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The Tamagotchi craze at the turn of the millennium crossed international borders and made inroads amongst many age groups. But what made Tamagotchi the incredible hit that it was?

In this episode of Throwback, Erin jumps into the history of the Tamagotchi, from initial idea to international success. Where did the idea for the Tamagotchi come from? Why was it so addictive for kids (and some adults)? And why did Bandai introduce gendered Tamagotchi that could digitally procreate?

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Think about the lifespan of toys. Your classics, your barbies, GI joes, hula hoops, and teddy ruxpins can keep kids engaged for hours at a time. But eventually the novelty wears off, and the child will go in search of new play adventures. But what if someone invented a toy that demanded the kid's attention all day everyday? What if they were so committed to this toy that they couldn't bear to be without it? That even a tiny little beep caused them to stop whatever they were doing to interact with it, like a Pavlovian pocket monster.

And what if this toy was so psychologically addictive that when it stopped working, the kid started crying? If you're a parent, you'd have one heck of a problem. But if you're a toy company, you've just bought vacation homes for your entire executive floor. It's the story of digital kid crack, tamagotchi, and it's next on this installment of throwback.

[intro]

Welcome back to this series, where we take a deep dive into some of the most fascinating pop culture stories and events you might remember from your childhood. I'm your host, Erin McCarthy, and I have a confession to make. As a kid, I accidentally forgot all about my tomogotchi and let it starve. The same thing happened with my little brother. Uh, his tomogotchi, I mean.

These tiny egg-shaped electronic devices with a screen just a little larger than a postage stamp entertained millions of kids by allowing them to control the fate of the blob like creatures living in their virtual kennel. If we fed them, played with them, and took care of their health, they'd grow into beautiful creatures. If we didn't clean up their digital poop, they'd keel over and die. Who came up with this harsh handheld lesson of mortality? Glad you asked.

-Pet Sounds-

To really understand the appeal of tomogotchi, you need to think back to 1997. The iPhone is still a decade away. Personal computers weren't everywhere. And artificial intelligence wasn't incorporated into everyday life. That's where Akihiro Yokoi and Akimaita come in. Yokoi was the president of the Whiz company in Japan, a toy design firm that created products they would then license or sell to major toy manufacturers.

 (02:00) to (04:00)


Maita was in the sales and marketing division of Bandai, a popular Japanese toy maker that had scored a hit with their mighty morphin' power rangers line. There's some conflicting accounts of who exactly had the idea for what would become Tamagotchi, Yokoi or Maita.

The most common version of the story says the idea was inspired by a television commercial featuring a boy who wanted to take his pet turtle on a trip. Now to be honest, I have no idea what this commercial was actually for. Turtles? A car? The concept of trips? Doesn't matter. It got the wheels turning, and soon Yokoi and Maita were pursuing the idea of a portable pet.

It helped that Yokoi was an animal lover. At various points he had kept dogs, cats, a parrot, beetles, a chameleon, owls, and yes a turtle. He also happened to be responsible for coming up with new handheld games. Yokoi thought a digital pet on a small screen set on a wristwatch would be perfect.

In Japan, aquarium software with people caring for digital fish was getting popular with PC users. There had also been handheld devices that allowed people to care for virtual dogs and cats. But they were mostly fun, and that's what Yokoi wanted to fix.

As a pet lover, Yokoi knew that pets are a lot of work. They need attention, food, health monitoring, and guidance. He once said he thought pets were cute just 20 to 30 percent of the time. The rest of the time, well they're kind of a pain. So that's what Yokoi focused on, the responsibility of pet ownership.

If people bought his digital companion, they were going to have to actually take care of it in real time. That meant the creature would sleep at night. During the day, it would beep when it was hungry. It needed discipline if it misbehaved and medicine if it got sick. Neglect the pet and owners would face the ultimate consequence. It would die, turning into a ghost and hovering over a tombstone.

In Yokoi's mind, and owner couldn't really feel a sense of responsibility any other way. He named the invention Tamagotchi. "Tamago"is the Japanese word for egg while "tchi" is taking from either the English word "watch" or its equivalent in Japanese "uotchi". The idea to set Tamagotchi on a wrist device was abandoned however.

