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Android Central
Android Central
Michael L Hicks

Smartwatches would be the perfect place to revive this '90s gaming fad

A mock-up of a Tamagotchi virtual pet app on a Wear OS smartwatch.

WearOS and WatchOS have a couple dozen smartwatch games apiece, with a cult following of gamers who like puzzles and arcade games on tiny screens. However, one type of game would go with smartwatches like PB&J: a virtual pet watch face/ game, like the Tamagotchi or Pikachu wearables of the '90s. 

I owned the original Bandai Tamagotchi from 1996 and the Pokemon Pikachu in '98. I have vague, nostalgia-tinted memories of raising my Tamagotchi to adulthood and running with my marathoner dad wearing my Pikachu pedometer to make the little monster happy. They both felt larger and more real than the dozens of pixels that displayed them.

Also, they definitely didn't die from neglect or abandon me for my lack of steps. You'd have to dig them out of boxes in my parents' garage to prove it. In my mind, they're still alive, just like Schrödinger's cat.

Anyway, as someone with a sedentary job, I rely on smartwatch move alerts or stand reminders to stay healthy, but I'm always looking for new ways to stay motivated. Most people push themselves to close their daily rings or keep up a 10,000-steps-a-day streak, but it's very impersonal, and once you fall short, it can be hard to reestablish a routine. 

Imagine a combination of Pokemon Sleep and Pikmin Bloom on your wrist (Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

Either a fitness watch's watch face or a smartwatch app would be the perfect place to revive '90s virtual pets as a cute way to reward you for working out — or emotionally torment you for slacking off. 

Imagine a little Pikachu (or copyright-safe critter) that responds to your activity. If you've walked 500 steps in the last hour, he'll be strolling along happily. Complete a tracked activity, and you'll see a custom animation like lifting weights or swimming next to a Goldeen. But if you spend all day sitting, your virtual pet lays down and looks sulky. After enough days or weeks of neglect, it leaves, and you have to start over by catching a new critter.

If you wanted to capture that original Tamagotchi vibe, you could make it so you have to feed, entertain, and clean up after your pet, with it getting sick or dying from neglect in a worst-case scenario. Or you could make it sync with a goal-setting phone app like Finch that rewards you for finishing all kinds of activities, not just fitness ones. 

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

I lean towards simplicity and style, which would make such a feature ubiquitous enough to catch on. While an Android smartwatch or Apple Watch has the display space and RAM for an in-depth app, an active care system would lead to most people abandoning their virtual pets after the novelty wears off.

An automatic, reactive virtual pet tuned into your fitness data and customized to your fitness level or personal goals would be a really cute motivator. It could appear on your main watch face or as a tappable icon in a watch complication. The latter probably makes the most sense to preserve battery life, so you only see animations when actively checking on your virtual pet's condition. 

Ideally, you could choose a different kind of pet based on how active you are in everyday life. A virtual cat would be more okay with long, lazy stretches, while serious athletes might raise (or level up to) a more active animal.

If I could see a Pixel Watch 2 pet based on Fitbit Premium data throughout my day, that'd be pretty darn cool! Samsung, which already has sleep animals to judge your sleep quality and intends to launch a "My Vitality Score" this summer, could easily expand on its current system and use Samsung Health data to control your pet's health on the Galaxy Watch 7. For example, if you sleep badly, your virtual pet will have bags under its eyes.

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

You'd assume this kind of feature would require a proper smartwatch with enough processing power for animations. But I'd like to see this feature on battery-saving fitness watches, too, since they're the most likely to have in-depth training data to pull from.

Last year, I spotted Garmin holiday faces (like the one above) that would start empty and then build a snowman or decorate a tree based on how many intensity minutes you completed. And other dynamic watch faces adjust to different pictures as the day progresses. 

Now that Garmin watches have started adding more AMOLED displays, sleep coaching, and enough storage space for massive topographical maps or music playlists, I wouldn't be surprised if they could squeeze in more variable watch faces that adjust based on your weekly mileage, monthly steps, or other data, without needing a ton of RAM. The same applies to other fitness brands, too!

I believe the virtual pets fad died out because the stakes were just as virtual. Once you forget to play with it and it dies, you realize how little impact it has on your life, and you move on. 

In this scenario, there's something symbolically unsettling about neglecting your virtual pet — an avatar for your bodily health and fitness. It's easy to ignore an empty graph if you don't close a ring for a day, but harder when you see Pikachu tapping his foot impatiently. 

Gamifying your fitness is nothing new, and we already have plenty of motivational running and walking apps to inspire us. But having a cute, animated creature on your wrist to celebrate your victories and nudge you into restarting your workout routine would be especially inspiring. 

Here's hoping brands like Samsung or Apple decide to bring back this '90s fad for the kids-at-heart like me who need help staying fit!

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