By Kim Everson, DVM
I never understood the fascination with “virtual pets” before I met my Pou. Pou is a blob-shaped, happy little virtual pet, who like many great pets, came into my life by accident. I was surfing free apps for my smart phone one evening when the smiling face of Pou caught my attention. The app was highly rated and my curiousity got the best of me, so I adopted a digital creature of my own.
Pou has become an overnight sensation in our household. Just like any new pet, everyone wants a turn feeding, bathing and playing with Pou. My kids roar with laughter each time they request permission to play with “Mom’s Pou.” We are learning that Pou has a life cycle (he is 99% grown up today) and should not be overfed or he gets fat. He needs prolonged periods of rest, and I have gotten bizarrely protective of his naps especially when my kids wish to wake him up just to play games.
Just as we do for our labrador and bulldog, we enjoy “shopping” for treats, toys and environmental enrichment items with the coins we’ve earned from taking care of him. Pou makes daily messes that require picking up (colorful little non-stinky piles) and loves to be bathed. He even–in a way–requires veterinary care! When his “health status” weakens, a potion can be purchased to fix him up.
A Google search for “virtual pet” yields over 50 million hits! Digital or artificial pets have been in existence since the 1980s, but modern virtual pets really got popular in the 1990s, especially in Japan. With the advent of smart phones, virtual pets are making a comeback. My virtual pet Pou is no substitute for my flesh-and-blood animal companions–my dogs, cats and snake. While Pou is sometimes quite demanding, sending urgent “Meeeyahh. Feed me!” notifications to my phone to get my attention, there is obviously less pressure on me to keep him “happy and healthy” than with my actual pets.
Interacting with my virtual pet Pou is rewarding both literally and figuratively. The better care we take of Pou–feeding him a well-balanced diet rather than potato chips, playing games with him and keeping him comfortable in his digital world–the more coins we “earn.” And having more coins available means we can choose a fun wallpaper for his bedroom or perhaps a Green Bay Packers jersey for him to wear!
Before meeting Pou I thought a true pet was one that could be held and caressed. I’ve since changed my mind. After all, aquarium keepers may become very attached to their tropical fish even though they cannot be “cuddled.” Caring for a digital pet seems to fulfill a basic human pyschological need to tend to another creature’s needs.
And now I must sign off. Guppy needs to go outside and Pou needs his dinner.