Cyberpets can school us in the limits of virtual reality

Tamagotchis for parents

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At a meeting the other day I noticed a high-flying academic fiddling around in her bag. "She is probably being paged by someone incredibly important," I thought to myself. At the end of the meeting she admitted that what she had in her bag was a Tamagotchi, a Japanese cyber-pet. "I'm just looking after it" she said, "I've promised to keep it alive". I recognised the air of desperation in her voice for I too am suffering from Tamagotchi fatigue, from sleepless nights caused by this bleeping thing in my bed. My daughter sleeps peacefully while her virtual puppy demands to be fed or played with or given medicine and I wonder how to contact a virtual vet to have it virtually put down.

Tamagotchi means "loveable egg"; for the uninitiated, they look like key-rings with a tiny LCD screen in the middle. On screen the virtual pet is hatched as a baby - Bebitchi (Babesy) and the goal is to keep it alive as long as possible till it becomes Oyajitchi (Grampsy). You can buy puppies, kittens, chickens and dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are harder to keep alive because they need to have their vests on before they go to bed. You wouldn't want to be responsible for their extinction now would you? To lead a happy and healthy life Tamagotchis need to be constantly fed, exercised, cleaned up and given medicine. These things defecate, play hide and seek and can be naughty enough to require discipline. Unfortunately over-disciplining can also kill them as a zealous colleague reports: "Sure I had one but I beat it to death." When they die they grow little wings and float upwards. Presumably to cyber-heaven.

I am afraid that have become so callous that I have let ours bleep away all night only to be woken up by hysterical sobbing because the bloody thing had not turned into an angel. Instead it had died in its own excrement, because if you do not clean up the screen each time it produces a streaming turd, then the stuff piles up and the pet dies. Imagine if you can the sheer horror of it all. A dog may be for life and not just for Christmas but let me warn prospective owners, a Tamagotchi goes on for ever. Yes, they may be cute, a novelty even; but think about the responsibility, broken sleep, the constant attention and ask yourself are you ready for this.

Obviously we all think we can handle it. This latest craze, described to me as "Japan's revenge on the Western world" has swept through our schools and playgrounds. Tamagotchis are now sensibly banned from most schools, which means that mothers now have to baby-sit these cyber-pets while their kids are at school. They are no longer cult objects but cheap and freely available. While selling for extortionate prices on the black market in Japan, you can now buy them for a fiver in Oxford Street. For those who are less mainstream, I am informed, that alternative drug addict Tamagotchis are available that you can inject with heroin to keep happy . For the truly stressed out there are even Tamagotchi creches where, for a fee, one person can look after a number of the little beggars.

So this is virtual reality. Not as we have been promised, some William Gibson version of cyber-space in which our identities form and fuse according to our desires, but something much more mundane. We have the technology ... and what do we do with it? We make kooky little digital representations that we pretend are alive so that we can look after them. We make technology that needs us, whose whole function is to reassure us that without our tender loving care it will not survive. Then we give it to our children who are much more adept at programming it than we will ever be. While many of us cannot programme our videos, five year olds have no problem in working out how to care for their Cyber-pets.

We used to buy children real pets in order, we would solemnly declare, to teach them about life. And death. And if we were unlucky sex. In my case, a back yard full of dead rodents of various descriptions has taught my children that hamsters and mice don't always live very long but you can soon get another one. Cyber-pets also die regularly but can immediately be re-born. The mourning process can quickly be circumvented by simply hatching out another one. Though in Japan, bereavement counselling has been set up for those who appear to take the loss of a Tamagotchi very seriously indeed, children seem remarkably resilient - perhaps because they realise that the only way to kill a Tamagotchi for good is to drop it in the bath.

A recurrent fear about the digital revolution or the information age or the wired world is that we will no longer be able to tell fantasy from reality. We will inhabit an entirely mediated world in which face-to-face social interaction will be minimised. Electronic communities will be formed by those who will never meet. Such a future appears to us as impoverished, impersonal, introverted.

However the technology that we grab at gleefully in the present is incredibly domesticated, chatty and casual. Mobile phones are not used for terribly important and urgent conversations but as a way of being constantly "in touch". Many mobile phone users treat their phones as a child would treat a Tamagotchi. They recognise their special ring, they lovingly recharge their batteries, they don't leave home without them.

The idea that somehow technology gets in the way of, or replaces, real relationships is patently untrue. It supplements them. It facilitates them. It points to a fundamental wish to connect more rather than less with other people. Tamagotchis, after all, are so popular because the desire to nurture remains strong. They are not animals and they are not babies but they are a responsibility; they make their owners feel needed, for a while anyway .

Children I am happy to say soon tire of the whole pretence. In between attending to the constant demands of virtual pets they live on a diet of television programmes, most of which feature Rolf Harris rescuing animals, or communing with photogenic vets in Animal Hospital. Such pet propaganda is finely balanced between life and death, for every cat that dies of a neurological disease, some mangy dog goes on to find a new caring owner. Kids soon work out that virtual pets are one thing but they would like a real puppy for their very own. The virtual pet is no substitute. Instead of a key-ring that bleeps they would prefer, as my daughter says, "something that breathes". You see, children grow up so fast these days - perhaps because they realise early on what many adults have yet to learn: that you can't, in the end, cuddle a concept, however much you try.

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