Unleashed: A brief history of digital pets
These virtual pets are all byte and no bark.
There are few joys like the unconditional love of a pet, and since humans started domesticating dogs 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, we’ve enjoyed feeding, training, and nurturing our furry friends. When the digital age arrived, so did virtual pets, adorable digital creatures that live on your computer or handheld devices.
While there is no substitute for a living, breathing creature, virtual pets have their advantages: no litter boxes, no pet hair, and in some cases, no need to ever see them die. One study suggests that virtual pets can even offer some of the mental health benefits of real pets, like lower stress and increased positive emotions.
As a new wave of digital pets makes its way to the market, here’s a brief look back at the computerized companions that have won countless hearts over the years.
Dogz (1995)—The first mainstream virtual pet, Dogz asked users to choose one of five bug-eyed virtual canines to live on their computer, where “owners” could feed them, play with them, and teach them tricks. Dogz was created by game developer Rob Fulop, who helped design Night Trap, a controversial 1992 full-motion video game where young women, including Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato, are attacked by vampires. After Night Trap was savaged at the 1993 Senate hearings, Fulop decided to make a game that no one could complain was bad for kids: Dogz.
Tamagotchi (1996)—The first handheld digital pet, the Tamagotchi was an egg-shaped toy from Japan that supposedly contained an alien creature that had traveled millions of miles to become your pet. After hatching, it required regular feeding and attention throughout the day, distracting students and inspiring school-wide bans long before mobile phones had made their way into classrooms—especially when it became a cultural phenomenon that moved 40 million units in two years. Unlike Dogz, your Tamagotchi could die if neglected, making them an unexpected tool for learning to cope with grief. Indeed, some young players were so moved by the deaths of their Tamagotchi that they buried the toys in Tamagotchi pet cemeteries rather than resetting them.
Digimon (1997)—The massive success of Tamagotchi inspired a plethora of competitors and knockoffs like Giga Pet and Pingu, but its first true competitor was the Digital Monster. Aimed squarely at young boys, it deemphasized the nurturing mechanics of the Tamagotchi in favor of training your pet to fight and linking with other Digital Monsters devices to do battle. The popularity of the Digital Monster launched the long-running Digimon franchise, which sprawled into video games, anime, movies, manga, and a collectible trading card game.
Pokémon Pikachu (1998)—Although late to the ‘90s virtual pet fad, the Pokémon Pikachu had an LCD screen similar to a Game Boy, and its second release, the Pokémon Pikachu 2 GS, could interact with the Game Boy games Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal through an infrared port. Like the Tamagotchi, the Pokémon Pikachu was more concerned with relationship-building than training your pet to fight for your amusement. You could also use the Pokémon Pikachu as a pedometer, which allowed you to earn in-game currency as you walked. But despite its lack of battling, this Pikachu was no pushover; neglect it, and your relationship level could drop from “Pikachu Loves You” to “Pikachu Has Left You,” and even inspire your pet to give you a faux electric shock.
Neopets (1999)—After several years of widespread obsession with handheld virtual pet toys, Neopets brought domesticated digital buddies back to the computer screen and on to the internet. Launched at the end of the millennium, Neopets is a website where users can acquire, customize and care for virtual pets in a vast world with its own history and economy—including a stock market (NEODAQ) and an illicit black market. Like Goofy and Pluto before them, your Neopets can also acquire less intelligent and non-verbal pets of their own, which are called… Petpets.
Nintendogs (2005)—Developed by Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendogs was partly inspired by a canceled Nintendo 64 “breeding simulator” called Cabbage. Instead, Nintendogs arrived on the Nintendo DS, where the handheld console’s touchscreen and built-in microphone allowed users to physically pet their computerized canines, call them by name, and vocally command them to do tricks. Although Nintendogs could get hungry, thirsty, and dirty per a real-time clock, they could never die or age, making them eternal puppies forever pawing on the screen for attention. The 2011 sequel, Nintendogs + Cats, added both felines and facial recognition technology so your pets could recognize you on sight —or retreat from strangers, if they’re feeling shy.
Pokémon Go (2016)—Pokémon Go dared to ask the question: What if you literally had to go outside to make your virtual pets fight? By using augmented reality and your real-life location, the wildly popularly free-to-play app asked players to venture out to actual landmarks around them to catch Pokémon and engage them in battle. With 232 million players at its peak, it got plenty of people out of their houses and moving their bodies.
Bird Alone (2021)—Released during the dark days of the coronavirus lockdown, Bird Alone has a comforting premise: hang out with a lonely parrot who needs a friend. Together, you draw pictures, write songs, compose poems – and tackle some surprisingly deep questions about life, death, and what it means to connect with others. As much a friendship simulator as a pet simulator, Bird Alone is more than it seems and could lodge itself in your heart in unexpected ways.
Peridot (2023)—Pokémon Go creator Niantic Labs returned to the world of virtual pets this year with Peridot, an app that takes the core concept of the Tamagotchi and adds augmented reality, location-based play, and social networking. Hold your phone up to the real world, your adorable little buddy can run around your couch, or forage for different types of food depending on the terrain. Once grown, you can breed it with the pets of other users at real-life locations called Habitats.
Laura Hudson is a contributing writer.
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