 (04:00) to (06:00)


Instead, Yokoi and Maita decided to house it in an egg-shaped keychain case with just three buttons, affording it a great deal of portability. If you were going to take care of Tamagotchi after all, it would need to follow you everywhere.


 TORTOISE POWER



While Tamagotchi was the first major handheld product to feature a life-or-death pet simulation, the idea of a dependent equipped with artificial intelligence dates back to the late 1940s.

That's when a British neurophysiologist named William Grey Walter built Elmer and Elsie, two small motorized devices that he used to explore the concept of autonomous robots. Elmer and Elsie each had two sensors programmed to respond to light and touch that allowed them to navigate around spaces. They even had a kennel they went in so they could recharge. Walter affectionately referred to them as "tortoises." They're widely considered to be among the first robots built that had a real scientific application, in this case exploring how robots could mimic the nervous system of a human.

Yokoi and Maita were also following the lead set by Petz, a series of personal computer games created by a company called PF.Magic in 1995. In Petz, which you know was cool since they spelled it with a "z" at the end, players could interact with a dog or cat that would actually run and play across the person's desktop. But, unlike, Tamagotchi, Petz couldn't go on the road with their owners and they didn't have to cross the rainbow bridge.

Petz and Walter's tortoises were early examples of virtual caregiving, but Tamagotchi took it to a whole new level.


 MADE IN JAPAN



We don't know whether Yokoi and Maita knew much about William Grey Walter or Petz, but they were convinced Tamagotchi would be a huge success. Maita conducted extensive market research on their target demographic of girls in junior high school who loved the name "Tamagotchi" and the design of the creature itself, which started life as an ill-defined blob of tissue which came from the planet "Tamagotchi" and slowly grew into something prized by teenage girls in Japan, what's known as "kawaii" or cute. But it only became adorable if it was played with and tended to with care.

 (06:00) to (08:00)


If not, it might turn into a virtual delinquent, poorly behaved, or worse, dead.

Tamagotchi went on sale in Japan in November 1996 and was an immediate hit. It took less than a year for 10 million Tamagotchi units to be sold.

Parents camped out in front of toy stores waiting for shipments. Scammers sold fake coupons to desperate buyers that they claimed could be redeemed for Tamagotchis. Bandai was forced to ramp up production to 3 million Tamagotchis a month just to keep up with the demand.

When the company offered a free Tamagotchi to anyone holding at least a thousand shares of its stock, the value of each share rose by 60 Yen the following day, about 60 cents per share in today's dollars, and saw four times its normal trading volume. All throughout Japan millions of kids and quite a few teenagers doted on their Tamagotchi, responding to its beeps for attention, and hoping it could survive long enough to morph into a novel looking creature. The appeal wasn't lost on adults either.

Japanese businessmen who were preoccupied with their Tamagotchis, were known to cancel meetings to make sure they would have the time to tend to their pet. In Tokorozawa, a Tokyo suburb, one driver got into an accident when a Tamagotchi began crying for attention. Bandai knew millions of impressionable children were waiting in the United States.

In May of 1997 they introduced Tamagotchi to American consumers. Priced at 15 to 18 dollars, FAO Schwarz sold 30,000 of them in their stores the first three days alone. QVC moved 6000 Tamagotchis in 5 minutes.

They sold for hundreds of dollars in the black market. Toys"R"Us said virtual pets were on track to be the hottest toy of the year. By mid-June over 3.5 million Tamagotchis were sold in the US.

Some people even thought Tamagotchis would be a good way to teach kids responsibility before getting a real pet. The problem? Kids were actually investing a bit too much of their responsibility into their digital dependence.

Tamagotchi was a virtual pet you had to take care of no matter what. While it slept at night, it was active and needy during the day. Ignoring its pleas for 5 or 6 hours could mean death.

 (08:00) to (10:00)


In the first model released in the United States, there wasn't a pause button.

That meant kids desperate to keep their Tamagotchi alive had to start taking them to school.

Teachers quickly became annoyed at kids staring at their pets every few seconds.

