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Virtual pets are animals that only exist in chips and pixels. They can be recognized pets like cats and dogs or unique imagined creatures. While they're not warm and fuzzy, they can be just as demanding as the real thing.
One style of virtual pet exists on a computer. Some virtual pets can be found on websites while others are stand-alone computer programs. If you are selecting a virtual pet from a website, you peruse a list of possibilities and claim one as your own. In some cases, this is the end of the process and you have a pet that you can post on your website or otherwise display.
Other websites and most stand-alone programs ask for your continued involvement after selecting a pet. You can feed, walk, pet, and play with your virtual pet by clicking on buttons. Your pet reacts appropriately to your choices and will sometimes perform activities such as sleeping on its own according to internal programming. It can also show needs that you then have to fulfill. If you pet looks sad, is it because he's hungry or wants to play?
Another style of virtual pet "lives" in a stand-alone toy, appearing on an LCD screen. The concept is much the same as with the computer-based virtual pets. Instead of clicking on options for your pet, you press several small buttons to choose from a menu of selections. These types of virtual pets can be much more demanding than computer-based ones. While you can always close the website or program, stand-alone toys typically can't be turned off. You must attend to your pet's needs at all hours of the day and night, and they will often make noises to let you know that it's time to tend to them. It's not surprising that many users quickly tire of these demands.
Virtual pets can be surprisingly realistic, with needs and actions that are true to life. In fact, virtual pets can even die. While some may see virtual pets as a substitute for the real thing, they're mainly a video game substitute that works on nurturing skills rather than reflexes.
Fun virtual pets like little dogs and cats are a perfect friend for kids. It instills a sense of responsibility, a feeling of caring for something that they find endearing.
When I was growing up, there was an experiment all ninth graders had to participate in — caring for an egg for a week as if it were a real baby. It made everyone realize how much time it takes (on a much smaller scale, of course) to care for something that depends on you for every need.
I think the virtual pets fill that same void.
Virtual pet games were popular with my daughter and her friends when they were between seven and twelve years old. I thought it was odd because we always had real pets and couldn't imagine why a virtual pet was any fun at all. You still had to take care of them but couldn't pet them. I guess I'm old school!
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