Friends you can count on

With the design of technology creating ever more human interfaces, it is easy to forget that computers are merely machines. Mike Evamy examines the trend for electronic friendship which is fast becoming a substitute for real human relationships.

You would have to have been living in an empty crisp packet somewhere on Jupiter to have missed the rumpus over Tamagotchi, the pebble-shaped electronic pets that have entranced schoolchildren all over the Far East and now here.

The toys each feature a tiny LCD screen and an animated cyberchicken that beeps when it needs to be fed, bathed, disciplined or watered by its owner, and “dies” when it is neglected. Japanese toymaker Bandai developed them to appeal as a source of emotional reward for hard-working, loveless Japanese career women. The company could not have anticipated the importance these toys assumed in their owners’ lives. So popular were they that Tamagotchi creches were opened at Japanese offices. When one was stolen in Tokyo last year, a chase ensued that involved a helicopter, several patrol cars and a dozen police officers.

Tamagotchi have captivated millions of schoolchildren. A delivery of them is enough to cause a three hour queue at Hamleys. They have fast become the scourge of schoolteachers who find their pupils wiping their virtual chum’s bottom in the middle of maths. Parents complain of being left in charge of their child’s e-pet during the day and receiving panicky reverse-charge calls from school: “Mum, have you fed Liam yet?” They have been labelled a social curse by Far Eastern authorities. The FT reported recently that in South Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong, Tamagotchi have been banned from schools, and quoted a Philippino official: “It awakens in the child an early sense of death, which is not good.”

Bandai estimates that in the year to March 1998, it will have sold a staggering 40 million of its “cute little eggs”. The company has hit paydirt. And they have done it by creating a simulation of a pet, a virtual creature that demands nearly constant attention. The longer it remains alive, the greater its needs and the greater the emotional investment of its owner. Tamagotchi may be the most powerfully addictive electronic device ever designed.

Dr Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University has researched what he calls “electronic friendship”, and is an authority on technological addictions. His latest subject is the Tamagotchi phenomenon. “Children make a massive psychological investment in these things. There have been reports of children going through a bereavement process when their Tamagotchi dies. That has its good points. The whole thing about simulations, whether it’s a pet or an aeroplane, is they help you in real life. I personally feel, the earlier people learn to cope with bereavement the better it is later in life.” He adds: “People do actually have attachments with their computer games and favourite fruit machine games. With virtual pets, I can understand it totally. People like to be needed.”

Electronics manufacturers and designers have become so adept at creating what they call “addictive” games and at simulating emotionally demanding experiences, that their effects on users’ lives and personalities are starting to intrigue psychologists.

Research is beginning to reveal how certain games and the kind of open-ended fantasy role-playing environments open to all on the Internet have the potential to take over users’ lives and become addictions in the truest, most serious sense of the word. Some psychologists warn of Internet game addicts becoming confused between the multiple personalities they are free to adopt on-screen and their real life selves.

Others claim that assuming an artificial identity in a virtual world can act as a psychological support and help users learn about their real selves. We already depend on the electronics embedded in machines such as telephones and cars. But are the devices we interact directly with – those with which we have “relationships” and which provide us with “experiences” – becoming too consuming? Are Tamagotchi the first of a new generation of electronic pets or “friends”? Is the line between real life and virtual life becoming too blurred? And is a blank generation emerging, withdrawn into their computer adventures and unable to face humdrum normal existence?

It is only recently that psychologists have been able to study the negative side-effects of computer over-use. It was a topic at a conference on shyness in July, organised by the British Psychological Society. The audience heard Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, California claim that the growing use of computers in people’s lives is adding to feelings of isolation and fuelling sharp rises in shyness. An international survey of students revealed that 60 per cent thought of themselves as shy, compared to 40 per cent in 1977. Face-to-face conversations and small talk, he claimed, have been hit by the growth of e-mail and the replacement of humans by computers, particularly in retailing. The “social glue” of human contact is being eroded. “We are sending information but not conveying emotion. For every hour we spend on e-mail we should spend an hour talking to someone,” he says.

There is, of course, an opposite camp that reckons computing is enriching our social lives. Others at the shyness conference argued that the Internet was helping introverted people improve their social skills. Lynne Roberts of Perth’s Curtin University presented evidence of Net users becoming more outgoing on-line, and consequently finding it easier to get on with people in real life.

Certainly, growing numbers of users value their personal computers as an important support to their lives. Sherry Turkle, Professor of Sociology of Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues in her fascinating book Life On The Screen that we project individual personalities on to our computers, and this process has led us to treat them increasingly as companions.

The Macintosh interface rendered the underlying technology invisible and, from that point on, personal computers have become more and more personal, as we have enjoyed increasing freedom in tailoring the software we use to our own individual needs. Some users go further and accord their undeserving computer the same intelligence and complexity as a human personality.

Designers have been central to this humanisation process. The human-computer interface is thought about in terms of experiences instead of objects or tools. “The machine-ness of a computer isn’t at all apparent,” agrees Tim Brown of IDEO. “In order to look at the guts of the computer you have to look at the software code, which is unintelligible to nearly everyone. Designing computers like machines is nearly impossible today, even if you really wanted to. One tends to be designing around the relationship between the computer and the individual, whether it’s the physical relationship, through human factors, or the emotional relationship.”

Dr Mark Griffiths, like Turkle, has spent many hours researching the world of multi-user domains (MUDs), chat rooms and fantasy role-playing games on the Internet, which offer the participants – up to several thousand at a time – the chance to re-invent themselves and exist indefinitely, on-line, as their fantasy self. And for some people, this escape from reality becomes so important that they start to use the Net excessively, “almost to the exclusion of everything else in their life”.

Griffiths says, “I do think there are two lots of addicts out there. Those who are addicted to the Internet itself, and things like fantasy role-playing games. They are totally reliant on being on-line for that disinhibition process that comes from not being face-to-face. There are other people who are using the Internet as a medium. They’re not addicted to the Internet itself; they are merely using it to fuel other compulsions or obsessions.” Any behaviour which offers constant rewards has the potential to be addictive, says Griffiths: gambling, sex, drugs, food, even exercise. The Net is no different, and it too has the power to dominate people’s every waking thought.

But Griffiths stresses that the Net is presently no more addictive than any other of these activities. He adds: “I don’t think it’s a big problem. My interest is, can this behaviour be addictive? The answer is yes, it can be. Is it a growing problem? Not in terms of the percentage of users, which is very small, but as more people go on-line, the number of case studies will increase.”

The “addictiveness” of computer games is well-known and only likely to increase; it’s the most powerful selling point game-makers have. Nintendo Magazine and its ilk have an “addictiveness rating” for new games. Griffiths is no moralist or anti-technology crusader – quite the opposite – but he is asking whether toys like Tamagotchi are good or bad for the nation’s health. “I do think it’s a craze, but a different sort of craze from, say, the Rubik’s Cube, because the manufacturers have a perfect opportunity to develop their products.”

Priestman Goode hasn’t hung about. It’s designed a concept for a Tamagotchi baby-sitter (Diary, DW 8 August) and has nearly had its hand bitten off by eager manufacturers who want to make it. It may be “a bit of fun”, as Paul Priestman says. Or it may be the beginning of a pathologically pet-obsessed youth culture.

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