Virtual pets, the history and the evolution

Even though I have owned multiple cats throughout my life so far, I’ve also taken care of multiple digital cats when I was younger. In a game like Nintencats or an app like Neko Atsume, it was really addicting to keep caring for these digital pets. This trend of virtual or digital pets was born in the 1990s and some research even suggests that taking care of a digital pet could help young people with problems like inactivity and eating behaviors.

The history of virtual pets

The credit for first virtual pet goes to DogZ, a computer program for your desktop with very basic gameplay. The real splash was arguably made by Tamagotchi, the famous small and egg-shaped toy that was made by Bandai and launched in 1996. The objective here was also to take care of this little alien-like creature inside of the device by caring for it and giving it food. If you ignored the beeping, it would quite quickly die.

Nintendo released Nintendogs and later Nintencats around 2005 for the Nintendo DS. This game came with additional minigames -like agility training- and more realistic graphics. Later mobile games jumped on the trend of virtual pets as well, with Neko Atsume in 2014 and many more like Pet Shop Story, My Horse and even My Tamagotchi Forever.

Travis Faas studied why people play virtual pet games, the element of taking care of a pet and the fulfillment that comes from that seems to be a vital part of the explanation. Besides that, it gives people an opportunity to take care of a pet when they cannot physically keep an animal.

Potential on youth behavior

In an article published in the Journal of Children and Media, the human-(virtual)pet bond and it’s positive impacts on bad habits of the youth. The results of the research discussed in this article showed that those who received negative feedback from their pet were twice as likely to eat breakfast compared to their peers who never saw their pet become sad or those who did not have a pet at all. It is also argued that it was more easy for teenagers to receive and respond to criticism. There are, however, little to no studies to further prove these results.

Positive impact on the youth or not, digital pets are still quite popular. As of 2017, Bandai counted more than 82 million Tamagotchi’s. On its 25th anniversary, Tamagotchi is returning as a digital pet on your wrist in the form of a new smartwatch. Continuing functions like a pedometer, digital clock, and the option to pair with a friend are also included.

I could definitely relate to the attachment that grows with caring for virtual pets, it’s very similar as caring for Furbies or FurReal Friends as a child. But with these digital pets, i feel like the attachment goes further than with robotic pets. I definitely recognized the feeling described by bloggers about panicking because you forgot to feed your digital pet. Do any of you have any experience with virtual / digital pets?


Sahara Byrne, Geri Gay, J. P. Pollack, Amy Gonzales, Daniela Retelny, Theodore Lee & Brian Wansink (2012) Caring for Mobile Phone-Based Virtual Pets can Influence Youth Eating Behaviors, Journal of Children and Media, 6:1, 83-99, DOI: 10.1080/17482798.2011.633410