independent animal alien.

Tamagotchi have remained popular in Japan over the years, but in the United States, the late ’90s fervor over the miniature handheld virtual pet subsided quickly, leaving long-time American Tamagotchi fans to resort to the expensive, time-consuming task of buying the devices on eBay or directly from Japanese retailers. In 2017, Bandai released a 20th-anniversary edition, and in 2019, it introduced the $59 Tamagotchi On, a more dynamic Tamagotchi with a larger, full-color screen. Tamagotchi On allows users to “breed” two characters and create a unique baby and has Bluetooth capabilities so that owners can connect with other Tamagotchis. There’s also a “daycare” setting, so Tamagotchi parents can take a step away from their needy little alien eggs without fear of it dying.

My $20 Hello Kitty Tamagotchi is bare-bones in comparison. The small egg-shaped device has three buttons, a black-and-white screen, and is completely self-contained — no connecting to other Tamagotchis. Once hatched, the little creature chirps for pie and milk throughout the day. If he’s in a bad mood — indicated by a series of dashes that appear in the top right corner of the screen — you can give him milk (which cheers him up) and play one of two games that are so easy, even I win them 70% of the time. He goes to bed at around 10:15 p.m. and prefers it (i.e., will be less likely to be in a “bad mood”) if you turn off the light. But I didn’t even know you can do this the first couple weeks I had it, so Tamagotchi I and II both slept with the lights on every night. There’s no daycare, so he will die if I don’t care for him throughout the day.

There’s no one answer for why the Tamagotchi is so appealing. Travis Faas, a PhD candidate in human-computer interaction at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has studied why people play virtual pet games. He thinks the caretaking aspect is critical for a segment of users, especially those who can’t have their own pets. Many people crave the connection and emotional fulfillment of pet ownership, but circumstances in their lives prohibit it. “Tamagotchis give them that capability without having to have the responsibility or the monetary responsibility of taking care of a dog or taking care of a bird,” he says. In a 2017 study he conducted with researcher Chaolan Lin, he found that the number one reason people played virtual pet games was that they wanted access to animals. A then-24-year-old study participant told the researchers that “when I was about 12 years old, people around me had their own pets. So, I’d like to have a Tamagotchi.” As an adult, she plays Sonic Adventures because playing pet games “filled the gap in my heart when I want to play with animals.”

Here’s the thing: I love my Tamagotchi.

Amad Ilyas, a creative director based in New Jersey, has been a Tamagotchi fan since he was a kid. Emotional fulfillment was a big reason he loved Tamagotchi in the beginning, he says. “I was pretty much a loner, so it was nice to always have [the Tamagotchi] there to check in/play with when I got bored.”

In Faas and Lin’s study, a significant number of study participants sought and received emotional fulfillment from playing pet games. “Tamagotchi pets were one of the first virtual pet games and were phenomenal. Some people engaged in Tamagotchi pets to gain psychological fulfillment through feeding, grooming, and training a simulated pet,” says Lin, a PhD candidate in cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. “As these pets require constant attention, some people might develop an emotional attachment with the virtual pets called the ‘Tamagotchi effect.’ These people might also find it difficult to leave the game as that would cause the Tamagotchi pet to ‘die.’” Lin thinks the moral question presented by the Tamagotchi’s death via neglect was one of the reasons behind its success.

I certainly do not know how my relationship with my own Tamagotchi will come to a close. When I forgot about Tamagotchi I and he starved, I was stricken. I felt genuinely shocked and kind of sad, but I also learned my lesson; Tamagotchi III is happier than ever.

With Tamagotchi and other simple pet games, an understanding of death is really the only foundational knowledge required to begin play, says Nicholas Bowman, an associate professor of creative media industries at Texas Tech University who studies how nostalgia intersects with video game playing. This means that people like me, who have very little personal history of playing video games and thus next to no skill, will have an easier time getting a foot in the door.

“Products like Tamagotchi allowed nongamers to start playing with digital toys. And as you start playing with digital toys, you realize it’s fun. It opens up the market to other digital toys,” he says.

Tamagotchi launched in 1996 to a generation of millennials who were infantile gamers at the time; now, those gamers have grown up and have greater proficiency and bigger expectations of their video games than they did then. Gen Zers, meanwhile, were practically born with smartphones in hand. The learning curve for many young gamers now is considerably shallower than it was for kids in the ’90s and early 2000s, when Tamagotchi was popular in the United States.

Given this, Bowman thinks nostalgia is a critical ingredient to the success of a retro gaming product like Tamagotchi. “We know that nostalgia can be a source of psychological well-being — people kind of temporarily look back on their better selves, and then try to relive it,” he says. “A big part of nostalgia is the sensory experience. So for example, my research has found that the nostalgia of video games is somewhat tied up in the actual controller itself, like holding in your hand.”

This could mean that a device like Tamagotchi, the unique experience of which is tied almost exclusively to its plastic egg shape and little key chain, could be uniquely primed for success if marketed properly.

Bandai wouldn’t give me its recent sales numbers in the U.S., but it has sold 82 million units globally. Tama-Palace, a Tamagotchi fansite, says growth has been significant in the past year. “Our traffic has grown quite a bit since the Tamagotchi On was announced back in 2019,” a spokesperson tells me. “We are seeing a spike in new caretakers. … We’ve been around since 2006, and the energy is back in the Tamagotchi brand, and things are not slowing down.”

Joel Benge, a marketing strategist in Maryland, bought Tamagotchis for himself and his kid for Christmas, and they’ve both been loving the experience. However, his child’s classmates don’t share his enthusiasm so far. “He shared that he got one for his birthday, but nobody seemed to know what it was. I guess it’s still all Pokémon and Nintendo Switch with his classmates.”

Still, adults and kids who do own the new Tamagotchi seem, for the most part, thrilled with their new virtual pets, the main complaint primarily being that the screens appear to be scratched — at least according to Amazon reviews.

“I bought one for myself, my sister, and my seven-year-old son (!). My son is a Roblox, Fortnite type of kid but he asked for a Tamagotchi after seeing me play mine, and I thought it was sweet,” says a reviewer by the name of J.N.

“First off, let me say that my girls, unfortunately, have the attention span of a gnat. … You guys: it’s been 2 weeks and they are STILL obsessed with them!” writes Raindance Maggie.

Whether driven by nostalgia, an inability to have your own pet, or like me, you simply like cute animals but possess extremely limited video game skills, a Tamagotchi might be just the thing your internet-rattled, pandemic-survivor brain needs. “Something as simple as a little dog toy that you put in your pocket can be enough to at least give you some good memories and cheer you up,” says Bowman. “Everybody plays, and the more we find different ways for folks to play, I think the better we’re going to be in the long run, especially during times of stress and strain.”

Now I’m casually considering playing my husband’s Nintendo Switch, which I’ve never even considered picking up before except to clean. Any suggestions for fun, easy animal games? I’m all ears.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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