Over the last decade or so, robotic and virtual pets have found homes around the world. Children are playing with robotic dogs, virtual cats, and even talking owls. These toys are popular because they give children a sense of responsibility and virtual pets seem to belong to the child like a real dog or cat would. Despite this, robotic pets have failed to completely replace the traditional stuffed animals.
In the early 2000’s robotic dogs were becoming popular. Personally, I had a Tekno dog, and Jordan had another type of robotic dog called Big Scratch. Both were similar in nature. They could perform a few simple tricks as well as walk around. The robotic dogs were alluring because they mimicked real dogs, which many children wanted but were not able to have. Despite this initial appeal, Jordan and I both failed to take care of the dogs. “Since it requires no responsibility, I didn’t really take care of mine at all. I took care of my beanie babies way more.” For Jordan, even though the robotic dog was life like, he would rather have his beanie babies. He said about the beanie babies, “I felt like they had more personality. They were softer and I could kind of personify them, whereas I guess a robot is not as personify-able.” As a child, Jordan would rather have beanie babies, which came as many different colored bears and other animals, rather than a robotic dog.
The virtual dogs of NintenDogs were far more realistic and quickly became very popular. This Nintendo DS game allows the user to choose a dog and then take it for walks, bathe it, feed it, and enter it in competitions. Getting a new dog was exciting because you could choose the one you wanted, and when you took it home, you could teach it its name and play with it. In Turkle’s book, Alone Together, she talks about the fact that children have trouble understanding whether virtual beings are real or not. The dogs were very similar to real dogs. Like a real dog, nintendogs seem to love their owner. They bark and wag their tails when they are called, and they enjoy playing frisbee. They felt personal and as though they needed to be taken care of. Being so life like made the dogs fun to play with, but unfortunately, like the robotic dogs, these dogs also became boring. The dogs would never die, so caring for it is unnecessary. Personally, I abandoned my dogs multiple times, and when I came back, I would give the dogs to the pound and get new ones. Even though the dogs seemed to have feelings, I never loved them like I loved my real dog.
Many children are drawn to robotic or virtual pets because they are closer to being real, but those virtual pets do not replace stuffed animals. Jordan loved his beanie babies, and my favorite toy is still my build-a-bear, Julian. Robotic or virtual pets seem like a great idea at first, but they are quickly abandoned, while stuffed animals are kept for years. In addition, robotic toys fail to be comforting. Jordan mentioned that he liked his beanie babies because they were soft and he could sleep with them in his bed. My stuffed bear was my favorite toy for the same reasons. While a virtual dog may wag its tail and bark at you, the tangible bear is more comforting, and so it stays with a child longer. When I asked Jordan if he thinks stuffed animals are better than robots, he simply replied, “By far.”
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together. 2010.
Reding, Jordan. Personal Interview. 15 February 2015.