It’s 11:34 pm, and I’m utterly exhausted. The lure of sleep is calling, but before I crawl into bed, I need to check on my fish. My digital fish, to be exact. I’ve been cultivating a sort of pseudo-fish aquarium in the game Fish Farm 3 for eight months now, and I’ll most likely continue for many more. It’s extremely satisfying tending to my fish, something that keeps me logging in multiple times per day. I’ve readily integrated this habit into my life, and the realization gives me pause. What is it that draws us to keep digital pets?
Owning a digital pet means first achieving the basic goal of keeping it alive, but there’s more to it than that. We feed them. We pet them. We watch them grow. We give them medicine when they’re sick. We buy them clothes and toys, and enjoy playing with them. In turn, these pets give us the companionship we crave, all without ever having to scoop poop or suffer from allergies. That’s because they don’t actually exist outside of the hardware they’re programmed on. Yet with so much else going on in our modern-day lives, what keeps us coming back to caring for something that’s not tangible? In search of the answer, let’s go back to the beginning.
A (Very) Brief History
In 1995, a small company called PF Magic created Dogz, the first computer program to consider itself a virtual pet. Gameplay was basic—feeding, caring, and playing—but the rudimentary graphics were clever. Little more than an interactive screensaver scampering across your desktop, this gave consumers a taste of the pet possibilities to come while protecting against screen burn-in. My own family raised a dogz, and then later an Oddballz, but with so little interaction, we lost interest fairly quickly.
It was also around this time that the iconic Tamagotchi took over, spreading in popularity across the world. These egg-shaped, pocket-sized toys were the first to come housed in their own hardware, a decision that proved wildly successful among generations to come. Stories of Tamagotchis being confiscated in classrooms during school hours and parents being delegated to keep them alive while their kids were away at summer camp ran rampant. While some declared Tamagotchi mania a nuisance, others argued their value in teaching youngsters about responsibility in pet ownership. Attachment was clear: Consumers were so wary of their Tamagotchis dying that mods were quickly developed to prevent such horror.
But are digital pets even meant to live forever? Veterinary science scholar Jean-Loup Rault published a paper in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science about digital pets as a replacement, surmising that “overall, robotic pets appear to elicit similar responses from humans as live pets.” Perhaps it was this toy fad that truly cemented into our eager minds the idea of keeping a virtual pet alive indefinitely. That would certainly have a benefit over real animals.
Consoles were anxious to get in on the trend too, with Nintendo releasing the appropriately named Nintendogs (and later cats) in 2005 for the Nintendo DS handheld system. These simulation-style games brought more realistic graphics, making the digital pet look and feel more real. The dogs were real breeds with recognizable characteristics, although they never grew into adults. This raised the bar even further in terms of what our digital pets could look like and the things they could do, but this felt still like a game more than an actual pet. I needed something that could accompany me beyond the console hardware.
Enter mobile phone apps, which brought such gems as Neko Atsume in 2014 for the iPhone and Android (and eventually the PlayStation 4). A cat collection game with super-cute, soft-colored cartoon graphics, the game is less about raising the animals and instead allows players to sit back and enjoy having cats around. Interaction is focused on luring them to your space, playing with them, and earning resources from other in-game activities to purchase new items for the cats to play with and wear. Plus, your phone could go anywhere with you. Avid Neko Atsume fan Megan Liscomb reminisces sweetly about her time spent in the game. “When a new cat showed up in my yard for the first time, it was pure dopamine for me,” she says, a sentiment that carried most players through for months at a time. I spent countless hours in the app myself, despite owning a cat that looked and behaved very similarly to the ones on my screen.
Cats and dogs will always be popular, of course, but horses and fish were in high demand too. The Legend of Zelda franchise has Link’s iconic horse as a character mainstay, and Red Dead Redemption 2 yields wonderfully cinematic horse rides through the countryside, as well as necessary interactions like feeding, petting, and grooming. I’ve already mentioned one (of many!) fish games available. And for those looking for something even more off the beaten path, there’s the adorable Chtulhu to raise as your own.
So those are the digital pets that came before. What of things to come?
Today and Tomorrow
With each new advance in technology, there will follow a virtual pet of some sort. Soon after Apple introduced the Touch Bar to the MacBook Pro, the Touchbar Pet came along. Utilizing the thin space, you can feed your pet, toss a little red ball to play with it, and clean up after it. A cute idea, but barely enough to be considered a game. I’d file this virtual pet under “distraction” rather than companion.
David Fazzio is the solo developer behind Studio 46’s game The Companion, which, in addition to being stunning in both sound and visuals, gives players a chance to see the other side of companionship life. Here, the animal refers to a “spirit companion,” and players are the creature themselves. “As the Companion,” Fazzio says, “you will be earning the kindness, trust, and love of the human story characters. At certain points you will interact with the human story characters and you’ll be pet, you can sit, lay down, and offer a paw.” Now I felt like I was getting closer to the reasons digital pets held such hold over users.
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The ability to rub your pet behind the ears seems an essential part of the design. Tristan Cooper owns the Twitter account “Can You Pet the Dog,” which collects data from users on which video games allow players to interact kindly with dogs (and sometimes other animals). “I think people who like to pet video game dogs do so with a range of perspectives,” he says. “Some players will see it as a nice break from increasingly complex and demanding standards of modern AAA gameplay. Some players will see it as a way to reconnect with a cherished childhood pet that has passed on. Some players just like cute animals.” There’s a positive feedback loop from petting in-game animals and receiving delighted reactions from them.
Virtual reality developers are chomping at the bit to create pet games as well. The Oculus-based Bogo offers adorable creatures to consider as pets, and being inside the VR headset gives players a full-sensory interaction experience. Here you can actually bend down to pet your animal, and physically swing your arm to toss a stick. Imagine your beloved pet living forever in virtual reality!
Virtual pet ownership can be a gimmick, too. ZED is a horse racing and breeding site built on blockchain technology. Users spend real-world money to purchase, breed, race, and sell digital horses. Each one comes with its own set of unique coding, hidden from users to add even more realistic unknown factors.
If horses aren’t your thing, there’s also the Aavegotchi, which plays out like an updated Tamagotchi, only created for the crypto generation. Users can purchase their avatars and care for them much in the same way they did back in the ’90s.
After looking at all of this, it’s clear that digital pets will always have something to offer us. They represent company when we otherwise might not have any. They nurture our needs to care for other beings. It’s an enjoyment we are quick to invite into our lives. The multiple species of brightly-colored fish in my virtual aquarium are proof that they provide something that would be impossible to achieve in real life.
Satisfied with that, I know my fish are doing well, and so I turn off my iPad and can finally sleep.
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