Bandai's Golden Egg
Pathfinder - Netlynewsnetwork by Rebecca Eisenber March 21, 1997A spate of violence has hit Tokyo. Police helicopters are chasing four crazed gang members, who've fled the scene, their whoop-assed victim -- knocked silly, his head spinning -- in their wake.
The suspects are captured. The contraband is returned. It's a... plastic egg!
Is this anime? Far from it. It's Japan's latest craze, soon to hit the U.S.: the Tamagotchi, produced by Bandai, the same company that blessed the world the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and the Beetleborgs.
Tamagotchi, or "lovable egg," looks like one of those plastic change-holders that peaked as a '70s fad. Only it has a small gray LCD display and three round buttons below the screen. Small enough to fit into a person's hand, Tamagotchi is Japan's latest application of artificial intelligence to bite-sized electronic gadgets, a Japanese forte. Although not really that intelligent, the Tamagotchi fakes it pretty well -- and is far more realistic than graphically rendered make-believe humans. Treat it like ... and it will ... on you.
"You cannot just ignore your Tamagotchi when it needs you... Business people have been known to postpone meetings because their Tamagotchi needed its waste removed or its sore feelings consoled."
Well, virtually, that is. Tamagotchi is actually a "virtual pet"; after traveling "millions of light-years through cyberspace" to hatch in its flattened-duck-egg-shaped shell, it immediately starts squeaking and crying for attention from its owner. Tamagotchi owners are then obliged to feed it when it's hungry, play with it when it needs attention, vaccinate it when it's ill, scold it when it's naughty and, indeed, clean it up after it defecates. (All of these tasks are conveniently made possible through the buttons on the Tamagotchi's casing.) When the owner does not fulfill these obligations, the Tamagotchi will become unhappy, kvetchy, ill and, ultimately, dead.
And, even though a new Tamagotchi can be hatched with the press of a button when an old one dies, people become quite attached to their digital playmates, and have even erected a web cemetery for their memorial. An owner can register a gravestone, organized by how long the Tamagotchi lived, describe what presents she wants to leave on the grave -- such as flowers and candy -- and leave a short eulogy. "Bye bye Tamagotchi," one tombstone reads, "he was very cute."
"Stupid battery died on me."
"It drowned with my laundry! My fault!"
"It is more than a toy, it is a learning device," states Mary Woodworth, a spokesperson for Bandai Corporation's U.S. division. "It teaches people to be responsible -- to care for something like a pet. People see how long they can extend the life of their Tamagotchi pet. You cannot just ignore your Tamagotchi when it needs you... Businesspeople have been known to postpone meetings because their Tamagotchi needed its waste removed or its sore feelings consoled."
"You don't just play with your Tamagotchi when you feel like it," she continued. "It will let you know when it wants you. It will beep you and cry for you, and its sounds will get louder and louder until you give it attention." If you ignore it, she noted, the Tamagotchi will misbehave -- acting loudly and recklessly, not responding to affection and even becoming physically ill.
"It gets diarrhea," explained Chieka, a Japanese woman living in New York City. In this way, it is said, Tamagotchi fosters responsibility and selflessness.
Well, a lot of people must be in search of responsibility, because in Japan, Tamagotchi has caught on in a huge way. First released last November, it sold 350,000 units before the the end of the year, and 1.35 million units before the supply was ultimately exhausted in February. Bandai was forced into full-throttle production, and is promising to hatch 7 million new Tamagotchis in Japan by July, when the English version lands in the United States. All told, Bandai expects to sell 13 million Tamagotchis by next March.
Meanwhile, while supplies are low, Tamagotchi cultists are wreaking havoc on each other for the little digital chick. When a store announces that a thousand or so of the gadgets will be made available, Japanese children and adults travel hundreds of miles to camp out on the street, hoping to buy one. Other people resort to the underground market, where a Tamagotchi sells for 50 times its street value of 1,900 yen (about $16). In other words, up to $1,000 for a little plastic cousin-of-Coleco football.
Tamagotchi crimes -- where teenagers, in pursuit of fresh eggs, are arrested for assault -- have reached such dangerous levels that Tamagotchi owners are advised to keep the devices hidden while in public, and Bandai employees are warned to keep their employment affiliation secret to avoid being mugged and robbed.
