Can a cute little virtual pet slow the ticking of the proverbial biological clock? We put our single career girl to the virtual mommy test.

by Hillari Dowdle

The damn Tamagotchi's not dead yet. It's a beautiful, sunny October day, and I've sneaked home from work early to revel in the demise of my inane virtual pet—to ceremoniously bury it deep in the kitchen garbage can, then throw a revelatory, celebratory wake. But no, there it is, happily waddling back and forth on the palm-sized screen, oblivious to my overt attempts to cut short its virtual life.

Of course, it's not waddling far, owing to the steaming heaps of Tamagotchi excrement I've allowed to collect on the screen and the large skull symbol hovering menacingly overhead. Were I a caring virtual parent, I'd see that as a sign that the little fellow is sick and in desperate need of medicine.

But I'm not.

A cursory glance at the Tamagotchi's health-o-meter lets me know that it's nearly starving to death and deeply unhappy—as it should be, since I've purposely not fed it, cleaned it, played with it, or even let it sleep for a good 48 hours now. Still, the damn thing won't expire.

I've tried everything, too, mind you. Cramming food down the critter's virtual gullet continuously until it expanded from 5 to 99 pounds in a five-minute period, turning the lights off in the middle of the day and on in the still of the night, shocking it repeatedly and for no good reason with the gizmo's "discipline" function—seemingly none of these heinous acts diminished the varmint's virtual joie de vivre. I've screamed at it, insulted it, and done everything in my power to erode its self-esteem and will to virtually live, all for naught. Letting my actual pet, a hyperactive adolescent tomcat, have a go at it did no good either. All that batting, gnawing, clawing, hissing, screeching, and slobbering, and then...nada.

And now that malevolent neglect seems to be failing, I simply don't know what to do, where to turn. I realize I could crush the thing like a bug, smash it until its microprocessors were reduced to so much housedust, but that would be cheating. And though I'm a virtual homicidal maniac right now, I do have my ethics. No, I'll just have to wait patiently for the thing to give up, for the elixir of starvation, toxic environment, psychic abuse, and play deprivation I've concocted to cast its lethal spell.

Stick a Fork in Mork...He's Done

It's the irony that's killing me. For I didn't start out this way, bucking to commit a virtual felony like voluntary Tamagotchicide. I had nothing but the best intentions, plans to provide for the little cyber creature to the best of my ability.

A pop culture aficionado, I'd been interested in Tamagotchis from the moment the little Japanese imports hit our shores back in May. These virtual pets—or "lovable eggs" as their name directly translates—had taken the Japanese youth market by storm, so the hype had it, the hottest thing since Ultraman. Like so many others of the post-Space Invaders generation, I'm instantly fascinated by video-game technology, and so was more than mildly curious. Plus, I love pets—the more the merrier. And the idea of reaping all the love and affection without the veterinarian bills, Science Diet expense, and compounded litterbox output was appealing.

Still, I probably wouldn't have invested my $14.95 at Toys 'R' Us had not my clever Metro Pulse editors seen the potential humor in having an over-30 single career gal with no prospects of marriage or desire for family life (despite the wheedling pleas of her near-desperate mother) appease the assumed urgings of her biological clock by writing a tongue-in-cheek account of her experiences as a "virtual mommy." Ha.

Assignment accepted, I underwent a blissful virtual pregnancy, one in which my cheeks glowed as I ran from store to store in search of a genuine, Bandai-produced Tamagotchi, my complexion radiant under the fluorescent lights. True to its reputation as the Tickle Me Elmo of 1997, the Tamagotchi proved elusive—though every toy, video, department, grocery, and discount store in Knoxville offers an array of knock-offs, from Dinkie Dinos to Giga Pets to something called Hitorikku. I would have to keep checking back, stock clerks informed me—Tamagotchi shipments fly off the shelves.

But the persistence (motivated by a looming deadline, it's true) paid off, and two weeks later I found my virtual holy grail and bought one. The birthing process itself was an easy one—it involved simply pulling out a paper tab from the side of the contraption to awaken the Tamagotchi from its "million-light-year sleep"—and labor was limited to 30 minutes or so of plowing through four pages of instructions on the feeding and care of the new addition to the family. By the time my Tamagotchi—which I lovingly dubbed Mork—hatched, I was ready.

There are three buttons on the Tamagotchi, and that's enough to meet all its virtual needs, which include nourishment, play, medicine, discipline, hygiene, and sleep. In addition to these functions, the toy has a health meter that displays its age, weight, and degrees of discipline, health, and happiness. The idea is to keep it happy and healthy. It's a high-tech version of the sack of flour all 13-year-old girls used to be required by sadistic home-ec teachers to lug around junior high in order to get just a taste of the responsibilities of parenthood, only without the attendant mess that develops as "babies" spring leaks.

