Giga Pets are digital pets (also known as virtual pets or artificial pets) that were first released in the United States by Tiger Electronics in 1997 in the midst of a virtual-pet toy fad. Available in a variety of different characters, essentially each is a palm-sized video screen attached to a key ring. To ensure a happy, healthy pet, its owner has to take care of it in some of the same ways one might care for a real animal. Among other things, Giga Pets have to be fed, cleaned, and played with.
Giga Pets are "born" on a tiny LCD screen after the owner pulls back a tab on the back. The pets come to life in different ways. For example, Baby T-Rex hatches from an egg. Compu Kitty is delivered by a stork. A beep sound and alert icon notify the owner that the pet requires attention. To determine what the Giga Pet needs, owners must scroll through various activities and push a button to select one. Activities include but are not limited to bathing, exercising, and disciplining the pet. Sometimes a selected activity is refused and the owner has to try a different one. A running score determines the pet’s overall well-being; neglect leads to the pet’s demise. The average life of a Giga Pet is 2 weeks but very healthy pets can live longer. When a Giga Pet dies it grows angel wings. When Giga Pets were initially tested, it was reported that the first thing most girls did was name their pets whereas most boys opted to discipline the digital creatures.
Giga Pets were created and released to compete with Tamagotchis, egg-shaped virtual pets that were introduced in Japan in 1996 by Bandai and are widely credited with initiating the virtual pet craze in the U.S., the UK, and other countries. In the U.S., Giga Pets were reported to be more readily available than Tamagotchis and at price of approximately $10 USD, roughly $5 less than the suggest retail price for their Japanese counterpart. By the end of 1997, Tiger Electronics, a then privately held electronics toy and game-maker based in Vernon Hills, Illinois, was one of many manufacturers creating virtual pets. Others included Fujitsu, PF Magic, Sega, Viacom New Media, Casio, and Technosphere.
Giga Pets and Furby
Roger Shiffman, a Chicago native and co-founder of Tiger Electronics, is credited as being the driving force behind Giga Pets and Furby, a furry interactive pet with big eyes and pointed ears that could talk, shuffle and sneeze. Intended to be a follow up to Giga Pets, Shiffman included Furby in the deal he made with Hasbro when Tiger Electronics was sold to the giant toy manufacturer in 1998 for $335 million USD. Approximately 20 million Furbies were sold in the first 6 months following its 1998 release.
TV game and new handhelds launched in 2006
Giga Pets Explorer TV Plug n Play Game was launched in the spring of 2006 along with new versions of Giga Pets handheld devices. The TV game came with three pets within the unit and one separate handheld unit (the hamster) and sold for approximately $40 USD. Handhelds were sold in a 12-package assortment of characters as well as individually. The characters Pixie, Tomcat, Puff Ball, Dragon Lizard, Scorpion and Bunny were all available individually at a suggested retail price of approximately $15 USD.
Giga Pets, along with other virtual pets, were banned in some schools in different countries around the world including Iceland, Thailand, the U.S. and Canada primarily because they were deemed a distraction in the classroom. Common complaints included annoying beeping sounds and children’s constant worry over their pets’ well-being. Some parents felt Giga Pets were an ideal learning toy that taught children responsibility. Others worried their kids were becoming too attached.
Beyond the classroom, Giga Pets and their kind inspired debate over the implications of caring for virtual pets versus biological pets. Some people thought the on/off/reset switch implied to children that death wasn’t finite and many people, some animal rights activists among them, believed that virtual pets taught children that caring for an animal was a matter of convenience.
In a Journal of American and Comparative Cultures article published in 2000, author, David W. Kritt, discussed the impact virtual pets had on young females in terms of gender stereotypes. Kritt claimed, “The implicit message to the predominantly female owners is that an emotional meaningful relationship is simply care and dependence. In contrast, flesh and blood pets provide mutuality, a relatively exclusive and enduring affection, and often some self-enhancing function.” Kritt went on to address the impact of virtual pets on girls and technology. He wrote: “Despite McLuhan’s trenchant insight that the medium is the message, the virtual pet may not be so much a point of entry intro cyberspace for girls as it is a promoter of traditional values.” Kritt argued that this message is amplified when a child’s parent, particularly her mother, focuses on helping the daughter keep the virtual pet alive.
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