How Far Have Virtual Pets Come in the Digital Age?

We've come a long way from the Tamagotchi.
By: Krystle Vermes
Person with dog

Digital pets might bring to mind images of little keychain toys that children played with in the 1990s, however, the term “digital pet” itself has come a long way since the days of toys like Tamagotchi. While these types of digital pets are still in existence today, the internet has also opened up doors to a wide range of pet-oriented games.

The same concepts of love, nurturing and raising a virtual pet still exist, but in a variety of forms that Tamagotchi users of the 1990s couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago.

Virtual Pet Games: How It All Began


“There was a point where ‘virtual pet slot machines,’ virtual pet games which didn’t involve any strategy or skill other than pressing a button over and over again, every single day of the week, were very popular,” says James Vanderbilt, customer relations representative at VirtualPups.com, one example of a website that has taken the concept of virtual gaming from the late 20th century and turned it into much more today.

But when did virtual pets truly become a part of our lives?

Dr. Christopher Blazina has done extensive research in the area of virtual pet gaming. He notes that although our relationship with pets goes back 10,000 years, virtual pets have only been around for about 20 years. However, this does not make them any less significant in our lives.

Virtual pets, he says, have been used by children to increase motivation in academic tasks and to increase exercise and play in the hopes of fighting childhood obesity. On the other end of the spectrum, virtual pets have been developed to interact with senior citizens in nursing homes.

“Those that play online games involving virtual pets report anecdotal evidence that they are emotionally bonded to them and even feel a sense of loss when they pass away online,” he says. “However, we are just beginning to learn about how far the psychological parallels between real and virtual pets can be stretched, and what other key factors may be involved.”

Tamagotchi  game

The Virtual Pets of Today


Thanks to the internet, we have numerous virtual pet game options, meaning you no longer have to rely on a keychain electronic for the pet companionship you desire. Surprisingly, some of these web-based games have been around since the internet boom and they’re still going strong.

“VirtualPups has been operating for over 10 years, meaning player feedback has been integrated into the gameplay over a very long period, resulting in a more advanced and rewarding virtual pet experience,” says Vanderbilt. “Many of the players have been playing the game for just as long, resulting in a very tightly knit community that is fun to play the game with.”

Vanderbilt says that there are more than 300,000 virtual kennels on the website with more than 1 million pets. However, it isn’t all about pet ownership for those who participate on the website.

“In order to thrive you must invest time in training, eventing and breeding your dogs. You must be engaged with other users in the game, as they may have the resources or skills you need to succeed,” he says. “In many ways, it’s closer to Monopoly then Tamagotchi.”

But it isn’t just dogs that capture the attention of the virtual pet lovers of today. Many people find companionship and enjoyment out of caring for other creatures as well.

Take AdoptMe.com, for example. On AdoptMe, individuals can adopt everything from cats to horses.

Since it was created in 2002, owner Eric Borgos says the site has seen millions of users come and go, making virtual friends along the way – but what is the lasting effect of these relationships?

Kevin N., a frequent virtual pet gamer, has experienced several benefits since he began gaming. Furthermore, they’ve filled a specific hole in his life.

“I love having pets, but I can’t have any at my apartment,” Kevin says. “The games serve as a nice distraction until my wife and I get a house.”

He adds that virtual pet games are effective as a form of relaxation after a long day at work. Furthermore, he enjoys that they are low-pressure and typically free to play.

The world of virtual pet gaming is constantly evolving. The way these games benefit pet lovers now may completely change within the next few years.

“The advances with virtual pets also open the door for moving beyond entertainment as the end goal,” Blazina says. “For those that might benefit from an emotional service animal but lack funds to acquire or train one, perhaps that  is an area where virtual animals can be more than about online gaming.”

He says that virtual pets may eventually be able to support veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, people who need extra assistance flying on a plane or those wanting to increase their levels of social intelligence.

Until we see these advances, we’ll have to turn to what’s available now. Luckily, there’s a little bit of something for everyone.