All this for a product that purportedly teaches people how to be "responsible" and "care for another."
"I don't know why Japanese people like that kind of toy," Miwa, a Japanese woman in her early twenties living in Los Angeles, told me. "In my opinion, Japanese mass media has a great influence on Japanese people. If I was in Japan now, I might be interested in that toy just because everyone wants it." Miwa originally was a lucky owner of an egg herself, but was convinced by a good friend of hers in Japan to give it away. No small gift -- "It's worth more than $300 now, and if you have white Tamagotchi, it's worth more than $1,000. Mine was blue. There are several colors."
People wear them as necklaces, key chains, bracelets," Woodworth noted. "Movie stars are seen playing with them while they are being interviewed on TV." It has now become more than a fashion statement -- the Tamagotchi is also a status symbol.
"Can I get one?" I asked. "Sorry, there are only 24 right now in the United States." And they are all being "tested" by the employees of Bandai, in Southern California. "We love them," Woodworth confessed. The forthcoming U.S. version, which will sell for under $20, will come in three new flavors -- including angels and imaginary sea and forest creatures -- and will be ported to the Nintendo Gameboy, which is odd since Bandai is scheduled to merge with Sega this fall.
Like most fads, the Tamagotchi craze has sprouted a garden industry of cultural interpretation to explain the popularity. Many pundits explain that the toy's popularity is largely due to Japan's space shortage -- the handheld device enables residents to own pets without the hassle of a litter box or the requirement of a backyard. In Tokyo, where 13 million people reside in a space that seems adequate for barely one tenth that number, pet owners are often forced to leave their animals in pet shops, and visit them occasionally on their way to or from work.
Others note that Tamagotchi offers what computer users have been seeking all along -- an electronic interface that talks back and builds a relationship with its user. This desire for "artificial life" has driven companies such as Fujitsu Interactive and P.F. Magic to introduce products such as Fin Fin and OddBallz, screen savers and windows applications that bond with their "owners." "Artificial life is a whole new level of human-computer interaction," Yoshi Matsumodo, vice president of Fujitsu Interactive in San Francisco, told me. "It is a step along the way to a time when humans and computers -- as intelligent agents -- can work together for productivity and entertainment."
These ideas are nothing new. Who has not held a secret longing for the robotic concubines and electronic Orgasmatrons depicted by Woody Allen in his 1973 film "Sleeper"?
It all makes sense. Those of us who have held dysfunctional love/hate relationships with our computers for a long time have suspected a logical next step: a computer device that loves you -- and hates you -- right back.
"Gadgets & Gizmos" section. Expires 11-Apr-97 By Giles Turnbull, New Media Correspondent, PA News
When your baby tamagotchi cries, you have to tend to it. When it is hungry, you must feed it. When it has misbehaved, you have to scold it. But if you get fed up, you can always kill it - by simply switching it off.
Tamagotchis, produced by Bandai, are the latest craze to sweep through Japan, and will arrive in UK shops later this summer.
Each one is a small lump of plastic, about the size of a stopwatch, that hangs round the owner's neck or sits comfortably in a pocket. On the front it has a small LCD screen that can display simple pixel pictures.
The name tamagotchi is Japanese for loveable egg.
These toy virtual pets have been hugely popular with young Japanese people, especially women in their teens and twenties.
To care for your pet, you simply have to respond to its electronic whistles and hoots by pressing the right button at the right time.
The electronic creature needs feeding, teaching, cleaning, telling off and even inoculating against tamagotchi diseases.
This might sound fun, but some reports tell of tamagotchi waking their owners from sleep, or interfering with work. When that little critter bleeps, you just have to do something to shut it up.
Failure to do so will mean poor care - and poor care means a shorter life. When the tamagotchi's life is at an end, it dies - for good. Unlike all other toys, the owner cannot just turn it off and walk away.
That's the point behind a virtual pet, it is as realistic as the real thing. You can't walk away from Fido or Tabby either.
At the end of the day there's little serious scientific interest in tamagotchi, but they are a first hesitant step towards mass market virtual life. In any case, at least for some people, they can be fun.
Copyright 1997 Press Association Ltd.
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