The blurred line between real and artificial
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to have pets. For most kids this would’ve been devastating, but I didn’t waste any time finding a surrogate. I had videogames, and plenty of them—a classic Game Boy with a minimal selection of games, among them being the classic 1997 Tamagotchi, the cartridge version of the hugely popular virtual pet toy. Unable to obtain one of those coveted keychain eggs, this was as close to the Tamagotchi experience as I could get.
The scenario for Tamagotchi is perfunctory, serving to set up the game’s loop. A spaceship crashes on to Earth, introducing you to a new alien lifeform you must raise from an egg into adulthood. The graphics are primitive and your new friend resembles a weird amalgamation of a jelly bean and a Picasso painting.
You have one job: raise this ugly alien baby, clean up its poop, and hit the feed button regularly to keep it from dying. Don’t screw it up.
“A New Life”
Tamagotchi stands comfortably on the three-pillars of virtual pet simulacra: life, death, and minigames. When your blob alien baby gets sick, you click the scary needle icon. When it’s bored, you click the funky basketball icon. When it misbehaves, you click the mean scold icon. If you can manage these simple tasks, the creature lives a happy, fully life. Fail, and the creature dies miserably and its game over. There is no distinct fail state other than your pet dying from neglect, but even then you get the opportunity to restart and try again. The end goal is to engage in positive paternal behavior, but what that looks like is entirely up to the player—you can be just as unnecessarily cruel to your alien pet as you can be loving.
In his essay “Queer Gaming: Gaming, Hacking, and Going Turbo,“ scholar Jack Halberstam presents a list of questions to consider when asking how much autonomy a player has in a video game environment, and at what point can we identify its limitations of player control. One of these questions is especially pertinent: “Under what conditions can ‘new life’ be imagined, inhabited, and enacted” in the virtual game-space?
One way to think about how this “new life” takes shape is by considering what kind of player is nurturing. By being intentionally non-violent simulation titles, virtual pet games are distinct in their lack of an explicit player avatar gender—the player is given a caregiver’s role without being considered its “mother” or “father.” There’s no third-person avatar, just the player’s interacting hand. The virtual creature is tamed by the player, but the relationship is more like that of a parent and a child rather than a master and underling. However, the player will inevitably makes fatal mistakes. This is the point where in Halberstam’s terms, “a new life” occurs in Tamagotchi—a tedious process of trial-and-error. It’s a leap of faith, not unlike the one most new parents take.
In 2001, at the peak of the Japanese virtual pet craze, Machiko Kusahara published The Art of Creating Subjective Reality: An Analysis of Japanese Digital Pets. In it, she writes:
“The different ways in which people perceive real animals […] must be reflected in the way people look at virtual animals. Distinctions between humans and animals, humans and machines, humans and robots, cyborgs or androids, differ according to the times and society, according to social, religious and biological knowledge and beliefs.”
Tamagotchi is simultaneously telling players the creature is both alive and virtual, paradoxically animate and inanimate. As a kid,Tamagotchi’s mixed messages communicated that it was okay if the blob died. Sure, you’d feel bad about it, but it wasn’t as bad as your pet dog getting hit by a car. In fact, there’s no way to know precisely how many times you can scold your blob or refuse to clean up its poop without it dying once or twice. Tamagotchi insists that this natural frustration is part of the parenting process, that without it, you might as well play the game with a walkthrough ready at hand. But where’s the fun in that?
Nintendo jumped on the pet craze with its Pocket Pikachu device in 1998, which didn’t include the possibility of death. Rather, Pikachu would only become increasingly disgruntled if the player didn’t take care of it properly. This was accomplished primary by walking with Pikachu strapped to your belt, or in your pocket, and buying him gifts to play with. Compared to Tamagotchi’s approach to failing to raise your virtual creature, Nintendo simply slapped players on the wrist and moved on. Instead of punishing the player with death as a fail state, players were simply given a goal to achieve with minimal losses if they didn’t meet a certain set of conditions.
