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Raising a Tamagotchi in 2017

There’s a reason these things haven’t been popular in 20 years

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I was in third grade when I got my first Tamagotchi. Before I’d even unpackaged it, I was reminded of the tales my older brother, a middle-schooler, had told of a home economics exam. Eggs were distributed to pairs of students, who had to keep them on their persons at all times for a week. If the egg cracked, the students would fail immediately. Couples went to great lengths to protect their eggs, nestling them in cotton-ball-lined cardboard cribs or swaddling them in bubble wrap. The ritual was meant to mimic adulthood and the peril that comes with sharing responsibility for a small, fragile human being. Like many young children, I was interested in the former without quite understanding the implications of the latter. And so I approached the care of my Tamagotchi with the same intensity and enthusiasm as those middle-schoolers did their egg babies. The moment I ceremoniously pulled the shiny white tab from my very first Tamagotchi, I considered it my first-born child.

Twenty years after that first batch of Tamagotchis entered the hands of elementary-schoolers like myself, parent company Bandai is reviving the gadget. The latest version — on sale for $15 at Target, Walmart, Toys R Us, and Amazon as of November 5 — is smaller and simpler than the original. (Users can no longer discipline or potty-train their Tama — just feed it, clean up its poop, and cure it of the occasional ailment.) But unlike the string of Tamagotchi iterations that Bandai has released in other countries over the years, it remains decidedly analog. The pet’s universe is still depicted in 8-bit grayscale graphics on an LCD screen, and it is controlled by three simple buttons. It doesn’t come with an app, and you can’t connect it to your smartphone. The stakes of the game remain very low: evolve your small adult son to become a large adult son (hopefully not that kind of Large Adult Son) or — if you’re lucky — the largest.

Bandai resurrected the Tamagotchi for the same reason Netflix rebooted Full House and Activision brought back Crash Bandicoot: Millennials want to mainline nostalgia into their veins from anywhere they can find it. But the Tamagotchi is a unique test case in a burgeoning landscape of sentimentalism because, unlike a television show or a video game, it demands round-the-clock attention. Before my generation grew up to acquire jobs in which we juggled a constant stream of Slack alerts, we were responding to the sing-songy complaints of our Japanese egg children. Now, instead of hearing a jingle and cleaning up a pixelated blob’s poop, our iPhones vibrate and we respond to a stream of emails, DMs, and other notifications. In a way, the Tamagotchi conditioned our generation for our impending high-maintenance relationship with gadgets.

That’s where the appeal of its reboot gets tricky. As a child, I was thrilled to step into the role of caretaker for a helpless digital being. But as an overworked millennial in her late 20s who spends way too much time looking at her phone, adding yet another beeping gadget on top of the notifications I field from Twitter, Facebook, iMessage, Hangouts, and Signal every day sounds exhausting. (That’s why I have a cat and plants, and not children.) The number of unanswered emails in my inbox weighs on my conscience every day — why would I also want that negligence embodied in the inevitable death of a digital pet?

Nevertheless, when a baby-blue Tamagotchi test unit arrived at the office, I couldn’t stifle my excitement. I tore it out of its packaging, then carefully pulled out its plastic white tab — its metaphorical umbilical cord. I was so thrilled when the egg hatched into a bouncing baby blob that I decided to name it Tom. But it all went downhill from there. The first time around I didn’t read the instructions manual — because who reads digital instructions manuals in 2017? — and so I messed up my first Tama child’s internal clock. It needed things in the middle of the night while I was asleep, and beeped to tell me about it. This scenario resulted in my waking up at 3 a.m. to furiously search for my keys and bury them in my laundry basket. (It then took me longer than it should have to find them the next morning.) I knew that ignoring this cloying gadget would have no real-life negative consequences, and I took advantage of that. It led to a swift death for Tom, by way of feces-induced disease. Rest in peace, Tom.

My second try went better. I reset the screen by using a paperclip to press a small button on the back of the device. I named my new Tama Dot, and figured out how to align our internal clocks in favor of my sleeping schedule. But Dot’s incessant cries were only slightly less annoying during daylight. Around the time Dot hatched, I was in the midst of fielding some involved edits on a feature, and it seemed outlandish to me that I would have to break my concentration to accommodate the needs of a pixelated idiot. Out of bitterness I buried my keys in yet another sound-proof container. When I finally unearthed Dot a day or two later, I found that she, too, had been suffocated by poop.

I’m now on my third Tama. I didn’t give it a name, because what’s the point if we’re all going to die someday anyway? The other day I went to see The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and it beeped during a particularly heavy moment in the film. I really thought about stomping it through my backpack in the middle of the movie. As I type this, it’s sitting next to my laptop and phone — my more important gadget children — ready to complain about something. After the inevitable demise of this nameless egg, I plan to leave its tombstone screen up for good. Bandai’s revival of a once-seminal product may have been a play for some valuable millennial stocking stuffer real estate, but it’s also incredibly dystopian. The last thing we want is another set of notifications to tend to — even if they come from a nostalgic 8-bit blob with uncontrollable bowels.