Virtual Pet Cemetery

Choking the Chicken: A dead imitation Tamagotchi floats over its burial mound.

DAY 1:

I got a new pet today. A virtual one, anyway: I've borrowed an imitation Tamagotchi from a friend. The original is impossible to find, but what I have should suffice: Like the Tamagotchi, it houses an electronic pet--a chicken in my case--that lives on an LCD screen in an egg-shaped keychain. As with its name-brand cousin, my pet periodically demands food, diversion, and discipline. I'm too busy as it is, but now I can satisfy my curiosity: What's behind the Tamagotchi's phenomenal success here and in its native Japan? And will I be any better at caring for one than some obsessive third-grader?

DAY 2:

I took my chicken, whom I've named Cecil, to work with me, introducing him to co-workers. Everything Cecil does is charmingly new, and although I'm met with looks of indulgent exasperation usually reserved for first-time parents, I can't stop sharing. "Look," I tell Scott, "he went to the bathroom." Scott, it turns out, couldn't care less.

DAY 3:

Today it rained on Cecil; that is, vertical lines appeared on the screen. I gave him an umbrella, and as he stood protected from the virtual torrent I couldn't help but feel a glimmer of protective pride.

DAY 5:

Taking care of Cecil is surprisingly convenient. Because he's so portable, I find myself caring for him in spare moments, while walking to the car or waiting in line. I've taken to thinking of him as a new breed of video game: While most such things offer a discrete, concentrated experience, a virtual pet bleeds into the rest of your life. Instead of testing my hand-eye coordination, Cecil is testing my time-management skills. And I seem to be doing alright so far.

Like most video games, Cecil is a simulation, although he simulates a relationship instead of violence or feats of logic. It's a relationship I'm starting to believe: Part of me is reacting as if Cecil's life is truly improved by my efforts. Tamagotchis come from a Tokyo infamous for its simulations: indoor ski slopes and rent-a-family services. But the Tamagotchi's success here hints that suggestibility might be a more universal trait owing to the existence of an electronic culture. Prepared by the transparent simulations of Hollywood blockbusters and MTV, stateside consumers can now find fulfillment by nurturing an artificial being. Sit Cecil. Stay. Good boy.

DAY 6:

I'm neglecting Cecil. When he cries out for food or attention, I ignore him. He's getting boring--in part because the novelty's wearing off, but also because he's not as cute now that he's grown up.

I'm reminded of Daniel Harris's argument that cuteness is an aestheticized pity for helpless, deformed creatures. Cuteness "arouses our sympathies by creating anatomical pariahs," he writes, "like E.T. or the Cabbage Patch Kids"--or Cecil. In the first few days of his life, after all, he was a bobbing, limbless head, a virtual quadriplegic anxiously awaiting my TLC. And now that he almost resembles a chicken, his cries seem less endearingly needy.

DAY 15:

Cecil died today. I left him alone for an hour, and when I came back his ghost was floating and grimacing over a bit-mapped burial mound.

Perversely enough, my first instinct was to press buttons to see what would happen. I was treating him like any other video game: When you're dealing with something so irrelevant, you begin to experiment for curiosity's sake because the results are equally insignificant, distinguished only by novelty. I was less concerned than curious to see if Cecil did anything new.

Sit, Cecil. Roll over. Play dead.

 
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