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11 Feb, 2019 / by William Seung

From the Collections: Tamagotchi (1997 Hong Kong Collector’s Edition)

A small rectangular cardboard box sits upright against a blank background. A flab on the top says ‘Tamagotchi’, and a flap on the front has been opened to reveal a small round opening covered by plastic containing a round, red Tamagotchi device. A small screen on the front of the device shows a small bird-like pet. On the cardboard surrounding the device is a photograph of a bridge at night time surrounded by fireworks, and an array of small cartoon creatures dancing and smiling along the bottom.

Bandai Co., Ltd. manufactured a collector's edition Tamagotchi to commemorate Hong Kong's handover in 1997. © All rights reserved; M+, Hong Kong

This portable Tamagotchi game (1997 Hong Kong Collector’s Edition) from Bandai Co. is in the M+ Collections, but what is it, who made it, and why did M+ acquire it? William Seung, Curatorial Assistant, Design & Architecture, M+, explains.

Hi, William. Can you tell us about this item?

This is an early generation of a Tamagotchi, a portable pet-raising simulation game. The name is a combination of the Japanese words tamago (‘egg’) and wocchi (‘watch’)—referring to both the gameplay (raising a pet from an egg and keeping watch over it) and its egg-like case and keychain that lets you walk around with it. The goal of the game is to take care of a Tamagotchi, a mysterious alien-like creature, so that it can grow up from a toddler to an adult. Players have to keep it in a good mood, teach it to be well-behaved, and feed it when it’s hungry.

The operations are very straightforward: all of the moves can be performed by three buttons. However, the game requires a lot of time and attention, especially since the running time in the game is the same as in the real world, not helped by the fact that that the first generation did not allow players to pause the game. If the pet is neglected—for instance, if its toilet has not been cleaned for a long while—it will get sick, and, if no medical measures have been taken, eventually die. Death is, unfortunately, unavoidable in early generations of Tamagotchi, as every Tamagotchi has its own lifespan. All in all, it is very much like looking after a real pet, but in the virtual world.

This special edition is a celebration token of the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, during the peak of the Tamagotchi trend, embedding the word ‘Hong Kong’ (香港) in Chinese on its case.

Who made it?

Two photographs side by side, one showing the front and one showing the back of the same cardboard game box. A flap on sticking out on the top reads ‘Tamagotchi’. On the front the words ‘1997 Collector’s Edition’ are printed sideways. On the back are typed instructions printed inside a bright pink rounded rectangle.

Bandai Co., Ltd. (manufacturer), Tamagotchi 1997 Hong Kong Collector’s Edition portable game device, 1997. Metal, plastic, and electronic parts, M+, Hong Kong. © All rights reserved

Tamagotchi was a collaboration between Aki Maita, an employee of Bandai, Tamagotchi’s manufacturer based in Japan, and Akihiro Yokoi, a former employee of Bandai who had since set up his own toy manufacturing company, WiZ.

Yokoi brought up the idea of a portable pet to Bandai, with the concept that it would be wonderful to bring your pet along wherever you went. Bandai, however, rejected the proposal. In response to this rejection, Maita embarked on a marketing research project, gathering information on the streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya district by interviewing and distributing sample products to mostly young people. Before Tamagotchi, portable gaming devices, such as the Gameboy, were almost exclusively marketed towards men. Maita’s research revealed the potential and needs of a group that was not usually associated with video games—young women. Her conclusion was that, in order to make this product popular, it was key to make it kawaii (‘cute’ in Japanese).

Based on this research, Yokoi and Maita refined the design and gameplay, releasing the first Tamagotchi in 1996. It was so successful that both of them won an Ig Nobel Prize in Economics—a prize that ‘honours achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think’—for ‘costing people an immense amount of working time’.

Why is this in the M+ Collections?

A Tamagotchi lies on a blank background. It is small, egg-shaped, and red with a small screen and three buttons in a row underneath it. The year 1997 is printed over the buttons in gold, and the Chinese characters for ‘Hong Kong’ are printed in gold above the screen. A small keychain is attached to the top.

Bandai Co., Ltd. (manufacturer), Tamagotchi 1997 Hong Kong Collector’s Edition portable game device, 1997. Metal, plastic, and electronic parts, M+, Hong Kong. © All rights reserved

M+ has been collecting products that are significant in Asia’s post-war industrial design history since the early stages of the M+ Collections. Tamagotchi was not just a commercial success, it was an innovative digital product design, sparking the rise of a new game typology: portable pet-raising simulators that require an immense amount of time and attention. Many similar games have followed in its footsteps—for example the Digital Monster (Digimon) virtual pet, also developed by Bandai as a ‘masculine’ counterpart to Tamagotchi, and ‘Pokémon Pikachu’ from Bandai’s rival Nintendo, a virtual pet dedicated to the Pikachu character from the Pokémon franchise.

During its peak in the late 1990s, Tamagotchi became a social phenomenon. Many people carried the device to school or to the office so as to take care of their needy pet, even causing some schools to ban Tamagotchi. It demonstrated how the combination of a design and gameplay mechanics can affect our living habits, blurring the boundary between the virtual and the real world.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

William Seung is Curatorial Assistant, Design and Architecture at M+.

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