The History of Digital Pets

Anyone born after 1993 will struggle to understand just how crazy the world went for digital pets. Trickling into the mainstream in the mid-1990s and catapulted into mass media with the release of the Tamagotchi, digital, artificial pets were a genuine sensation. In an age of smartphones and fibre optic broadband, the tech seems almost quaint now. But for a certain generation of people, digital pets were alive, loved, and a defining part of growing up.
Whether you’re nostalgic for an age of Tamagotchi devices or wondering just how the world could be so enthralled by what was – to all intents and purposes – a fancy calculator, this article will try to explain just how and why digital pets were so popular and why we’re not done with them just yet.

Digital Pets: A history

If we want to understand digital pets, it’s important to look at their history. To do so, we need to understand the nature of computing and technology in the early 1990s. Back then, we didn’t have super computers in our pockets and our lives didn’t live in the cloud. Back then, a few moving pixels on the screen was enough to keep us happy.
Just look at the video game consoles at the time. The Atari, for instance, seems positively prehistoric. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System, released around the time period in question, was certainly popular and its games have held up well today. But they could only be used in conjunction with a television. Just like the SNES’s little portable brother, the Game Boy, it was very apparent that it was a games machine, rather than an actual, digital pet.
Perhaps the game changer in this regard was the virtual pet franchise, Dogz. One look at that errant ‘Z’ at the end of the word tells you just how emblematic of the 1990s this games series was. Released in 1995 and designed for Windows computers, Dogz (part of a wider franchise named Petz) was a game which allowed the user to adopt, raise, and breed dogs. There wasn’t really a game involved, it was just a simulation of owning a pet – without all the mess and vets’ bills.
Dogz – along with its kennelmates Catz, Horsez, and Hamsterz – eventually proved so popular that the franchise ended up selling around 22 million copies. It demonstrated that there was a real market for digital pets, even if they were still tethered to the cumbersome Windows computers of the day.

The Game Changer

A year later, everything changed. We’ll examine the Tamagotchi in its own section, but there’s no way to discuss the history of digital pets without mentioning its name. Those little egg-shaped machines were everywhere in 1996. If you were within earshot of a child (or an adult), you’d be sure to hear those familiar, monotone chirping and buzzing sounds.
The most important quality of the Tamagotchi – and the one which really helped Bandai to crack the Western market wide open – was the portability of the thing. You didn’t have to boot up a PC, insert a CD, and wait for everything to load. The little critter was right there, on your keychain, with you the entire day. Just like a real pet, it demanded care and attention at all hours. Just like a real pet, you had to lavish it with this care and attention, lest harm befall the poor creature.
There was even a sense of progression. You had to raise the digital animal from the moment it popped out of its egg, right through infancy, into the difficult teenage years, and into adulthood. Along the way, you could train the pet, helping to teach it behaviours and tricks. You could even discipline the pet when it was badly behaved and clicking that button carried a heavy emotional weight, just as with a real pet.

If you didn’t take care of your pet – whether through negligence or forgetfulness – it died. Plenty of children’s formative experiences of death came when their little Tamagotchi finally bit the bullet, all because they hadn’t clicked the right button at the right time. You could compare the age of your pets, (makeshift high scores) which showed friends just how good of an owner you were for your digital pet. It was a sales sensation.

Of course, in the aftermath of the Tamagotchi, everyone wanted a piece of the pie. Later, we’ll check out some of the chief rivals to Bandai’s throne, but they all operated on the same essential model: little plastic device with a monochrome digital screen. That was the format and that was what sold.

And, oh boy, did it sell. At the peak of its popularity, 15 Tamagotchi devices were sold every minute in the United States. As of 2018, Bandai estimates that they’ve sold 82 million of the devices. And that’s just the official ones. There were plenty of imitators and pretenders. Everyone and their friend had a digital pet. But the genre wasn’t done evolving.
After the buzz around the Tamagotchi died down (which took a while), a new type of digital pet emerged. By this time, portable gaming had evolved massively since the mid-1990s. The Nintendo Game Boy had been replaced with an entirely new machine, the DS. The Dual Screen set-up from which the console takes its name was important. On top was a conventional screen – fully colourised, by now – and below was a touch screen, activated using a stylus (or a finger). It was this touch capability which resounded so well with the digital pet crowd.
In 2005, Nintendo released Nintendogs – another digital pet game series with an atrocious name. It was a pet simulator, offering much the same experience at the Tamagotchi. You could raise a dog, petting it, training it, caring for it, and – on occasion – disciplining it. Thanks to the touch screen and the microphone, owners could actually pet and talk to their dog, which would react accordingly. It responded to your actual voice commands: tell the puppy to sit and it just might (if you’d trained it properly).
The Nintendo DS was a hugely successful console and Nintendogs (which also spawned a multi-species franchise) was a hit. To this day, it remains the second-highest selling game on the handheld console and has expanded into plenty of other formats (including larger games consoles and merchandise.)