At Greenville Elementary in New York state, third graders were caught putting down their pencils to tend to their Tamagotchi,

even though they were taking a timed standardized test.

When they were told not to bring them to school anymore, kids started asking their

parents with taking care of their virtual pets during the day.

Sooner or later, though, someone would forget to feed the little beast, or clean up its droppings. Or it might die of old age.

In Tamagotchi's case, that could mean less than a month, though some Japanese versions were known to live up to three months.

And that's when the Tamagotchi would be no more.

There was one thing Bandai didn't import to America: and that was the image of a beloved Tamagotchi as a ghost-like apparition, hovering over its own tombstone.

Instead, a neglected Tamagotchi sprouted wings, and, according to the product packaging,

flew back to its home planet millions of miles away.

Sounds good, but, those wings were often interpreted as angel wings.

And no matter where that Tamagotchi went, it was gone for good.

Hitting the reset button could start a new Tamagotchi life cycle, but it would be a different creature.

The old one would never be seen again.

And that had some kids very upset. Parents reported children mourning the loss of their digital friend.

School nurses were sometimes even recruited to console kids who had let their poor Tamagotchi expire.

The same kids who developed caring and nurturing skills by attending to their pet had developed an emotional bond with it. When it died,

they felt a sense of loss.

Faced with criticism from parents and child psychologists, Bandai eventually added a "pause" button to minimize distractions.

More dramatically, in 1998, online cemeteries, and, in some cases,

real-life cemeteries for the physical devices became commonplace.

While that may have helped some users with the grieving process, it was still hard for some kids to accept the concept of a toy that had a lifespan.

Imagine having a Barbie, and then getting a message that she'd died because you didn't play with her enough.

This game was kinda messed up.

 (10:00) to (12:00)


So what do you do after you've introduced children to the concepts of death and neglect?

You teach them about sex!

In 1997, Bandai released gender-based Tamagotchis in Japan.

Osuchi, or male, and Mesuchi, or female, were available in separate units that could be brought together to mate.

The devices would make noise to signal their consummation, and then the female would give birth.

The two Tamagotchi owners would each have to take care of one of the babies in what amounted to an early lesson in joint custody.

Like most toy fads, Tamagotchi enjoyed a surge in popularitybefore being eclipsed by the next hottest thing.

In this case, it was Furby: the talking animatronic creature that could "learn" English and speak "Furbish" with other Furbys.

Best of all, parents didn't need to worry about Furbys dropping dead - at least, not in the normal course of life.

Tamagotchi remained pretty popular in Japan, and Bandai ultimately sold over 82 million units around the world.

Today, Tamagotchi loyalists gather online on forums like Tama Talk, and even arrange virtual funerals, or read obituaries for their departed pets.

Bandai has released periodic updates, including one in 2019 that allowed users to put their pets in a virutal hotel,

and one released in July of this year that features a color screen, a mobile app option, and Tamagotchis that can travel, get married, and raise chilrden.

We've also seen copycat versions, like the GigaPet from Tiger Electronics,

and Digimon, which was released by Bandai and allowed your pets to fight.

I was hoping with age came the wisdom and the patience to take care of Tamagotchi, so I decided to get one recently.

Turns out, they're still pretty high maintenance, and I have only slightly more success with it than I did when I was a kid.

See this thing? It's dead.

Sorry - it's back on planet Tamagotchi.

So why did Tamagotchi seem to grab the attention of millions of chilren?

Akihiro Yokoi and Aki Maita were right: kids wanted to feel a sense of responsiblility,

even if it was something as simple as a handheld virtual creature.

Unlike most video games, hitting the "reset" button didn't bring back the animal they had grown to care for,

 (12:00) to (12:26)


and, in an odd way, maybe that was part of the appeal.

Writing for Digital Trends in 2019, Luke Dormehl argued that Tamagotchi and devices like it prepared us for a world in which

a constantly beeping personal device we carried everywhere

would demand our attention, and reward our engagement -

24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Sound familiar? 

I'm Erin McCarthy.

If you have an idea for a future installment of Throwback, leave it in the comments. Thanks for watching!