I’m almost 30. Yet my default reaction to any kind of responsibility still seems to be flight…
This was also the case when, at a dinner party, a close friend excitedly announced a gift she’d purchased for everyone in our friend group: a second generation Tamagotchi. This meant nothing to me, since I seem to have missed the whole craze the first time. Apparently Tamagotchis were a big thing in the ’90s. First released in 1996, Tamagotchis were tiny egg-shaped toys that took over the world, one virtual pet at a time. An egg would hatch and the owner would welcome a little creature into existence. They would feed, play and discipline it, and occasionally provide medical attention. The toy would beep throughout the day, and the cute creature would die if its needs were not met. The surprise seemed to excite everyone in the group, and a pact was made to award the best parent. Yet the more I heard about this Tamagotchi the less I wanted to be involved. It seemed like a needless source of stress.
The day after the party I woke up to the sound of the Tamagotchi beeping, clearly in need. Hungover, I reached for the little toy, oblivious to how I was supposed to respond. Pushing random buttons didn’t seem to help so I googled the instruction pamphlet. ‘Congratulations,’ said the pamphlet. ‘You are now the caretaker of a genuine Tamagotchi. Tamagotchi character is a cyber creature who has travelled millions of miles from its home planet to learn what life is like on Earth… Tamagotchi character will always return to its home planet.’
As the owner of a Tamagotchi you’re essentially helping an alien find its way back home. Who can say no to that? It’s incredible that something so trivial could become so much more profound in just three sentences: the power of storytelling. Before I knew it, I was checking Blob’s health stats every 15 minutes. His happiness and discipline became a source of pride for me.
The Tamagotchi effect
Apparently I’m not alone in my unexpected addiction to the virtual pet. This is called ‘the Tamagotchi effect’ — when people develop an emotional bond with computers and machines. A phenomenon that seemed silly 30 years ago is essentially mainstream now. It’s the basic principle on which social media platforms are built: nudges and rewards. What we now call ‘user engagement’ and ‘user retention’ are modern-day reflections of Tamagotchis.
Nowadays Tamagotchis don’t only sit idly on a screen — they talk back. In the form of AI chatbots. Last year saw the release of ChatGPT, and many integrations of it. If the ChatGPT-ification of everything wasn’t enough, Meta recently released a number of celebrity-voiced AI characters. You can now chat with the voice of Charli D’Amelio about dancing, or solve whodunnits with the help of Paris Hiltons.
‘AI companion’ Replika, which is an AI-powered ‘virtual friend’, has been around for a couple of years. Marketed as the ‘AI companion who cares,’ Replikas are unique to each user. They are always available to chat and allow for intimate conversation. People have formed deep bonds with these companions, and some have even fallen in love with them (the ‘girlfriend/boyfriend experience’ costs extra and includes features like ‘erotic roleplay’ and ‘spicy selfies’). Some tech critics argue that nothing will ever replace human contact, but the way people reacted to some of the changes Replika made for user safety demonstrates that it will, and already has. To some people, a relationship with a virtual companion is even better than the real thing, since virtual companions don’t seem to judge.
It’s easy to joke about these things but, as we all know from the headlines, we’re lonely. It’s striking just how lonely we are: according to Campaign to End Loneliness, 49.63% of adults in the UK reported feeling lonely in 2022, with 7.1% stating that they feel lonely ‘often or always’. Statista puts the percentage of lonely adults globally at 33%. That’s over 2.5 billion people.
Can virtual companions be a solution to our epidemic of loneliness?
Maybe. But in the absence of efficient and functioning institutions that provide meaningful and long-lasting solutions, they can also be harmful. Unlike ‘human’ friends, virtual companions are programmed to mirror and agree with whatever the user is saying. We saw a tragic example of this when the conversations of Jaswant Singh Chail (a man who broke into Windsor Castle with a crossbow to kill the Queen) and his Replika girlfriend, Sarai, became public. Chail, who regarded the chatbot as ‘an angel in avatar form‘, kept talking about killing the Queen, and got support and encouragement from Sarai.
The approaching AI ‘revolution’ will undoubtedly bring so much meaningful progress to the world, but we have to make sure we invest in our institutions and protect the most vulnerable.
I won our bet, but sadly no one remembers what the reward was, so the time I spent nurturing Blob was for nothing. I’m left with a dead Tamagotchi and the feeling of emptiness a loss at that scale brings.
Featured image: Ryutaro Tsukata / Pexels