in Opinion | 07 JUN 97
Featured in
Issue 35

Go to Work on an Egg

The Tamagotchi phenomenon

in Opinion | 07 JUN 97

In a giant metropolis like Tokyo it's easy to feel like a particle in the composition of the city; sometimes you can't even be bothered to understand where you are or who you are. You just float, temporarily borrowing spaces and places in search of a community to belong to. Occasionally, you trespass into someone else's territory in an attempt to connect and locate yourself, eavesdropping on fragments of another's phone conversation and the sounds escaping from their Walkman. At times, you too may want to carry around your own personal space, arming yourself with a Pocket Bell (pager) or a PHS (cheapo mobile phone) - two of the musts for urban teenagers and young singles in particular - in full anticipation that someone might try to get hold of you. It's a seductive thought, but what if nobody calls before you're swallowed up by boredom? The Tamagotchi ('egg watch' or 'cute little egg'), a new key-ring sized game from Bandai, is your on-the-spot rescuer, a portable, guaranteed relationship which can provide pure, unconditional love. It gives you a reason to be: to take care of another - to be needed, to be wanted.

Following the massive success of a small key-ring version of Tetris in early 1996, Bandai introduced the Tamagotchi in November last year. Having sold 750,000 units within two months, it was initially targeted, as with other recent mega-hit products (like Print Club, the souped-up photobooth for making stick-on colour prints), at high school girls. But Tamagotchi has appealed to a consumer-base far beyond Bandai's wildest dreams. Hundreds of kids, office ladies and salarymen queue overnight in front of toy shops once word spreads that a stock of Tamagotchi will be delivered the next morning. The second Tamagotchi series 'Discover New Species Tamagotchi 2', launched in February this year, sold out in the course of weeks. The retail price is only ¥1980 (£10) but, sold by auction on the Internet, the premium white (and therefore most eggy) version attracts up to ¥50,000 (£250). Bandai reports that predicted sales in Japan by the end of April will be 3 million. This demand has put the factory in China, where Tamagotchi are made, on 24 hour shifts and the traditional Chinese New Year has been cancelled.

At a time when having a real pet in an urban context is something of privileged luxury, Bandai claims that the Tamagotchi is not an ordinary game but a 'hyper interactive digital pet'. Born the instant your fingers set the watch, the little creature transfigures itself visibly as it goes through the stages of life - spotted egg, baby, kid and adult - until it eventually (and often without warning) greets its death. It communicates its limited needs (hunger, boredom, illness and tired-

ness) through simple beeps, which can be interpreted via meters indicating health, age, weight, discipline, hunger and contentment. By pressing combinations of the three buttons and selecting items from the screen menus you can feed it, discipline it, clear up its mess, give it medicine and play peek-a-boo with it - but if you don't let it win it sulks. It might call you for no reason, so you tell it off. After anything from a few days to a couple of weeks it will die, turning into an Angel with wings and a halo (the Japanese version has a gravestone with a cross, but this was altered in deference to Christian sensibilities). This whole life cycle occurs inside an inch-square, flat world - inhabited by a population of one - held inside your palm: a personal microcosm to pour your emotional energy into.

Because of the game's portability (a quality which differentiates it from its artificial life precursors, such as the aquarium simulation Aquazone), the intimate relationship between you and your Tamagotchi is particularly tangible. It starts to share your real time, or rather, it starts to force you to synchronise with the time articulated by its biological state: hunger, sleepiness, boredom etc. Admittedly, it is annoying to be called for food or a game every hour, wherever you might be. You have to check regularly if there's any shit left uncleaned or if it has gained too much weight, and for all this, you'll be ignored once it decides to go to bed - until it wakes you up by beeping the following morning. Yet this sense of exclusive responsibility and imperfect control on your part can be amusing, reassuring or addictive - effectively you become a single parent without the mess.

Exhausting? The relationship is intense since the creature never really grows up but remains eternally dependent, absorbing your one-way love until the day it dies and flies away. Some good Tamagotchi leave an egg behind so that you can continue the family line. This asexual auto-reproduction allows you to keep the ultra-intimate and self-contained relationship with your Tamagotchi: it would be such a fantasy-killer if your Tamagotchi went out and fucked a stranger... (Although Bandai has announced that they are planning to launch the 'Tamagotchi Breed Type' in which you have to connect a female and a male version to 'make a baby'.)

One of the reasons that the Tamagotchi has been so successful is because it develops according to your care, the resulting 'adult' (there are seven possible types) inevitably reflecting your personality. Most of the Japanese Tamagotchi publications rushed to market in the last few months devote considerable space to interpreting each Tamagotchi personality, together with a horoscope section to explain what type of person you are if your Tamagotchi changes into this or that character. If you get an Oyajitchi, for example, then you might have the potential to be an Oyaji yourself - a sad but loveable middle-aged salaryman, working for his family and who, despite his hard life, is scoffed at by cheeky younger colleagues at the office and scolded by a stupid, arrogant boss. The Oyaji's only happy moments are when he is complaining or forgetting everything while drinking. While Oyajitchi is still a loveable creature, a hypothetical Obantchi - a middle aged woman eggie - could never be acceptable: Oban is still strongly regarded as a derogatory word and no one really loves to be, or be with, her.

It is rumoured that high school girls often zap the Tamagotchi in the middle of its life (by hitting the reset button) upon realising they have no chance of getting the character they want: the nastiest one. But even if you're no daredevil serial killer, sooner or later, the relationship ends with death. Finally liberated from your loved one's demands, you begin to realise the range and depth of emotions stirred up by the game. After all, as it is just a virtual creature, so too, surely, must be your emotions? Protected by the distance of the LCD screen, you enjoy the subtle shades of your sentiments being pricked, played with and fooled: sensations of pity, loss, guilt and sorrow whet the appetite of your numbed-by-humdrum-everyday-life nerves - as long as they are only half real.

The 'Tamagotchi Memorial Centre' on the Internet ( where you can bury your beloved and confess your 'words of regret and sorrow', is one of the playgrounds in which you can act out the complexities of such confused emotions: 'It was my first child, but it was hard to nurture it while I was going to work, so I tended to leave it alone and free. But still, it survived [...] I'll foster the egg you left me with great care...'; ' I washed it yesterday without noticing it was still in my pocket. It's too sad that the first parting was due to drowning. I don't think I have the energy to work or to eat for a while. Sorry, my Tamagotchi'; 'I called the Bandai Customer Centre all morning, but the line was always engaged. So I couldn't even take my Tamagotchi to Hospital before it died'. How far do these stories represent true feelings? Whether it is with words of remorse or sick jokes, everyone craves a 'proper' ending, acknowledging that the way we accept death is the final and most dramatic act of finishing the game.

Some, it seems, cannot even be separated from their loved ones through death. Launched in Japan in late May, Tenshi no Tamagotchi (Angel Tamagotchi) will allow your dead Tamagotchi to come back to earth, on cascading streams of star dust, to revisit you as an angel. The better you look after it, the better it prays for you. After it feels it has prayed enough, it returns to the city of angels where it stores up energy to come down over and over again. Is this what people call 'eternal love'? To feed and nurture the dead so that you can be prayed for as if you were the one who had died? Bound to the chains of your Tamagotchi's reincarnation, your love will last for eternity - or until the day your boredom finally kills it.