My (Virtual) Dog Skip

"They'll go back to the land of Tama." "But Mommy, you don't understand. They're going to die." We are on Highway 6, heading north. We were already stuck in nerve-wracking traffic on our way out of Jerusalem and apparently the worst is yet to come. Spending time in a traffic jam with a child who forgot his new Tamagotchi at home and afraid that his crying will turn into the trip's soundtrack, leads me to clarify, cautiously, the meaning of the toy's expected death. Is it a final passing or is there a chance for redemption? After all, even without a virtual horizon, almost every mother can understand that it hurts to throw away a toy that cost NIS 150. According to what little information the child is willing to disclose, the device can be "reset," and a new creature will appear on the screen. So what's the problem, I wonder. But this consideration only elicits an even louder outburst.

The child is right. I really don't understand. It is incomprehensible to me how he can expect me to turn around and go back, only to "feed" a tiny flickering circle. And whatever happens, "It isn't educational" - I dig in my heels. We phone the expert. Omer Sandman, 7, of Jerusalem, has become the local Tamagotchi expert. Children queue up to call him. Most cases referred to him are urgent. The conversation is short and to the point. My son asks in a trembling voice whether his Tamagotchi dies instantly. Sandmann announces his decree with great certainty: The Tamagotchi won't die so fast. It turns out that we have been saved. It will wait a few hours.

"Is it in agony?" I ask, feeling somewhat complicit. But the morale in the car goes up. In the meantime we have to think about recruiting someone to enter our house and rescue the pet. I run through a number of possibilities in my mind. Who among my relatives and friends would be willing to take on such a responsibility? I'm not at all certain that I can survive another crisis.

Sandman is experienced when it comes to Tamagotchi disasters. Maybe this is why he is so calm and truly prepared for any scenario. Twice he dealt with regrettable accidents of Tamagotchis falling into the toilet. One of them didn't make it. The same thing happened to us, too. My son mourned for a week, until I could no longer resist his pleas. "It happens to many children," said the saleswoman at the toy store, who evinced empathy for the child.

'What is love?'

Unlike many parents, I don't think these incidents testify to heedlessness, but rather the opposite. The children don't go anywhere without it. The Tamagotchi became an instant hit at the end of the 1990s; it seems to be enjoying a revival right now. Japanese for "Beloved Egg," the Tamagotchi is a virtual pet whose form and content hasn't changed much since it first hit the stores. It still consists of a small black and white screen with a small, colorful frame, with three buttons on it. On the screen a creature the size of a pea, reminiscent of Pacman, flashes. When the Tamagotchi is turned on for the first time, an egg appears on the screen. From it a creature hatches, either in a bird or a dragon. And then it becomes your job to take care of this creature, to feed it, to make sure it goes to the toilet, and, most importantly, to love it.

"What is love?" I ask Sandman. He shows me several essential items he has bought for his Tamagotchi, to show it how much he loves it: They include a tennis racket, a spoon, soap bubbles, a koala bear and a cat. Food is another major issue. The little machine supplies basic products like bread, but in order to show real love, you have to give your pet treats like a lollipop, a cookie, a hamburger. The laws in the consumer world where this egg was hatched are strict. A lot of hearts indicate that the Tamagotchi is in good health. The creature feels loved. To reach this state, you have to play games and earn money, so you can buy things for it. When the creature is satisfied, it grows up, gets married and has children. And then you have to take care of them as well. Starting with the fifth generation of Tamagotchis you've raised, you can marry creatures from nearby Tamagotchis - a great joy and an endless source of funny sentences like: "Mommy, should I marry him? But I don't know him."

The first Tamagotchis were produced as a game for grown-ups, but the manufacturers very quickly realized that the ideal target audience was much younger. The idea was for the kids to get attached to their virtual pets, like to a real dog or a cat. And it works.

Dr. Diana Keller, head of the department of computer games studies at Beit Berl College, thinks the Tamagotchi is a kind of imaginary friend. "Not every child has an imaginary friend. The Tamagotchi fits those kids who have a propensity for this. They can personalize it, make it their own and build an entire inner world around it." She says the toy also has educational value: "When another child is born, he effectively takes the place of the firstborn, a traumatic event. The Tamagotchi comes from the outside. In caring for it, the child becomes accustomed to responsibility. Like a simulation."

Keller believes that the attraction to the Tamagotchi in particular, and to interactive toys in general, also derives from the feedback. "This says something about the world in which children are growing up today. A world of alienation and loneliness."

I asked Sandman how he imagines the land of Tama and whether it is a good or a bad place for a Tamagotchi. He thought for a while and then he said: "Yes, it's a beautiful place. But they would miss us."