21st: Bringing up digital baby

Salon 21st: Bringing up digital baby. By Allison Adato. For prospective parents, Tamagotchi is a stern taskmaster.

By Allison Adato

Published August 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the question that comes after you've been dating for more than two years is, "Will you get married?" But after six years together, when David and I finally got engaged, the people we call our friends had already moved on. Will we have children? they demanded to know.

Sure, why not? After all, our parents had children. It's what people do, right? But so few people do it well. Would we be good at it?

Just as we were turning our attention to this extraordinarily fraught issue, a Japanese toy company came up with a diagnostic device for people in precisely our situation: the Tamagotchi.

Essentially, it's an $18 plastic key chain fob with an LCD screen, a digital baby that kids adopt and raise, tending to it whenever it cries -- er, beeps. They feed their Tamagotchi virtual food when it's hungry, play virtual games when it's bored and clean up its virtual excrement. (Not as bad as you'd think.) If it acts up, the parent must impart discipline, and if it's sick, administer a shot of medicine.

All these activities are accomplished with the push of a few buttons, but it's a round-the-clock commitment. Fail to carry out these duties in a timely manner and Tamagotchi dies a virtual death ("returns to the home planet" is how the packaging tastefully puts it). And yet, so real is the relationship between pretend parent and child that psychologists are seeing traumatized children whose Tamagotchis have bought the digital farm. Real enough, we decided, to test our parental skills. Would we raise a charming, well-adjusted child or, as the instruction manual threatened, "an unattractive, bad-mannered alien"? Herewith, a journal of our child's early years -- each Earth day equaling one year to a Tamagotchi.

Birth to Two Years

A Tamagotchi is "conceived" by pulling a tab to activate the batteries, causing a spotted, pulsating egg to appear on its screen. During the five-minute incubation period, we debate when life begins: When the batteries are in, or not until the egg hatches?

Our child emerges from his shell beeping from the bottom of his computer-chip lungs as only a newborn can. David names him Fred. We press the appropriate buttons to dispatch food until he is sated. There. How hard can this be?

That night, when I am nearly asleep, Fred wakes up wailing. David glares at me.

"Kids need to eat every couple of hours when they're young," I find myself saying.

Already something has changed. Our child was crying, and I was making excuses to its father, as if I were responsible for seeing that David slept uninterrupted. Half an hour later, Fred is up again. David has had enough: He takes his pillow and goes to sleep on the sofa. "I promise," I hear from the voice descending the stairs, "that it won't be like this when we really have a kid." Sure.

Three to Six Years

We've now developed a routine. Each morning we check his eight hearts, which indicate when he needs to eat or play, and clean up his LCD poops. Toilet-training is, apparently, not an option. (One more thing he can take up someday with a cyber-Freudian.) During the day he rests on my desk.

Once, while I'm on the phone, he begins beeping. "What's that?" says the woman I am interviewing for a story about the refugee situation in Congo.

"Nothing," I say, flustered and punching at the buttons to shut Fred up. This can't go on. Suddenly I am struck by the need for reliable, affordable day care. Dare I trust anyone to look after Fred the way I do?

"This is not baby sitting," I remind David, who takes him the next day. "He's your egg, too." David keeps Fred in his pants pocket, tending to him even in the locker room of the gym, with naked bench-pressers looking on. Over dinner, David is gloating. But he admits that he did so well with Fred because, more like a nervous uncle than a dad, he was "worried about dropping the baby on its head." He indulged Fred, where I was more of a "tough-love" parent -- a tack that would prove unfortunate.

Seven to Nine Years

One Sunday we are invited to a (human) 3-year-old's birthday party. This is socially awkward. I can anticipate the reactions if we explain that we're parenting a key chain. As the only childless couple at this gathering, we've already been cursed with just waits from people whose lives are ruled by real children's moods, feedings and diapers.

Upon arrival I slink off into the bathroom to check Fred's hunger and mood meters, then drop him in my purse and toss the purse on my friend's bed. It's there that, hours later, I find him sitting in a pile of his own virtual feces, a skull and crossbones over his head. Panicked, I wash him and dispense meds. Emergency averted -- and yet I feel I'm just a step away from being booked by social services and seeing Fred whisked off to foster care. I vow to do better.

But within the week, it's all over. Rushing to work, I accidentally leave Fred on the kitchen counter. By the time I return home, he's gone. I'm strangely moved by the sight of the digital angel and the words "Nine Years" on his screen. It all seems so final, and yet so preventable.

"I killed Fred," I tell David, solemnly. He expresses disappointment that I didn't hold up my side of the parenting bargain. "We can hit 'restart' and hatch another one," I add, trying to cheer him.

"No," says David. "No. No. No. You can if you want, but don't ask me to help you."

I do hatch another one, and get a new life lesson: Single motherhood. After that one (Iris) and two more (Chloe, Bernard) die, I give up and put the egg in a drawer. I console myself with the thought that one can't expect to conjure genuine maternal feelings for a plastic egg with a digital chicken on it.

Having witnessed the struggles of our friends who now have children, we know that our experiment couldn't nearly approximate them. Still, it did prepare us for kids in one small, but not insignificant way: We already own a Tamagotchi, and we know how to work it.

Allison Adato

Allison Adato is a staff writer at Life Magazine.

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