There are lots of ways to kill a Tamagotchi. You can stop feeding it, stop cleaning it, or just generally stop caring about it. But there’s something about that little pixelated blob of love that’s hard to forget. Maybe because for many of us, Tamagotchi was the one true predecessor to a smartphone.
Pulling your Tamagotchi out of your pocket and interacting with it made you feel productive, engaged, and popular all at the same time. It was something to do if you were bored or needed to avoid eye contact. A bit like Game Boy but with an even lower barrier to entry, Tamagotchi was a whole world of amusement and reinforcement that could be with you all the time.
In May 1997, when Bandai released Tamagotchi Generation One in the United States, AOL also unveiled Instant Messanger, and I turned 7. Each was a pivotal cultural moment in its own way, and the three taken together describe a lot about what it meant to grow up in the ‘90s. Real-time chat was moving socializing and friendship online, and kids used gadgets to bond with one another.
Tamagotchi was an experiment in using emotions to attach people to devices. Your Tamagotchi needed you, it relied on you, it liked you! The toy was supposed to teach kids about responsibility but also capitalize on their sense of obligation to suck kids in and create a popular product. Which totally worked. Almost two decades later, there are Tamagotchi smartphone apps and even brand-new Tamagotchi generations. As Ashley Feinberg wrote in a Tamagotchi 2014 review on Gizmodo, this next wave is “The all new, revamped version of the very first thing you ever killed.”
And everyone did let them die eventually. They weren’t brutally murdered the way Furbies were (had to be), but Tamagotchis died digital deaths when kids got bored with or lost them. Except mine. Like every kid, I felt an instant bond with my blue and white Tamagotchi, given to me for Chanukah 1998. But there was a problem. This was before kids were bringing cellphones to school, so it was still easy and prudent for schools to categorically ban electronics. No Tamagotchis allowed in school.
And here’s where digital love became real. My parents, who wouldn’t buy our family a computer for another four years, asked me to teach them how to maintain the Tamagotchi so they could alternate days taking it to work while I was at school. Rather than let my pet die, they kept it with them throughout whatever it is grownups do during the day so it could be alive and waiting for me.
So, this year for Thanksgiving I’m grateful that my parents did that. It was far more memorable than any of the digital affection I felt from the Tamagotchi itself. And it made it easier to cope when one day my dad broke the news that he had placed my Tamagotchi on the roof of his car while he was looking for his keys, forgotten about it, and driven away. I think he felt bad about that for a long time, because at that point he was pretty invested.