At first, I had a hard time telling my friends about my new puppies. I was genuinely excited when I picked them out of the litter, and I had a lot of fun trying to train them. Sure, puppies aren't the most obedient things, but even when they're disobeying you it's hard not to smile. Despite the smiles, I was still reluctant to talk about them. It wasn't because of the geeky names I'd chosen for them (my German Shepherd pup was named Peach, while I called my baby boxer Bowser), and it wasn't because my friends were all cat people. Nor were they traumatized by wet puppy noses as children. It was, in fact, because my landlord didn't allow dogs, because Peach and Bowser didn't really exist, and because I didn't want my friends to think I was crazy.
My pets, of course, lived in the world of Nintendogs, Nintendo's surprise phenomenon "game" that gives everyone, even gamers who've had their attention spans chiseled away to nil, the chance to raise abbreviated dogs. You wouldn't call Nintendogs a pet-raising simulator, because real puppies don't leave the floor nice and clean if you ignore them for a few hours, real puppies don't simply get more sleepy if you haven't fed them for a few days, and real puppies don't place first in a Frisbee championship after four hours of training. However, it does give you a taste of dog ownership.
It's all these simplifications and accelerations when compared to real doggie life that make this an entertaining game and, to some degree, make it sound an awful lot like Bandai's global sensation Tamagotchi pocket eggs, which enabled gamers to care for a fat, little, pixilated alien. However, the roots of this genre of game date back long before the first trendy digital devices, back before there were any digital devices at all - back to the first dolls.
Now, playing Nintendogs isn't exactly the same as changing the diaper on a Baby Pee-Pee Pants doll, but the similarities are there. Both require a modicum of the same care and attention of the real thing, while neither delivers quite the same level of negative feedback should you slack off on your duties. Your doll certainly isn't going to die on you, and neither are your digital puppies ... in fact, they just run away if you aren't holding up your end of the bargain. Most importantly, though, both deliver a small taste of the satisfaction and reward of raising the real thing.
But can you really get attached to a replica? Can you really fall in love with a puppy that exists only in polygons, or some other digital reinterpretation of something real? Earlier this year, when Mark Allen of the New York Times spent a few days at home with Nuvo, a funny little robot from Japan with little practical purpose beyond companionship, he found himself quite enamored with the little ... guy? Doll? Toy? Gizmo? "When Nuvo's four-day visit ended," he said, "I felt oddly alone. I miss its weird, nonverbal companionship, the small ways it entertained me. Sometimes I look around the room, hoping to witness one of its mechanical flubs, so strangely reminiscent of a lover's emotional outbursts."