Akihiro Yokoi of WiZ Co. Ltd, is the original creator of Tamagotchi, which is arguably the most famous virtual pet device ever created, with more than 70 million units sold since it debuted in 1996 and multiple adaptations of the toys into films, television series and video games. Yokoi answered questions from Santa Cruz Weekly via email from his home in Chiba, Japan, about how he came up with the idea for Tamagotchi and what the differences are between virtual pets and real ones.
SCW: Mr. Yokoi, Tamagotchi is the most popular pet sim in the world and one of the most popular video gaming devices as well. Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for Tamagotchi and why do you think people develop relationships with their Tamagotchis, often as if they were real pets?
AY: Aquarium fish simulation was popular software back in ‘93 and ‘94 in Japan. However, (the) personal computer itself was not popular within the Japanese community (at) that time. Personally, I love all sorts of animals, so I was trying to create a toy which gives users a chance to raise their own pet, a toy that owners will enjoy the process (of) and feel empathy with their pet.
When I was working in Bandai, the leading toy maker, one of my roles was to develop handheld games, and among all those LCD handheld games that I created, I chose to focus on virtual pet handheld(s).
What makes the Tamagochi unique is that if you don’t take care of your pet, they die. For me, when I am raising my own pet, I often think they are adorable, but that only counts for 20 percent of time, for the rest of the time I do feel troublesome looking after them. However, the time you spent, the effort you put into your pet turn(s) into love, which is the most important part in the process. I realized this is a “must have” element in a virtual pet game. Death was never a good thing to put into the spec back in the old days, but by adding this into the gameplay, Tamagochi is one step closer to reality.
In addition, time is really important in the Tamagochi’s spec. Tamagochi will have the same daily life as human beings. By maintaining human life and Tamagochi’s life in the same time zone, human can feel their existence. Players will be under the illusion that they are raising a real pet.
To conclude, Tamagochi is a concept that a creature lives in a watch. Tamago, meaning egg in Japanese, combining “Watch” in English, is where the name Tamagochi came from.
SCW: Do you own any real pets? If so, what kind and what are the pros and cons of owning a real pet versus a virtual pet?
AY: I now have cats, turtles, owls and tropical fish. I used to have dogs, stag beetles and chameleon. I (have) love(ed) animals since I was a kid, so of course I think it is a great idea for everyone who is thinking to own a pet.
For those who have difficulties owning a real pet, virtual pet maybe an option. However, it recently comes to my attention that for players who spend too much time in the virtual world may have an adverse effect in their social life. Also, they may think death is not a big deal as life can be restarted by simply hitting a reset button. These are the topics that require further thinking and research in the future.
—Questions by Curtis Cartier, translation by Randal Wong