Long live the new flesh
There’s a limit to the companionship our virtual pets can provide. Sure, it might be cool having an electric blue rabbit friend in your web browser, but at the end of the day the novelty of the little critter wears off and you’re still alone in your room with your computer. The corporations behind these critters were quick to catch on, and a few years into the craze they began to produce physical manifestations of our digital pals. Our precious virtual pets were no longer confined to cyberspace—they could sit right on your lap like a real-life animal. But unlike a dog or a cat, these creatures weren’t unique—and could one really said to be “yours” when a dozen of the same creature were for sale in the same toy aisle?
Neopets Bust Out
In the early 2000’s, the virtual pet website Neopets began releasing a series of collectible plushies. As an avid collector of these plushies during their initial run, I have first-hand experience with the epic merchandising campaign surrounding them. Following the footsteps of Beanie Baby craze a few years prior, Neopets produced a wide variety of pet species and colors—or “paint brushes”—based on their popular online virtual pet simulator.
In order to make these toys somewhat relevant to the game, each individual plush was given a unique code with exclusive codes for items. This strategy is a precedent to shameless cross-promotional “loot box” marketing and the modern “toys to life” exemplified by Skylanders and Nintendo’s amiibos. However, these items weren’t anything special—it was the dolls’ cuddly aesthetics and colorful, true-to-character designs that made them sought-after collectibles. I say this as the owner of roughly over hundred of these dolls rotting in storage.
[Image caption: A colorful box of Neopets plush dolls with codes for exclusive online items]
Naturally, these collectible dolls come from a noble lineage of virtual pet toys. In perhaps the most literal mash-up of ideas, the Poo-chi robot dog manufactured by Sega Toys from 2000 to 2002 preceded ThinkWay’s 2003 well-received voice-activated Neopets plush line. Sega’s very own charming robot dogs were eventually the subject of their own McDonald’s toy campaign in 2001, also preceding Neopets’ very own 109-toy McDonalds campaign. It’s hard not to see the success of the Neopets toy line as the natural progression of the Poo-chi line—both are, in a very literal sense, virtual. However, unlike Poo-chi’s emphasis on plastic and lights, the Neopets merchandise emphasized a different type of tangibility altogether—cuddliness and softness.
[The Sakura colored Poo-chi robot dog by Sega Toys]
Nothing about the phrase “virtual pets” screams cuddly. Sure, your Kacheeks and Poogles might look cute, but that cuteness isn’t fully realized until translated into physical form. And this is what made the Neopets merchandising campaign work—an emphasis on softness and cuteness rather than sharp, futuristic aesthetics. Rather than mimic Sega’s popular Poo-chi or the plastic egg-shaped Tamagotchi, Neopets followed the Beanie Baby school of thought of prioritizing big-eyed adorableness over anything else.
Instead investing in hard electronic toys, Neopets played up their creatures’ likeness to snuggly technicolor artificiality. This would be a win-win for both Neopets and their licensed toy manufacturer ThinkWay. Not only would these plushies reinforce Neopets’ online brand, but it also opened the door to the collectible toy market without the fear of being outdated by new technology. While you might need to recharge your Poo-chi to play, your Neopet will always be there for you offline and online. Just make sure to catch ‘em all in the process, or you’ll miss out on some sweet loot.
[Image caption: The voice-activated line of Neopets toys produced by ThinkWay]
It wouldn’t take long for Neopets to expand into the electronic toy market. However, this line of light-up, talking figurines was no match for their expansive plush line. Let’s be honest—toys that talk and walk on their own are kinda creepy. The 2016 horror game Tattletail developed by Waygetter Electronics capitalized on this creepiness and the unnerving nature of the virtual pet made tangible, with the ingame company’s tagline being “We Make Virtual Pets So Real, They’re Virtually Family.” While the electronic Neopets toys never demanded to be fed on a regular basis like their online counterparts, the fictional Tattletail toy requires the player to feed it straight from their fridge. It’s a logical extension of the hungry, capitalistic undertones of merchandising free-to-play kids’ games.
It’s hard to ignore the obvious cynicism towards gimmicky virtual pet toys and their aggressive marketing towards kids in Tattletail. The game taps into an important criticism of the intention behind merchandising virtual pets in the first place—at what point does your pet really become yours? Are you just a helpless victim to an evil corporate hivemind, or is your love for this critter as natural as your dog’s piss on the carpet?
[Image caption: He Really Eats! Now he’s yours to feed (your parents’ paychecks)!]
When I was a kid, I had a dilemma. I had a blue Kacheek I loved more than anything else on the Neopets website. I refused to paint him any other colors other than the basic blue, which became a problem when Neopets toys started populating my local toy aisle. Suddenly, there were identical rows of blue Kacheeks everywhere and I felt completely betrayed. Where was my blue Kacheek in this sea of copies anyone with enough cash could swipe up? Wasn’t my Neopet special?
The answer was no, of course not. My blue Kacheek was just like a dozen other blue Kacheeks in the production line, all of them the same pre-recorded voice mechanic that triggered when it recognized someone speaking to it. I was devastated. This soulless stuffed animal had none of the personality I’d diligently constructed for my online pet, nor any of the memories I’d attached to exploring the website. To me, this was just an empty shell, a reminder of what my Neopet might resemble when stripped down to its basic HTML code. It’s like Gucci took my favorite pet dog and turned him into a fur coat. The true magic of the virtual pet experience, I learned, wasn’t the tangibility of your pet becoming “real,” but the memories and affect associated with the cartoon .jpg loaded on your screen.
[Image caption: I will love this furry blue man until the day I die]
Now, because I am in my early twenties and not a little kid, I have no clue what’s popular or trendy anymore. Last time I checked Webkinz were a thing, a franchise that pushed the plush doll-with-online-functionality model even harder. You would purchase a Webkinz doll and use a code to register it online to play games and raise it much like a Neopet. Except, unlike Neopets, which was free, there was a pay-to-play aspect of Webkinz. The intense merchandising of Neopets was no doubt an elaborate effort to make-up for game’s lack of entry fee—a strategy that lives on now in mobile app collectible gacha games.
Because their attempt to mimic the real cuddly pet experience was a relative success, it’s hard to denounce Neopets’ attempt to capitalize on their character’s cute aesthetics. It’d be like shaming Nintendo for making Pikachu too cute. Besides that point, rather than go the way of Japanese electronic toys, Neopets set an important precedent for virtual pet merchandising by emphasizing a “cuddle factor” rather than sleek, futuristic designs.
To return to my previous piece on virtual pets, let’s remember scholar David W. Kritt’s argument about virtual pets, that they: “occupy an indeterminate status as neither living nor completely inanimate.” By being neither animate or inanimate, the virtual pet has no obligation to any particular aesthetic once it makes the leap from screen to toy aisle. But that doesn’t mean it gets to bypass the uncanny valley in the process, either—see Tattletail—nor does that mean the toy version will be as successful as the online counterpart.
The toy versions of our favorite virtual pets occupy a niche all their own, perhaps one even more unique than their cyberspace doppelgängers. And like most doppelgängers, the tendrils of these merchandising tactics continue to lurk in the shadows for their own unassuming audience. Creepy, yes, but perhaps that’s just the price to pay for a cuddly companion untouched by death’s grace in this lonely, postmodern social media world.