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!