Since the Nintendogs, there have been countless imitations. Games for the DS and smartphones apps have harnessed the power of the touch screen to make it feel as though you’re really interacting with your digital pets. Even if we no longer have dedicated digital pet devices, our digital pets are still very much with us.

The biggest player in the game

Perhaps the most important era in the history of digital pets was the rise (and the slow decline) of the Tamagotchi. The device was so successful and spawned so many imitators that it came to define the way we think about digital pets.
The original Tamagotchi was the brainchild of Aki Maita, who created the pet simulation game for Bandai. The name was a portmanteau, a combination of the Japanese word for egg and the English word ‘watch’. Looking back on the hardware of the original device, it was barely more powerful than a wristwatch. Fitted with a 4-Bit CPU, it had a clock speed of 32.768 kHz and a tiny, tiny memory. The screen had two colours – blobs of black which were the massive pixels and the muddy green which was the bottlecap-sized LCD panel. Users controlled everything with three buttons on the front.

Sounds like nothing, right? So how did it take over the world? Maita’s genius was in creating the stickiness of the digital creatures, making them grab hold of the user’s emotions until they wouldn’t let go. Right from the moment you watch a strange creature hatch from an egg, you feel as though you’re instantly connected with the pet. You’re right there at its birth, instantly sharing a moment.
There was a back story, sure. An alien species had supposedly left the eggs on Earth and it was the job of the user to raise this creature into adulthood. But not many people knew or cared about the story. They just watched their weird new pet hatch from an egg and felt instantly compelled to care for it.

Care came in a few simple forms. With clicks of the three buttons, you could feed, pet, and discipline your pet, as well as clean up any mess it left behind. The more attention you paid to it, the better behaved it would become. If you failed to nurture the pet, you’d be cursed with constant beeping sounds. Just like a crying baby, the Tamagotchi would squeal and chirp, demanding your attention. It played on humans’ natural caregiving instincts, as well as their guilt.

Over the course of the next ten years, Bandai released plenty of different versions of the Tamagotchi. Bigger screens, different colours, freshly designed pets, and better hardware were all available. But every version tapped into that same natural human capacity for care. For kids, they were a fun game and parents liked that they could teach the child about responsibilities. It was a cheaper, cleaner alternative to a puppy. For plenty of adults, the devices were a fun distraction which brought a sudden (and often surprising) emotional attachment.

Generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, the Tamagotchi was the hot gift at Christmas and birthday parties throughout the mid to late 1990s. But it wasn’t just the official Tamagotchi that people wanted. Other companies saw Bandai’s success and decided that they wanted a slice of the digital pet pie. As we’ll see below, there was so much variety (and outright copying) that everyone could have the pet they wanted.

But credit has to be given to Aki Maita and her original Tamagotchi. The game mechanics and the tech were just right for the time and you’ll still see those same essential elements today in all digital pets. There’s a clear line in thought from the Tamagotchi to Nintendogs to the Sony AIBO to our modern smartphone apps and AI machines.

The Rivals

There were so many different digital pets released in the wake of Tamagotchi mania that it would take forever to list them all. But there were a few stand out examples. In the list below, we’ve selected a few of our favourites.

Digimon

Released a year after the Tamagotchi and also made by Bandai, Digimon tried to tap into the market for boys. Digimon was an edgier brand, founded on battling the creatures rather than just caring for them. It was almost like a barebones RPG, where you could level up your creature’s power through the care and attention you paid it.
Most importantly of all, two of the Digimon devices could link together. If you and your friend both had Digimon, you could battle them against one another to find out whose was toughest. The idea was a massive success and, soon enough, Digimon was spun off into an entire brand of its own, with video games, t-shirts, and even a cartoon.

