The Tamagotchi effect

Do you have an emotional response to your car keys?

A few years ago I bought a new car with one of those nifty keychains that magically unlocks the car when you push a button. Everybody has them now; I was just a late adopter. I assumed that it would be an added convenience, and it was. What surprised me was that using this little wireless gadget would have a noticeable emotional component as well.

Let’s say that, after a long day, I am walking across a cold dark parking lot towards my car. I reach into my pocket as my car comes into view, and I push the little button that unlocks the car. When it flashes its lights and opens its doors for me, I am pleased. And if I’m relatively far away when it “catches sight of me,” so much the better. It’s just like a dog wagging its tail because it’s happy to see me. On the other hand, if the battery is running out and it stops working reliably, it feels just like rejection. The question of a spurned lover forms in my head: “You would make me use the key?”

Years ago the first Tamagotchi virtual pets appeared. They were laughably primitive, and yet they were a pop culture phenomenon. Some people, mostly girls, had a genuine emotional response to these chunky LCD glyphs. Since then, virtual pets have grown vastly more capable and more subtle as well. The emotional attachment that people have to them has grown correspondingly. Aibo the dog is treated as a member of the family. Here’s a good quote from a Mindjack article called Building Emotional Machines.

Aibo’s proud owners dress up their puppies (although this is not recommended by Sony) and teach them personalized tricks that help them develop their own personality. The connection between owners and their pets is so strong and personal, that at one Aibo get-together, owners were able to distinguish their pets from other Aibo dogs.

Expect lots more where this came from. Maybe my next car will run circles around me excitedly when I push the “unlock” button. Is this all good or bad? It’s hard to say, but I know for certain that I would never in a million years have similar feelings about opening a car with a key. If the key didn’t work, I would curse the key, but in no sense would I feel rejected. It’s funny; every time my car opens its door for me, it’s because I pushed a button. I understand the physics. I know how the engineering works. And still, somewhere deep in my limbic system, I think to myself: Oh good! It still loves me.

6 thoughts on “The Tamagotchi effect”

  1. I have discovered a similarly strange fascination for artificially intelligent devices, especially cyber-pets and personalities such as can be found in the Creatures games developed by Cyberlife, Pokemon by Nintendo, and any of the Sim games from Maxis and Electronic Arts. Why?

    I know that with the push of a button I can eliminate or alter these electronically created beings of binary data. In the material reality of our existence, they are not. Yet, I cannot prevent myself from becoming emotionally attached to them and caring for them. Like a little godling in training, I continue to let them fill the screen and live out their two-dimensional lives.

    Is this a way for the parental instinct within us to be expressed? What do we get from these simulations on both the psychological and physiological levels that prevents us from pulling the plug and simply ending the whole wretched game?


  2. I think pretty soon we’ll stop worrying so much about whether things are “real” or not. If you can get attached to a pet store turtle (like I was back in third grade), it’s easy to see the appeal of Sims characters.

  3. I feel the same way for my pokemon (was never a fan of digimon, didn’t think there were many who were)

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