IT Writers Awards
Living Dolls: technology toys and how they change the nature of play
Issue 39, 2000
Submitted for Best Feature category
A teacher arrives home from school, bearing two Tamagotchi, confiscated from some students who are obsessed with the hand-held treasures, playing with them constantly and paying scant attention to the books and blackboards. He then proceeds to beg his housemates to help keep them "alive" until he can hand them back the next day, in fear of doing damage to the children's mental states if he has to give them back inert.
Tamagotchi, as everyone who has anything to do with children knows, is just one example of a new generation of pet. Tamagotchi, derived from Japanese for "little egg", have to be fed, nurtured, talked to, and their environs cleaned out regularly, otherwise they'll fall sick and, in the worst case, die. It's a tragedy when a pet dies, a cause of child trauma. Except that in the case of Tamagotchi, all you have to do to revive them is push a button and the cycle starts again.
All this trauma over a computer toy? An inanimate object, devoid of flesh and blood, let alone consciousness and feeling?
Tamagotchi have well and truly passed the craze phase, having spiked in 1997, the year of their release. Retailer Toys R Us shifted conservatively 150,000 of them through its 24 stores in Australia. Extrapolating that to the fullest extent implies that millions were sold overall. And according to Toys' R' Us' John Redenbach the popularity of Tamagotchi was ultimately killed off by by the sheer volume of units brought into the marketplace, because at the time the demand seemed limitless. Normal metrics didn't apply, says Redenbach, as the profile of the target market was far broader than buyers had had to deal with in he past. "A buyer looking at, say, little girls' toys, would look a the number of births per year and assume, okay, my target market is about 2 million kids. But with Tamagotchi it was different. The size of the audience grew, because it wasn't only the 2-8 year old girls, but their big sister as well, and yuppies who thought they were cool. It was absolutely unbelievable." By the end of the lifecycle however, he says, every kid would have had to buy two or three to have consumed the millions of units brought into the country, and, heavily discounted, down to around $2, they were no longer an aspirational purchase. Enter the furby, which filled that frenzy vacuum, again elling to a wider audience than just the target market, ought for kids and adults alike, spiking in popularity in 1999 at roughly around 300,000 units purchased in Australia. "It was very different from Tamagotchi however, especially at pricepoint," says Redenbach. "Here's an item which started life as an $80 purchase and finished life -- although it's still selling, at a lower rate -- as a $60 purchase." Although there's no one technology toy which has the life expectancy of a Barbie doll, which continues to sell its socks off, year after year -- Redenbach estimates that the plastic fantastic consistently sells around 100,000 units a year -- he says future techno toys will start to achieve consistency much the same way the computer industry does it -- by coming out with upgrades. Digimon, for example, the fighting boy's equivalent of a Tamagotchi, is an electronic pet monster which, when properly fed with "vitamins", exercised and cared for, can be clipped on to other Digimon to do battle. Digimon, says Redenbach, gets stronger with every upgrade. So you wouldn't want, for example, to be fighting a Digimon 3 with your old Digimon 1. Japan currently has Digimon 9s in the market. Sheer retail heaven, considering that Digimon 2, just coming in to the Australian market now, is projected to sell conservatively 300,000 this year. Likewise PooChi version 2 might walk, for example, and version 3 do more tricks, or be more interactive. Fadism aside, the fine line that marks where toys and pets in the real world meet computer games and, increasingly, computer toys in the virtual world, seems an easy one to smudge. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, whose body of work on the subject of kids and their relationship to computers stretches back nearly two decades, suggests that children in the generations since the inception of household computers and programmable toys have used their experiences with these machines to redefine the concept of what it means to be "alive" and exhibit "intelligence". Children who interact with computers, either in the context of games software or with programmable toys such as the Tamagotchi, are the first, she says, "to invest machines with the qualities of consciousness", and to use their interactions with computers to reinvent the traditional notions of man and machine. For example, her observations of children interacting with Merlin, an early computer-based game of noughts and crosses, are instructive. The device was programmed to play to win, but also to slip up occasionally. But it would not repeat the same weakness twice, so when one child observed another employing a winning strategy and then tried it himself, it did not work, and the machine triumphed. The first observation was the reaction of confusion; children were used to machines being predictable, this one was not.
The second observation was that the child immediately invested the machine with the very human emotion of cheating, and responded with anger, throwing it in the sand, telling it: "I hope your brains break." His older playmates rescued the toy and tried to explain to the angry little boy that what he had said made no sense. It won't feel anything if you break it, they explained, it's not alive. One tried to explain it this way: "It's smart enough to make the right sort of noises, but it doesn't really know if it loses ? And when it cheats it don't [sic] even know it's cheating." But the other child disagreed, defining the need for consciousness in order to cheat. "To cheat you have to know you are cheating. Knowing is part of cheating." Applying a moral and metaphysical dimension to machines that display some degree of intelligence, Turkle argues, is children's way of defining and explaining what they cannot fathom. Instead of being able to take it apart and see how it works, children who disassemble a computer or a programmable toy see a microchip, a circuit and a battery. Faced with that dead-end, they transfer the need to understand how they work into a need to understand them psychologically. That involves investing them with human attributes, even though they can make the distinction between the artificial intelligence machines and technology toys display, and the intelligence with which they invest their peers and their parents.