Tiger Giga Pets

If the Tamagotchi is the original digital pet device, then the Giga Pets were the original imitators. Created by one of Bandai’s biggest rivals, Tiger Electronics, the Giga Pet devices were released in 1997. Unlike the Bandai’s aliens, they often featured real life animals, such as dogs and cats. Later, they’d expand into stranger creatures, eventually including a Tyrannosaurs Rex and Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s cat, Salem. While the Giga Pets were very successful in the United States, they suffered from a branding issue which beset many of the entries in this list: everyone called them Tamagotchis anyway.

Playmates Nano Pets

Another device released in 1997, this time by Playmates. The Nano Pets line included a cat, a dog, and a human baby (which you’d care for exactly as you would the cat or the dog). While they sold well, the Playmates devices aren’t held in very high regard by the digital pets community.

Think Way Virtual Friends: Disney

Released in – you guessed it – 1997, this is one of what would become a familiar pattern in the world of digital pets: the big brand tie-in. Think Way were not one of the biggest manufacturers, nor the most accomplished, but they did have the marketing power of Disney behind them. Their branded digital pets included tie-ins with the Little Mermaid and Toy Story. In the former, you were tasked with caring for an aquarium filled with digital fish, rather than the eponymous Little Mermaid herself.

Nintendo Pikachu

Before Ninetndogs, Nintendo dipped their feet into the waters of the digital pet world with a tie-in of their own. Their device was a dedicated Pikachu machine, using the character from their hugely popular Pokémon games. The RPG series was a natural fit for the digital pet machines, as you would have to catch, raise, and care for your Pokémon. Coloured yellow, just like Pikachu himself, this device’s stand out innovation was an in-built pedometer, which allowed the user to rack up points simply by walking around. These points (dubbed ‘watts’ in the game) could then be used to purchase presents for your Pikachu. Given the roaring popularity of the little electric mouse, this device was a big hit.

Nintendo Pikachu Colour

Building on the success of their Pikachu device, Nintendo launched a follow up device a year later. The Pikachu Colour was similar to the original, wherein you earned ‘watts’ by walking around, but you could now use these watts to help your progress on the latest Pokémon games. Using the infra-red sensor on the Game Boy colour, you could exchange information between the digital pet and the video game, a real innovation at the time.

By the time the Pikachu Colour was released, the era of the digital pet was beginning to end. While devices still sold well – and do to this day – they no longer racked up the tens of millions of units they once did. The market was saturated and not even the Tamagotchi could continue to post massive sales figures.

The Future of Digital Pets

But digital pets are not gone. These days, we don’t need dedicated devices to power our virtual pets. A cursory search of any app store will reveal plenty of digital creatures, all looking for care and attention. Just like the Tamagotchi of old, you will need to feed them and pet them, training them as they grow old. As with the Nintendogs games, you can use the touchscreen and the microphone to interact with your pets. And just like the Pikachu games, the phone’s GPS will allow you to take them for walks. It’s not that we lost our digital pets, they just started living in our phones.

Furthermore, it’s still possible to buy dedicated Tamagotchi devices. These days, they’re not much more than nostalgic trips down memory lane, though they can make excellent presents if you find the right device for the right person.
According to futurist thinker Ross Dawson, we’re going to be seeing more and more robotic and digital pets in our lives. While AI and animatronics are improving by the day, allowing truly wonderful robots to be created, it’s the smaller, digital-only pets which perhaps will be more and more popular. As cities continue to grow, as living space becomes less available, and as our society becomes more atomised and isolated, the appeal of digital pets will surely grow.


From Tamagotchis to Talking Tom Cat: A history of virtual pets

Humans love pets, that much is obvious. It’s not just cats and dogs – pets come in all shapes and sizes. Horses, parrots, lizards, tigers. There are very few animals with whom we’re not happy to share our home.
But in the last few decades, humanity has discovered a new option. Thanks to our rapid technological advances, we’re now able to enjoy all the benefits of owning a pet with far fewer drawbacks. You see, we’ve found a way to take our love of pets into the virtual realm.
Virtual pets come in many forms and go by many names. You might have heard of them as digital pets, artificial pets, pet simulators, or pet-raising simulations – it doesn’t really matter, they’re just different ways of explaining the same essential idea. A virtual pet is one without a real, organic form. It’s one which lives on a computer, with which you can interact and nurture without ever really seeing in the flesh.

