Loving a Virtual Pet: Steps toward the Technological Erosion of Emotion

Article excerpt

A type of recently popular toy, pocket-sized electronic devices, has been designated "virtual pets." Virtual pets share the small size, extreme portability, and addictive appeal (eg., Sudnow 56) of other electronic games, but differ in that the object of the game is keeping the pet alive and thriving. Playing with a virtual pet demands that it be a constant presence, requiring regular care at short intervals. An untended device emits fairly frequent reminders. The combined result of appeal and omnipresence is that the virtual pet can assume a large place in a person's life. The goal of the engagement with a virtual pet is keeping it alive and thriving. Hence a competitive element becomes intermingled with the requisite nurturance, a mix not at all foreign to modern parents. Shortly after its introduction, the virtual pet was a commodity valued as much for the message its ownership conveyed to others as for any intrinsic value (cf. Douglas & Isherwood 101), much as "Cabbage Patch Kids" dolls became highly valued in certain quarters (Jacob, Rodenhauser, & Markert 61). In this context, ownership of a desirable entity took precedence, and the care taking role became one of functional disengagement.

The packaging and hype of the virtual pet suggest that the experience is similar to modern parenting in that the proud owner/parent can choose the gender, be present at birth, select a name, and watch it grow. Of course, these rather poignant experiences are reduced to button pushing or receiving feedback in the case of the cyber toy. After reading directions on operation and what to expect, the device is activated and an audio and visual display heralds the birth. This distanced involvement continues. Instead of the complex, nuanced, and protracted sequence of watching an animate being (baby or pet) grow, the virtual pet provides only schematic change in a visual icon display. The abstraction goes well beyond the visual representation, so that essentially human aspects of interaction and relationship are much diminished.

Animacy and Inanimacy

Virtual pets, especially in their self-announced guise as quasi-biological, sentient beings, occupy an indeterminate status as neither completely inanimate nor animate. Although children are very much aware of such distinctions at an early age (Bullock, 222-23; Poulin-Doubois, Lepage, & Ferland 33), the dual nature of virtual pets as both machine and pet might lead to some practical confusions. Behavioral expectations and explanations of causal mechanisms (Gelman and Spelke 61; S. Gelman 70; Springer and Keil 778) differ for animate and inanimate things. Because virtual pets, by virtue of their "intelligence" and designation, both represent and approximate some aspects of living beings, they suggest that we should have flexible boundaries for their categorization.

Virtual pets are interactive in a rudimentary fashion, communicating through icons on a small LCD screen and the emission of electronic sounds. A second generation, but less common, variety of virtual pet can "speak." Although virtual pets can respond and provide positive feedback, their initiations are routinized and largely acontextual, primarily communicating needs and wants. In fact the defining feature of engagement with the virtual pet is that constant vigilance to its needs is required. Like animate, fleshand-blood pets, they require nourishment, exercise, sleep, and other care, all delivered symbolically by pushing buttons. If it indicates it is hungry, it must be fed (sometimes a choice can be made from a menu). It must be cleaned periodically. If it is sick, it must be cared for, and preventive healthcare (medical checkups) is recommended. It must be tamed, trained, or disciplined. It must be exercised (e.g., walk the dog), and this could take the form of play (e.g., fetch the stick). Other needs may include thirst, wanting a light on or off, controlling the temperature (e.g., turn on the "air conditioner"), and education (e. …