Virtual pets stage a comeback this Christmas season

Virtual pets stage a comeback this Christmas season


(Original publication: December 10, 2005)

One of the four egg-shaped Tamagotchi virtual pets clipped to a lanyard around Maria Tirado’s neck is beeping. She picks it up, and sees on its tiny LCD screen that the pet is hungry. She pushes buttons to feed it and to clean up its mess afterward.

Then Tirado, a 9-year-old fourth grader from Mahopac, aims the toy’s wireless beam at a friend’s Tamagotchi a few inches away. The virtual pets connect and exchange gifts, which she watches on the screen.

“I like wrapping the presents and giving gifts,” says Tirado, who was playing with the toy one recent afternoon during an after-school program at Mahopac Falls Elementary School. “I especially like giving and getting hearts.”

Such is the world of Tamagotchi, the toy that burst on the scene in 1997. It faded from popularity after a few years, but made a dramatic return when the toy manufacturer, Bandai, relaunched it last Christmas. In June, the company debuted Tamagotchi’s Version 2, with technology that lets the electronic pets give gifts (or snakes) to each other, battle and become friends.

Now the toy, which retails for $14.99, is on the wish-lists of children everywhere, and local stores are reporting brisk sales. Bandai initially targeted the toy to girls, and many of the plastic toys came in yellows and pinks. But since the wireless component was introduced, more boys have been drawn in and now the darker hues are in short supply.

“We’ve found that boys also like virtual pets, and there’s become a real playground effect, with kids talking about it, and asking their parents to get it,” said Bandai spokesman Cliff Jin.

Orders for the toy are heavy at the Nanuet-based Internet site, says customer service representative Sara Waldron, 22, of Garnerville, who recalls playing with the original version when she was a child (and keeping it out of her teachers’ sight at Immaculate Conception School in Stony Point).

“It’s a hot item,” says Waldron. “It’s all the fun of the pet and none of the heartbreak. If it dies, you can hit a button and it comes back to life.”

But with proper care and feeding, the electronic pet evolves from an egg to a child to a teen, and on to adulthood.

If two adult Tamagotchis of the same sex connect frequently, they are able to become very good friends. But if two adults of the opposite sex have a similar experience, they can get married, and subsequently “give birth” to an egg that hatches into a child who can begin the life cycle once more.

Stephen Valdes, 7, a second-grader at Mahopac’s Lakeview School, is the proud caretaker of Orick, his virtual pet. Orick was born a few weeks ago, after his toy connected frequently with a Tamagotchi owned by his sister, Sarah.

“They got married after my sister kept giving him hearts,” he says. “After he got a few hearts, he didn’t want to do anything else. He just kept wanting to connect.”

Jay Cerio, director of the child guidance center at Alfred University, Alfred, N.Y., says children can learn a few life lessons from the Tamagotchis.

“If the thing breaks, or they don’t take care of it and it dies, they could experience a (momentary) sense of loss,” Cerio says. “But the reality is, they aren’t losing a living thing, and it can teach them about the ups and downs of life.”

On a recent afternoon in Mahopac, a slew of elementary school children brought their Tamagotchis to the after-school program, and the virtual pets — and their owners — were connecting throughout the room. Unlike many electronic toys that encourage solitary play, the Tamagotchi encourages interaction, which Stephen White, professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., says is the sign of a good toy.

“With electronic toys, parents need to be aware of how their kids are using them so they aren’t off in the corner for long periods of time,” says White. “Toys that get kids interacting helps them develop what we call social competence.”

Ron Ayala, 10, says he persuaded his mother to buy him a Tamagotchi this summer to join in with his friends. Teachers tell students at Austin Road Elementary School in Mahopac to keep them out of sight during class time, he says.

“All the boys had them at camp,” says Ayala, a fifth-grader. “We just have to make sure to keep them in our backpacks at school so our teacher doesn’t catch us with them.”

Chris Munz, 7, likes to take his Tamagotchi on play dates with his his buddies. And the virtual pets sometimes come bearing gifts for their virtual friends — some good, some bad.

“Sometimes they give me presents that are edible, but sometimes I get snakes,” he says.

At KB Toys at the Jefferson Valley Mall on a recent evening, several parents were at the Tamagotchi display, snatching up the toys.

Vicki Golebiowski of Mahopac was buying one for her 3-year-old son, A.J., so he could keep pace with the kids at his day care center.

Carolyn Cullaro of Yorktown says her two children, ages 10 and 12, already had six Tamagotchis, with one living through its 14th generation. But none of the Cullaros’ virtual pets had the wireless component that allows them to connect.

Cullaro knew her children would be happy to have the latest model. But wasn’t so sure about her husband’s reaction might be.

“I think he’s going to scream,” she says.


Copyright 2005 The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper serving Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties in New York.

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