Like all newborns, Tamagotchis are needy, requiring constant care and feeding during the first months (which, in human time, translates into hours) of their life. There's no breastfeeding, just selection of a meal or snack icon; no dirty diapers, just a sweeping of mounds of Tamagotchi doo off the screen; no pediatrician bills, just the highlighting of the "medicine" icon to give baby Tam a shot; and no crying, just an intermittent beeping to indicate its disgruntlement with its current state of affairs.

Born on a Saturday, little Mork had my undivided attention. I was there to feed him constantly, to clean his screen, to make sure all the attendant childhood illnesses were treated, and to play with him. Tamagotchis need lots of play, I quickly learned, as their happiness meter is wont to quickly deplete. Unfortunately, little Tam knows only one game, and it's a boring one: It shows you a number, and you guess whether the next will be higher or lower, a process you repeat five times to the accompaniment of an annoying electronic "song."

I took Mork everywhere—to restaurants, to the gym, to the grocery store, out for a walk, to the mall. And come Monday morning, I even took him to work, where he proceeded to interrupt an important client meeting no less than three times with its whiny beeping. Fortunately, my peers assumed the Tam was a beeper, and I was leaving to return an urgent phone message rather than indulge the spoiled-rotten baby with the umpteenth round of high/low.

By day four, the novelty was wearing thin. The game was becoming repetitive and to my mind, unrewarding. After all, the mechanism itself is a simplistic one, relying solely on the laws of cause and effect. You feed it, its hunger meter fills up; you play with it, its happiness meter fills up. There's no emotion and no attachment, and though I tried bragging to my friends and co-workers about little Mork's lovable personality and high IQ, they remained unimpressed.

Then I discovered a trick. I could avoid the stupid little game altogether by feeding Mork "snacks" in order to artificially pump up its happiness meter. This was fast, efficient, and much quieter, and I was more than willing to communicate to my baby that junk food is equivalent to happiness, despite the risk of setting into motion life-long destructive eating patterns that would no doubt end in obesity or eating disorders.

Little did I know that my constant coddling with snack food was undermining little Mork's health. He became fat—his weight soaring to 99 pounds within a few hours—and sickly. And then, on day seven, he returned to his home planet, leaving me bereft.

Fortunately, new Tamagotchis can be hatched ad infinitum, and after an appropriate three-minute mourning period, I hatched another one. This one, Spock, grew into a different character than Mork (there are six different characters), and lived to the ripe old age of 9. Then there was Warf, who lived to be 6, and then Alf, who despite my best efforts succumbed to sudden infant virtual death syndrome (SIVDS) by age 3.

Numb from my losses, I stopped caring, tossing my Tamagotchi into my glove compartment to be forgotten along with the Alpha-Bits license plate, Lava Lick candy, and a pack of Nat Sherman Fantasia lights left over from a wild night of partying months before. I was ready to move on.

But then my editors started calling. They needed that story, they explained. And if I had given up on motherhood, too bad. I'd just have to refresh my memory. And so, I did.

Beam Me Up, Virtual Scotty

At last, my Tamagotchi's in its death throes. I can tell by the insistent beeping growing slower and slower by the moment. The little fellow is flattened against the bottom of the screen, his eyes reduced to two flat slashes.

It's interesting to note that whereas the original Tamagotchis in Japan officially did die, as indicated by the appearance of a spirit on the display screen, their American cousins do not. Rather, they return to their home planet in a far-out little space ship. Apparently, Tamagotchis will always "return home" eventually, whether you take good care of them or not, where we're ostensibly to assume that they live out the rest of their virtual days in peace and harmony.

I wonder what Bandai executives were thinking when they decided that the American market couldn't handle exposure to so heart-wrenching a prospect as virtual demise. Perhaps they figured that what with Oliver Stone on the job, we don't need anymore virtual death. Or perhaps they harbor romantic notions—fueled by such cultural pap as Norman Rockwell prints, Little House on the Prairie reruns, and Coke commercials—and about the sanctity of American childhood. Or perhaps they just didn't want to give rise to the next psychopathic serial killer (they always start out killing pets, you know, virtual or otherwise).

Whatever the case, I'm not falling for their ruse. I'm 32 years old now, old enough to know the truth: that Tamagotchi is DEAD. Fini. The end.

Which is not to say that I didn't learn anything from my experience. Indeed, I learned that we are given to anthropomorphize not just plants and animals, but cyber creatures as well—other Tamagotchi mommies I chatted with (and the 12,000-some-odd parents posting their experience on AOL's Tamagotchi message boards) tended to assign their babies emotions like happy or sad or angry or content, when really they're just LED dots dancing to a predetermined string of code. I learned that happiness can't be found in a plastic-encased 2-D environment. And I learned that I should probably be postponing parenthood as a personal option indefinitely. Sorry, Mom.