Think about the life span of toys. The classics—Barbies, G.I. 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 a kid’s attention all day, every day? 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. That's the story of Tamagotchi—tiny, egg-shaped electronic devices with a screen just a little larger than a postage stamp. The toys entertained millions of kids by allowing them to control the fate of the blob-like creatures living in their virtual kennel. If kids fed them, played with them, and took care of their health, they’d grow into beautiful creatures. If kids didn’t clean up their digital poop, they’d keel over and die. Who came up with this harsh handheld lesson on mortality, anyway?

Pet Sounds

To really understand the appeal of Tamagotchi, you need to think back to 1997. The iPhone was still a decade away. Personal computers weren’t everywhere, and artificial intelligence wasn’t incorporated into everyday life.

That’s where Akihiro Yokoi and Aki Maita come in. Yokoi was the president of the WiZ Company in Japan, a toy design firm that created products they would then license or sell to major toy manufacturers. Maita was in the sales and marketing division of Bandai, a popular Japanese toymaker that had scored a hit with their Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers line.

There are 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 that the idea was inspired by a television commercial featuring a boy who wanted to take his pet turtle on a trip, but his mother told him he couldn’t. 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, an 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 the -tchi is taken from either the English word watch or its equivalent in Japanese, uotchi. The idea to set Tamagotchi on a wrist device was abandoned, however, and 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 kids were going to take care of Tamagotchi, after all, it would need to follow them 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, players could interact with a dog or cat that would actually run and play across a 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.

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 had 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 that came from the planet Tamagotchi and slowly grew into something prized by teenage girls in Japan—what’s called kawaii, or cute. But it only became adorable if it was played with and tended to with care. 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 1000 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 1997, they introduced Tamagotchi to American consumers. F.A.O. Schwartz sold 30,000 of the gadgets—priced at $15 to $18—in their stores in the first three days alone. QVC moved 6000 Tamagotchis in five minutes. They sold for hundreds of dollars on 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 U.S. Some people even thought Tamagotchis would be a good way to teach kids responsibility before getting a real pet.

The problem? Kids were investing a bit too much of their responsibility into their digital dependents.

Grave Issues

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 even five or six hours could mean death.

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 tasking 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 beep no more.

There was one thing Bandai didn’t import to America, and that was the image of a beloved Tamagotchi as a ghostlike 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 was never 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 kids to accept the concept of a toy that had a life span. Imagine having a Barbie and then getting a message that she had died because you didn’t play with her enough. This game was kind of messed up.

Low Battery

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. Osutchi, or male, and Mesutchi, 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 of popularity before 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 play.

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 TamaTalk and even arrange virtual funerals or write obituaries for their departed pets. Bandai has released periodic updates, including one in 2019 that allowed owners to put up their pets in a virtual hotel and one released in July 2020 that features a color screen, a mobile app option, and Tamagotchis that can travel, get married, and raise children. There have also been copycat versions like the Giga Pet from Tiger Electronics and Digimon, which was released by Bandai and allowed the pets to fight.

So why did Tamagotchi seem to grab the attention of millions of children? Akihiro Yokoi and Aki Maita were right. Kids wanted to feel a sense of responsibility, 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, 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 bleeping personal device we carried everywhere would demand our attention and reward our engagement 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sound familiar?

This story has been adapted from an episode of Throwback on YouTube.