The relevance to our relationship with computers as adults is oblique, but interesting. Similarly, says Turkle, since the advent of the GUI ? the graphical user interface - the camouflaging of the coding behind the way applications work and the introduction of the notion of transparency of process, computer users have given up the need to know how the computer works in favour of knowing simply how to make it work for them, that is, to achieve the desired result, rather than understanding how they came by those results. Tamagotchi, Furbys, and the newer generation technology toys that are not aimed at children, such as the $US2500 ($4368) AIBO robot puppy radically push the boundaries of conventional relationships between man and machine, let alone kid and computer. That's because, according to Sony's AIBO product specialist Jay Cooper, the puppy has not only the cutesy appeal of a flesh and blood pet, but also a personality, which is capable of developing as time goes on. In fact, most people who buy one of the limited edition Sony puppies go way beyond treating it like a pet, and anthropomorphise it completely, behaving as if it were a child, he says. It is, Cooper argues, a strange cross between human and pet. "It's not designed to be 100% pet," he concedes. Some of the strange behaviour of puppy owners include serving it a meal. Although he concedes that puppy owners know in their hearts that the robot pup is not going to actually eat the food they put in front of it, he says that they find some sort of gratification in offering it. My one foray to Sydney's Sony Style shop to visit the AIBO on display reinforced that to be around the puppy is to forget quickly that it is a robot. He couldn't be coaxed to get up and play, said the sales staff, because he was "upset"; someone had been taking photographs and the "flash had hurt his eyes". Bring on the puppy Prozac. To mention that a bunch of metal and circuits can't partake of the emotion of being "upset" let alone that it (excuse me, "he") doesn't actually have eyes that feel pain, is, it seems, heretical. "Anyone who has spent a little time ? 20 to 30 minutes ? with the puppy develops an instant rapport," Cooper insists. "He takes on a whole persona." AIBO is unusual in the development cycle, according to Cooper, in that successive generations tend to be more sophisticated than the first. But in this case, he argues, AIBO represents not only an indulgence for the high disposable income apartment dweller who's not allowed a real pet. More importantly, he says, it represents a fount of valuable top-of-the-line development and intellectual capital that Sony and others will use to good effect in creating a whole new generation of less sophisticated but more robust toys exhibiting some similar characteristics, but having, for example less intelligence and aimed at a more widespread target audience. "The price of AIBO means that it's the province of adults. And it's quite delicate. Any kid under the age of seven would break it," he says. But it's a blueprint on which to develop a range of techno toys, pets and machines that give a very good impression of thinking, learning, and maturing. There's a whole generation of them springing up already, from the incredibly successful but apparently volatile Furbys (the most-often asked question on Furby web sites is "Why did it break?"), to the new generation PooChi puppies which exhibit a subset of the behaviour of AIBO. An unofficial Furby site, Furby Autopsy ( www.phobe.com/furby/hacking.html ) explodes the myth that the furry toys "learn". The site provides an objective reference on the Furby phenomenon to counteract the hype and overstimulated imaginations of the Furby fanatics who go so far as sending their Furbys on summer camp. Don't believe me? Go to www.furbycamp.com. Contrary to the assertions of the reat San Juan Furby Camp organisers, that electronic pets learn from each other, Furby Autopsy asserts that Furbys are built on limited electronics and have no capacity to learn, and are instead programmed to use only a portion of its full capacity at the outset, thus faking development. Furbys can send infra-red signals to each other, thereby sharing new programmed behaviour, which simulates the notion that one has "learned" from the other. The more important question, however, than what one Furby learns fom another, is what children are learning from the technology toys that are starting to surround them. There are two separate issues, says Toni Downes, a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, and a specialist in the field of computer and kids. One is interactivity, but the other is what she terms "integratedness" - those toys such as Barbie and Lego, which now have onscreen entities, versus those, such as conventional bride dolls and tip trucks, which don't. Generally, she says, "play" with integrated toys seems to follow the marketed "scripts", and thus involve less invention and imagination than children exhibit with generic toys. Someone, somewhere has told them, overtly or not, what happens with these characters, and how they are supposed to behave. Downes says many pre-school teachers think they are harmful precisely because they stunt imaginative play.
"My spin is that we should take these toys and model ways of using them differently and also talk about the values embedded [in them]. Critique the way they position the children ? that is, how to have children being imaginative and critical with the popular culture of their day," she argues. There is also a political aspect - more "social presssure" associated with ownership of integrated toys, in that they can be tickets to group membership. "There are at times some problems in schools over ownership and stealing - some schools had banned them for this very reason. Tamagotchi falls into the interactive and also the integrated category in terms of its outcomes. Kids and adults do get involved in its life cycle."
Will technology of itself indelibly change the nature of play? Maybe it's not inevitable. Tonya Valasco, Mattel's interactive software product manager describes the difference neatly, in the sales of Barbie the doll versus Barbie software. Barbie CD-ROM products she says, have a seasonal, short-term cycle, whereas Barbie dolls sell "anywhere, anytime". Describing the market response to the company's foray into interactive software to complement the long-time party girl's real world success as "disappointing", Valasco defines the reason in simple terms: "Well, of course, children play differently with her - she's a doll!" But intelligent "future-dolls" are where it's at, according to Sony's Cooper. "Ever since day dot, from Barbie and Lego, man has used technology to move on, looking for more stimulation. The next step for intelligent toys is that they can interract back. As VR [virtual reality] improves, that area will expand. People will embrace it, rather than stay in the past."
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