Were you hooked on Tamagotchi in the mid or late 90s? If you missed that craze, a Tamagotchi is a small, inexpensive electronic toy that asks the user to care for a "virtual pet." The handheld devices first appeared in Japan in 1996, and some 70 million have been sold around the world since.
The word Tamagotchi is a clever multi-lingual portmanteau that combines the Japanese word for egg, tamago, and the English word for watch. The concept is pretty simple: a player is asked to "care" for his or her virtual pet by regularly pushing buttons for feeding, watering and entertaining it, while removing waste and providing medicine as needed.
Virtual pets tend to be demanding little buggers, just like real living things. The better cared for the Tamagotchi, the stronger and healthier it becomes, and it will evolve through several life stages. One person's virtual pet can interact with another player's pet, through sharing, gift giving and even mating. Ignore your virtual pet at your peril, as it quickly gets unruly, sick and will even die. This aspect has made the concept controversial at times, with some parents complaining that a constantly nagging Tamagotchi distracts their kids from more productive pursuits, and many schools banning them over fears of distractions.
Technology has long surpassed the novelty of the Tamagotchi, though newer versions are still being produced, complete with wireless connectivity. However, the concept of a virtual pet endures. Three dimensional, lifelike artificial pets were predicted as status symbols in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner), and Zynga has made millions enticing Facebook users to sow virtual crops in the hit game Farmville.
A number of greens have asked if it might be possible to harvest some of the enthusiasm for such simple concepts to make a difference in the real world. The early Facebook app hit Lil Green Patch raised awareness and money for The Nature Conservancy, reportedly to protect rain forests. Again, the gameplay was very simple, with users tending a virtual garden. That's a step toward making a real difference through digital tools, but the process is still a bit diffuse. Raising money for conservation is certainly an admirable goal, but is that ultimately sustainable? The game was discontinued, and it's impossible to say if those who played it have kept giving, or if they made any lifestyle changes in support of the goals.
Carbon Rally, a start-up TDG has teamed up with, took the concept a bit further by making the entire point of their service an enticement to make positive changes in the real world. "Ralliers" are virtually rewarded by agreeing to follow a number of green challenges, like turning down the thermostat and eschewing bottled water. Still, the site is low on gameplay and hasn't reached a tipping point. (Interestingly, Dennis Crowley, a co-founder of Foursquare, recently said that one of the motivations for starting his service was to "incentivize people for doing good stuff in the real world," such as visiting galleries or working out. Foursquare has the buzz and the gameplay, but to what extent it motivates change is unclear.)
A new Silicon Valley startup, Formative Labs, is entering the space with a concept called Ecopetts. According to founder and CEO Jessica Alter, Ecopetts builds on the Tamagotchi model, but instead of nourishing your adorable virtual pet simply with the push of a button, you have to actually do something useful in the real world, like save some energy. According to the company, "Ecopetts let's you compare energy use with your friends and get credit for the energy saving actions (small and big) you take. Most importantly, we make it fun."
Alter told us that her company is working with utilities to sync up the service with real-time energy monitoring, along the lines of the smart grid. According to Alter, this functionality will make Ecopetts more compelling and immediate. Also, she stresses the social nature of Ecopetts, which she says will allow users to "compare and collaborate with friends on Facebook."
The idea for Ecopetts makes intuitive sense: since every action we take does indeed have a real affect on other species, why not make a simulator of sorts that shows how turning off the water when we brush our teeth can make sure the cute cub downstream gets enough to drink? The problem with many environmental issues today is that challenges can seem enormous, too disperse and too serious. Ecopetts seeks to make the issues manageable, relatable and fun. Sometimes we forget the power of fun, but it's true that many cultures have long taught important concepts and behaviors through games. The tricky balancing act is to come up with something that is both fun and meaningful at the same time; few are able to succeed on both counts. We'd love to hear what you think.
Ecopetts is currently in a private beta mode, and we're pleased to invite TDG readers to sign up and give it a try, as exclusive early testers. So sign up and tell us what you think!
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