Like many another family, we spent the summer losing virtual pets to reality. Whether it was the Dinky Dino, Frank Chicken or the much sought-after Tamagotchi, they proved irredeemably fragile. Despite this, and the expense of replacement, their appeal did not dim.
Care and control of the little electronic icons was a hot topic of conversation among the junior-school age range; an adult friend was using hers to help give up smoking in traffic, and older siblings took malicious pleasure in overfeeding or over-disciplining little brother's pets.
Naturally, the doom-sayers have been wringing their hands and seeing the virtual pet as one more symptom of our modern inability to relate to each other. You don't need to be in the pay of the cyber-chip giants to dismiss this as moral panic. The fact that the RSPCA glumly speaks of more pets being abandoned has to be seen in the context of a growing pet market and the unfortunate trend of chucking out unwanted animals when going on holiday. Though when it comes down to animal cruelty, perhaps we ought to hope for a greater popularity of the virtual pet, which can be abused without any real damage.
Cyber pets are not, of course, pets. They are dolls, receptacles of fantasies about parenting and the limits of power. Their compact size and state-of-the-art technology conceals their age-old function which is to allow children to act out their gratitude and rage at the nurturing and frustrating aspects of their own upbringing.
If you watch a group of children "caring" for a cyber-pet you will see this clearly. There is discussion about what it means to look after someone, about what is a healthy diet, about whether it is learning to be clean, about how long it takes to grow up: much debate about how much stroking and chastising is allowed. So different from the chatter about, say, a new hamster.
Real pets die, of course. Indeed, this is often put forward by the harder-headed psycho-theorists as a reason for having them, so that children get used to death. Whether or not death is something one "gets used to", the death of a real pet is certainly remembered with sorrow by most children, marked by garden burial and tears. Photographs may be enshrined, the shared experiences recalled. But what happens when a cyber-pet dies?
After many apparently concerned phone calls about the state of health of a visiting virtual dinosaur which had been sustained until the difficult age of 10 over a couple of weeks, Robert was faced with a stark choice.
"You cannot take that to school," I broke it to him, "it will distract you. Anyhow, it's not allowed." He scowled. "Will you look after it, then?" he asked, without much optimism. I shook my head. We all know what happens if you are in charge of something and an accident befalls it.
He hesitated and then brightened.
"Oh well," he said, shrugging and laying it down on the table. "It'll just have to die then." And he scampered off to school.
You see, you can always start your virtual pet off again. Just like with quarrelling with your parents, there's always another chance to get it right. Many is the child who has slung their doll into a corner or punished it by scribbling on its face.
If they did that to an animal, we would call them disturbed. If they do it to another child, they may be psychotic. But it's fine to beat up your teddy bear and okay to total your Tamagotchi.