Unlike Tamagotchi, which included stats like health and obedience, the Pocket Pikachu was primarily a glorified pedometer with a cute virtual pet gimmick to attract a younger audience. It’s impossible for Pikachu to die, and therefore it’s impossible for the player to have a direct line of impact on the final end state—life or death—of the raising simulator. The assumed goodness of the player is built into the design of Pocket Pikachu—there’s simply no way to abuse your Pikachu the way you might your Tamagotchi blob.
Whether or not you particularly like animals or refuse to empathize with their virtual counterparts, Kusahara’s statement remains true: the degree of “goodness” a player can perform is relative to their understanding of the distinctions “between humans and animals, humans and machines, humans and robots, cyborgs or android.” Not all virtual creatures are created equal, and it may not be as easy to empathize with a creature unable to “die” than those for whom it is a going concern.
A Small Life
From Halberstam and Kusahara, we can understand the meeting points between player interaction with the virtual pet, and to what extent they can manipulate the outcome of the raising simulator. Under the conditions of potential death, a “new life” is created for both the player and creature—that of the parent and child—which becomes the point at which social and cultural factors influence a player’s decisions. These decisions to either nurture or neglect the virtual animal depend on the player’s identification of their pet—is it a living creature that deserves empathy or simply an inanimate set of code? In Technology’s Covert Socialization of Children: High-Tech Toys, David W. Kritt writes:
“Interactive dolls, robots, and virtual pets, especially in their self-announced guise as quasi-biological, sentient beings, occupy an indeterminate status as neither living nor completely inanimate. They can both physically represent and behaviorally approximate aspects of animate beings, suggesting flexible boundaries for their categorization.”
Virtual pets make nurturing behavior optional—you can forfeit responsibility whenever you want, and no one is forced into a maternal role they don’t want. The virtual pet is cute and charming, and exists somewhere right before the graph of familiarity dives into the uncanny valley.
No doubt the boundaries between virtual pets and sentient beings, in all their endeavors to mimic the real needs of animals, are becoming porous. For example, the hunter class and their pets in vanilla World of Warcraft originally incorporated a happiness meter until finally removing it in later patches. When this meter went below a certain threshold, the performance of the battling pet would deteriorate, frustrating several players who saw the task of feeding their animals as a distraction from the “real” gameplay.
The hunter pets of WoW are a good lesson in the extent to which certain degrees of “realism” are acceptable in genres other than pet simulators. While the mechanic of “feeding” a virtual pet and playing with it is commonplace in the raising genre, in male-dominated MMORPGs the mechanic may be seen as yet another chore on a laundry list of tasks.
Does that mean these players don’t care about animals? No—it’s just a bad content-context fit for an otherwise harmless pet simulator feature. Kritt’s commentary on high-tech toys is just as applicable here: video game pets inhabit a liminal space all their own, neither completely animate or inanimate, but something new altogether that succeed in specific contexts.
The gendered implications of this are complicated: in games where violence is a priority, the nurturing aspect of pet-raising is seen as superfluous. There’s no place for nurturing when you have a magic axe to swing. In an effort to engage in more masculine behavior, the “behaviorally approximate aspects” of the virtual pet are dismissed on the principle that it’s just an inanimate gadget, of value insofar as it bolsters the player’s abilities.
Again, the virtual pet is simultaneously animate and inanimate—it teeters on the edge between realistic and fantastic. as to whether or not it wants to be realistic or fantastic. But regardless of where they land, they welcome us. Pet simulators provide a safety net that promise players it’s not the end of the world when an animal you love dies. For some simulators, death is a fail state, while for others it’s the inevitable end of life, regardless of how much you care for your charge.
Is the love we project onto our virtual pets any less real than that we project onto flesh and blood animals? Can a rabbit really love us any more than a blob in a plastic keychain? These questions may seem absurd, but to dismiss them out of hand is to do a disservice both to ourselves, and to our complex relationships with the virtual creatures we care for.