It’s 2018, and what we all really want — and need, for that matter — is to be weaned off our screens. We’re desperate to regain control of our attention span and free ourselves from the number one time thief and stress factor of modern life.
Digital wellness, as it’s been dubbed, is all about being mindful with our use of apps, limiting notifications and disturbances on our phones. It’s about “time well spent” as Zuckerberg would say. We’re asking our apps and devices to loosen their grip on us and save us from ourselves.
Not me, though. I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction and got myself a small, noise-making device with no other purpose in life than to claim – or rather, demand – my time with incessant beeping. That’s right; I got a Tamagotchi.
I named my Tamagotchi Minka after my beloved, deceased childhood dog and later regretted it.
The Tamagotchi — a retro Generation Two Tamagotchi that was relaunched by Bandai America this autumn — was bestowed upon me by a co-worker. We wanted to explore how the people who grew up with Tamagotchis and experienced the original frenzy feel about them now.
I named mine Minka after my beloved, deceased childhood dog (and later regretted it, when it turned out to be such a bore. RIP.)
It was nostalgia that made me accept taking on the Tamagotchi in the first place. While the grown-up me has trouble seeing the point of owning a tiny, beeping, egg-shaped monster of a device, the 7-year-old me absolutely loved it. I remember the initial thrill of having a device that responded to me, interacted with me, relied on me for nurturing.
A Tamagotchi was what all of us ’90s kids wanted most of all; a toy that comes to life. However pixelated, noisy, and difficult they were, they were our pets. We fed them, picked up their poop and played with them all on their terms. The games on classic Tamagotchis are so mind numbingly simple that they cannot have been designed with the owner’s amusement in mind.
We were in awe of them and we loved them. They were a part of our social lives with other kids, always a topic of conversation, not to mention a perfect pre-phone social distraction for surly preteens not wishing to engage with their surroundings.
Minka the Tamagotchi makes noise. That is the first thing you notice about it, but it also happens to be the worst aspect of it. As a millennial, my phone has been on silent since, well, forever. I’m never that far away from my phone that I need it to make noise, nor do I ever really want it to. So, when the Tamagotchi started beeping in a crowded rush hour Tube carriage, I was mortified. It’s not just a text ping, you know. It’s a series of high-pitched beeps. This must be why our phones now favour the smooth ‘ping’ sound over the grating ‘beep.’ Beeping is stressful.
“The Tamagotchi is going berserk!” my editor wrote on Slack one day when I’d left it on my desk while I was out for lunch. It had indeed descended into a beeping frenzy. “It was probably just hungry,” I wrote back, apologetically.
What was once a novelty now feels like a chore. Nearly two decades after I got my first Tamagotchi, I push its buttons unenthusiastically, mainly just to shut it up. Now and again I play the built-in game which, in all simplicity, is about guessing whether the next number will be higher or lower than the previous one. I’m a diligent feeder and cleaner of Tamagotchi poop. But honestly, I’m not getting anything from this relationship. I’m pretty detached, let’s put it that way.
I know, of course, what had changed. Yes, I’ve aged a couple of decades, but we’re also living in the smartphone age where our lives are so consumed by, and saturated with, tech to the point where we’re beyond all curiosity and novelty. What used to excite us, the demand for our attention, the reliance on our response, is now something we perceive as annoying at best, but problematic and detrimental to our mental health at worst.
Smartphone addiction is real, and it’s a problem. A 2017 Deloitte survey found that 38 percent of smartphone users feel like they use their phones too much. For 16-24-year-olds, that number is 56 percent. A lot of us are caught in what a former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya described as “dopamine-driven feedback loops” in a statement of penance in 2017. It is draining our brains of energy.
I don’t know about you, but I rank the different screen-related activities in my life in order of how wholesome they feel and how worthwhile they are. One one end, there is the quality screen time that I genuinely enjoy and that I firmly believe enriches my life. At the other end, there is the purposeless waste of time, the dumb stuff that makes my brain tired, the guilty pleasures that aren’t really pleasures at all. To me, streaming on Netflix is both virtuous and wholesome, the same is any and all reading, FaceTime, and texting with the people I love. At the other end of the spectrum are the socials; Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, all YouTube content, and aimless browsing.
The Tamagotchi breaks the scale. The Tamagotchi – a primitive screen activity, but a screen activity nonetheless – takes all the annoying, attention-grabbing aspects of smartphone life and magnifies them. You find push notifications distracting? Your Tamagotchi will beep at you until you press one, any, of its buttons (add to that a layer of tech mortality, your Tamagotchi will straight up die on you if you don’t fulfil its wishes.) And having to pay attention to a pixelated blob stands in sharp contrast to how we think of our screens today, how aware we have become of the power they have over us. And, at least for me personally, how badly you need to rid your life of noise and notifications.
“The Tamagotchi – a primitive screen activity – takes all the annoying, attention-grabbing aspects of smartphone life and magnifies them.”
When Apple launched iOS 12, and with it the screen time function, they did it “to help customers understand and take control of the time they spend interacting with their iOS devices.” The buzz words and phrases in their press release were all more-or-less synonymous with put your fucking phone down. “Reduce interruptions,” “Stay in the moment,” “Do Not Disturb,” “Manage device usage.” The ones who installed the screens in our lives are trying to make up for it, though with little evidence to confirm that these now wellbeing tools actually change our behaviour. But it shows what way we’re headed.
Taking that into consideration, the timing of the Tamagotchi relaunch is weird, and probably a little off. Granted, not everyone feels the same way about the Tamagotchis as I do. There are still die-hard Tamagotchi enthusiasts out there, people for whom the Tamagotchis – both in the form of classical eggs or the more recent app Tamagotchis smartphones – are a real hobby, and who publicly mourn their digital pets when they die.
Perhaps it’s just be me who has outgrown the Tamagotchi as I’ve a) grown older and b) become more and more exasperated with technology in my own life. But I don’t think so. What the Tamagotchis had going for them was never that they were particularly entertaining. It was that they, for many of us, were our first pieces of “intelligent” tech that wanted something from us; interaction, response. They were our first taste of portable, interactive gadgets with a linear lifespan.
I’m sorry to report that as the weekend rolled around, Minka died (Tamagotchi Minka, that is. Dog Minka died in 2012). As I was out enjoying screen free time in the autumn sun, she passed away in my bag. I wasn’t even around to hear her final beeps. When I dug her out of my bag, she had been replaced by a display of flashing UFOs.
I don’t miss her, but she did manage to prove a point in her lifetime – that the last thing I want in my life is another screen. I look at a laptop for 8 hours a day, and at my smartphone two and a half additional hours (thank you for the stats, Screen Time). By inviting another stupid, beeping screen into my life I realised what I already knew, and what Silicon Valley are now busy telling us and their anxious shareholders; that I need to put my fucking phone down.