A virtual pet isn’t real, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. In this article, we’ll look at the history of virtual pets and find out why people love them so much.

Home computing

There’s always been an interest in non-organic pets. Anyone of a certain age will remember the clamour surrounding pet rocks many years ago. Since then, however, silicon chips have come on a long way and we should skip forward to the late 1980s to really understand the history of virtual pets.
The story properly starts with the advent of home computing. These days, we have PlayStations and Xboxes with enough computing power to put Neil Armstrong on the Moon several times over. But back then, home computing came either in the form of home consoles, like the Atari, or computers running DOS and Windows. The early consoles were too underpowered to handle a digital pet, but people slowly began to write programs for the home PC market.
By 1995, the first real software was ready for the consumer market. Written and released by a company called PF Magic, they titled their first virtual pet game Dogz. It was the first big hit, rocketing to the top of the charts and selling to young and old people alike. A year later, they followed up their success with Catz.
The two PF Magic games were notable for laying the foundations for how we think about virtual pets. They had rudimentary graphics for the time, showing your cat or dog and allowing you to raise the pet, training it and caring for it using on-screen functions. There was no real ‘game’ as such, just the pleasure of caring for a creature. People loved their Dogz and Catz but it would be a few months before the real game-changer was released.

The Tamagotchi

For people who weren’t around in the mid-1990s, it’s hard to comprehend just how much of a cultural phenomenon the Tamagotchi became. The little digital pets were everywhere, owned by everyone. The rise of the digital pet was, essentially the rise of the Tamagotchi.
The devices were devised by Bandai in 1995, released first in Japan and then in the rest of the world. In all likelihood, even the company didn’t realise what they were about to unleash on the world. Things started slowly but began to escalate.
The key difference when compared to the Petz games was the portability. At a time when most computers were clunking, ugly heavyweights, the thought of owning a digital pet meant having to deal with RAM and operating systems, as well as floppy disks. Everything was tethered to a desk. But not the Tamagotchi.
Aki Maita’s stroke of genius was in reducing the joy of the virtual pet into such a small form factor. As the designer, she fit everything people loved about Catz and Dogz into a device smaller than the palm of a person’s hand. It even had a key-chain hook. Right from the first moment, it was intended to be portable and that meant that the pet could travel everywhere with its owner.
The Tamagotchi devices were colourful, filled with memorable (and annoying) chirping sounds, and they kept things simple. Owners hatched an egg (supposedly left behind by aliens) and then had to feed, pet, and clean up after the little creature which emerged. If they failed, the creature would die.
The devices were a massive hit. By 2009, more than 44 different types of Tamagotchi had been released. Sales were measures in the tens of millions and that’s not even counting all the imitators, such as Giga Pets and Digimon. By the end of the millennium, the idea of a digital pet had been completely taken over by the Tamagotchi.
You didn’t have a virtual pet, you simply had a Tamagotchi.

Advancing tech

But just as the Tamagotchi had been made possible by the advances in technology, people weren’t content to stick round with separate devices forever. By 2005, when Tamagotchi sales had already begun to slow down, people were looking for more and more innovative and complex forms of virtual pets.
By that time, the power of portable computers was hurtling ahead at a rapid rate. The Nintendo DS, for instance, was a Game Boy successor which introduced the world to Nintendogs. Nominally a game, it was a landmark moment for virtual pets. Because the handheld device had a touchscreen and a microphone, it was possible speak to your pet to issue commands, as well as stroke it using the stylus when the pet obeyed.
Such interaction ushered in a new era of virtual pets, changing the way we interacted with digital creatures. No longer were we limited to just pressing buttons and a relevant command being issued – now we could stroke, coddle, pet, discipline, and even speak to our animals. Along with the constant improvement in graphics and greater complexities in the world of AI, our virtual pets were becoming more and more like the real thing.

