The virtual pet game Tamagotchi was introduced in the Japanese toy market in 1996 by Bandai Co, Japan’s largest toy company. The Tamagotchi games came in pocket-sized computers in the shape of an egg with an LCD screen. As the game is turned on, the user chooses their preferred type of pet and waits for it to hatch from an egg. The user would then need to tend to the pet on a daily basis, otherwise it would die and the game would need to be restarted. The functions of the game included feeding, exercising and giving the pet medicine when it is sick.
Prior to launching their product, the toy company conducted market research amongst high school students with the aim of eliciting the target audience’s taste in colour and design, which would eventually determine the appearance of the final product. While the toy gadget was targeted at teenagers, the Tamagotchi also gained ground among middle-aged people.
The Tamagotchi’s overwhelming success in the Japanese gadget market propelled psychologists into examining the various aspects that made this virtual pet appealing to such a large market segment. They concluded that the idea of owning and looking after a virtual pet “fulfills an emotional void experienced by the modern city-dweller” (Schmitt and Simonson, 1997, p.253). The majority of people living in big cities are not allowed to keep pets in apartments, therefore Bandai identified the need to substitute a real life pet experience with a lifelike virtual pet game.
Innovative attributes of the Tamagotchi
Steinberg, Parmar and Richard (2006) suggest that the Tamagotchi’s prime innovative element lies in the game’s lifelike similarity to raising a real pet. In fact, the Tamagotchi game differed from previous entertainment games and gadgets “by removing visual and behavioral realism from the growing simulation and focusing on psychological impact” (Steinberg et al, 2006, p. 175). To prove their point, Steinberg et al illustrate how users can choose between feeding their pet candy or normal food, yet if fed too many sweets, the pet will get sick. Users can also scold at their pet when it is crying or else spoil it with sweets. For this reason, Steinberg et al argue that the game contains an educational feature which encouraged parents to buy the toy for their children, while teachers considered the Tamagotchi as being “an opportunity for teaching ethics” (p.126) to students.
Klopfer (2008) says that the most notable innovative trait of the Tamagotchi is its portability. The small handheld game was also the first to take down the gender barrier in gaming gadgets, mostly due to “the style of game play, the physical aesthetic of the device, and the purposeful design around nurturing” (Kopler, 2008, p.44) which also rendered it appealing to girls.
Going worldwide: innovative strategies to heighten success
When Bandai planned to introduce the Tamagotchi in other Asian countries, Europe and the U.S, the company considered altering some features of the product to suit the psychographic and sociocultural segments of Western countries. According to Schmitt and Simonson (1997), three aspects of the product, namely the concept, the name and visuals, were isolated and analysed to maximize the chances of achieving worldwide success.
The concept of Bandai’s virtual pet reflects the Japanese idea of an entertaining gadget, yet the innovative toy might have not necessarily fitted into the Western concept of ‘fun.’ Schmitt and Simonson point out that people’s attitudes in an individualistic society like America vary from those living in a collective society like Japan. Due to the level of interaction with fellow Tamagotchi owners that forms part of the fun in owning such digital pet game, Bandai feared that the Tamagotchi would not be a hit in an individualist society, where people are more self-absorbed in their individual lifestyle.
Another major concern was the actual name itself. The word ‘tamagotchi’ translates to ‘cute egg,’ and while the phrase instantly caught on with Japanese consumers, Bandai feared that non-Japanese speakers would be unable to learn and recall the name of the product. Schmitt and Simonson also mention the fact that the Japanese users instantly came up with a number of new words and phrases, all ending with the suffix ‘chi’, which perfectly described the various stages of the game. While these terms added value to the interactive experience of the game, Bandai were aware that this gaming phenomenon was unlikely to occur in other languages.
It is interesting to note that even the colour and size of the game were susceptible to cultural attitudes. The Tamagotchi initially came in pastel green since in the Japanese culture, this colour is “widely used to express cuteness” ” (Schmitt and Simonson, 1992, p.254). Bandai considered producing games in different colour schemes to make them more appealing in an individualistic society. Moreover, Schmitt and Simonson suggest that even the size of the game would have been deemed inconvenient by European and American consumers. Meanwhile, Japanese consumers were used to purchasing small items, therefore they had no problem looking at a small screen and pressing tiny buttons.
The Tamagotchi has been an inspiration for many video-game makers who sought to create new games involving virtual pets, most notably Nintendogs, developed by Nintendo in 2005, which contains many design features that were first introduced in the Tamagotchi. Nowadays, many mobile phone games involving virtual pets, such as the iPhone game Petopia, are also based on the Tamagotchi design.
Steinberg, S.R., Parmar, P., & Richard, B. (2006). Contemporary youth culture: an international encyclopedia. USA: Greenwood Press
Schmitt, B., & Simonson, A. (1997). Marketing aesthetics: the strategic management of brands, identity, and image. New York: The Free Press.
Klopfer, E. (2008). Augmented learning: research and design of mobile educational games. USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.