The smartphones

But as the games for the handheld consoles became more and more complicated, a rival was building steam behind the scenes. The rise of the smartphone has been on of the biggest advances in technology in the last decade. Though it wasn’t the first powerful phone, the Apple iPhone perhaps has to take the credit for the next step in our story. When the California company eventually introduced apps to their device, they changed everything. No longer did you have to own a dedicated device to care for a virtual pet – now, they could live in your phone.
The rise of the smartphone virtual pets combines most of what we have known and loved about virtual pets over the years. From the Tamagotchi, there’s the constant sense of care attached to the creatures. You carry around your phone everywhere, bringing the pet with you. Everyone has the potential to own and care for a virtual pet and the tech is pervasive, right down to the pedometer built into the device which can be used to count your steps as you take a virtual pet for a walk – something taken straight from the Tamagotchi devices.
What’s more, the very nature of the smartphone means its able to use many of the tricks which made Nintendogs so successful. With the touchscreen and the microphone which are used for normal operation of the telephone, you can talk to and pet your virtual critters without any additional hardware. With the click of a button, you can download a digital kitten and begin petting it right away, all with the same device you use to order a pizza or call your parents.
Even the raw computing power takes us back to the PF Magic days. The sheer computing power found in most modern smartphones has made it possible to provide users with photo-realistic graphics. You don’t need a clunky PC to access the best graphics anymore, it’s possible to use your smartphone to achieve something far, far more impressive.
In essence, the modern range of smartphone apps mean that we’re living in a golden age of virtual pets.

Why apps?

But with so many different virtual pets out there, it can be hard to pick one which is right for you. One quick look through a ranking of the best virtual pet apps will reveals one of the best qualities of this new app-driven age. With so much variety, it’s possible to find the perfect pet.
Back when we all used Tamagotchi devices, the market was flooded with various options. Cats, dogs, birds, dinosaurs, dragons, and so on were all available, but you had to buy a dedicated device. Similarly, anyone using the virtual pets available on the Nintendo DS would have to buy an individual game. Nintendogs, Nintencats, and a huge slew of add-ons and expansions allowed you to narrow your choices down to individual breeds and colours. Want a Golden Retriever? Want a tabby cat? That’s fine, but you’ll need to invest in the various types of DLC.
With the apps, that’s less of an issue. All of the variants can be built into the app and thousands more are available at the click of a button. Furthermore, many of them are available for free or at an incredibly low cost. It’s never been cheaper to own a virtual pet and it’s never been easier to get the exact pet you want.
Added to that, the added hardware that comes with owning a smartphone means that being able to record pictures, videos, and sounds provides a whole new way to interact with virtual pets. One of the most popular pets on the various app stores is Talking Tom Cat. As well as possessing many of the familiar traits that we can trace back to the Tamagotchi craze, the Talking Tom Cat also allows for the pet to talk back to you. Whether through recordings or voice processing software, it’s possible to have an entire conversation with your virtual pet, something which would have been unimaginable with the cluster of blurry pixels that we found on the early digital pet devices.

Another one of the most interesting ways in which the virtual pets have evolved is the added gamification of the software. Back in the Tamagotchi and Digimon days, being able to pet, feed, clean up, and maybe even battle your pets against one another was the height of sophistication. But now, you can play games and complete challenges with your pet, allowing you to earn in-game currency or grow your pets’ stats like a traditional role-playing game. It’s one of the ways in which virtual pets have become more like video games (meanwhile, many video games have taken on the qualities of virtual pets – but that’s a whole other article).
As our virtual pets have become more and more complex and sophisticated, those who prefer the gaming side of the experience can focus on that while those who simply like caring for their creatures don’t have to worry about the added new features. All you have to do is download the software which suits your needs.

The history of the virtual pet is fascinating and – thankfully – it’s nowhere near over. From the Tamagotchi to the Gameboy games, we’ve always loved being able to buy and care for digital creatures. But everything we loved about those older devices, software suites, and games is now a part of the virtual pet experience. We can now tailor our pets to suit us and we can make sure that we are getting the exact experience we want. Really, there’s never been a better time to own a virtual pet!


What are AI Pets and why would you want one?

Artificial pets are just like real pets but powered by artificial intelligence. Your cat or dog or hamster needs food and attention and are lovely. AI pets are very similar that you can play with them but they do not or need a lot less care.

AI pets can also get upgraded over time. Either with firmware upgrades to what your artificially intelligent pet can do or by buying ai pet accessories.

Many years ago when one of the first real domestic helpers entered the homes of people with Romba the cleaning robot, people started to develop connections with their small robotic helpers.

After that AI kept developing and the field of computer vision and image recognition made huge leaps forward. With these technological advances it was possible to create real artificial intelligence pets that were able to identify their owners, play with them and build strong bonds just like with real pets.

Can AI pets replace real pets? Probably not, but they can become low maintenance and fun companions in your home and maybe even household helpers.