While playing with my iPhone this weekend, I started thinking about those "virtual pets" that were popular a few years ago. It would be fun to have an animated kitty on my phone, I figured. I possess my new toy with the passion of a fetish object; it seemed appropriate to add even more life to this thing.
So I looked at a few options and decided to join a web-based "pet" site that allows you to create, feed, groom, and play with an animal of your choice. Within minutes, I was staring at the pixelated face of an 8 week-old kitten who stared back at me through the screen. I fed her, I gave her water, I stroked her fur. I named her Apollonia.
My choice of name follows a family tradition in which we give all female cats living with us an appellation that starts with an A, preferably something reminiscent of Greek or Roman mythology or history. Apparently, among other things, Apollonia refers to a Greek martyr for Christianity. Yes, I felt a bit Godlike. I had given life to a virtual cat.
And then after returning to work, I forgot her.
The next day, I received an urgent email. Apollonia was hungry.
I visited her website - ready to press the button necessary to free me from seeing a graphically dead kitty, a corpse swarming with virtual flies.
I found the website, readied my clicking finger, tutted at my forgetfulness, and...
The graphics wouldn't load. I tried accessing the page through wifi and then through AT&T's notoriously spotty network. I restarted my computer and tried again. No luck, no cat, just an empty box. Once my creature gazed upwardly from that enclosure, her life given by me. Now she was nowhere to be found, lost amid the spectral desert of zeros and ones. Like any busy god, I was frustrated. Unlike God (I hope), I was pissed.
Screw this, I figured. I don't have time to stress about a virtual pet who won't even load when I come to visit. I've got two real cats in Scotts Valley who, every single day, "download" their fur all over our non-virtual carpet and furniture. Tufts of wispy detritus are constant reminders to groom our sweet kitties. We feed them, we play with them, we love them. We are hardly gods to them (more like "staff," as any cat lover will affirm). So be it. With these two waiting at home, I need no pixel kitties.
I then began to wonder, how do you "uncreate" a computer cat?
Searching the site, the part that was working despite the hassles of reaching it online, I found plenty of ways to buy "accessories" for a virtual pet, and lots of reminders that Purina cat chow is popular with real cats too. But "uncreating" a cat?
Oh, God. I knew what I was trying to do.
Guilt-laden, but unwilling to confront the implications that I was abandoning a helpless animal, a creature scratching at my computer screen for attention, I returned to my email, where I read my first reminder to feed Apollonia. I clicked the "no reminders" button. Then I closed my laptop. This was a permanent decision.
I would not feel guilty, I told myself. Maybe I'd get a virtual pet rock instead.
So today I decided to write a note about the ethics of keeping virtual animals, musing about the implications of these simulacra, how we can assign and un-assign meanings to them so easily. I'd explore an interesting query without too much personal investment. A harmless question:
What does it mean to kill a virtual animal? Does the act desensitize us to the prospect of killing for real?
I figured I'd write something thought-provoking, a note that demonstrated suitable reflection on my own ironic position, but ultimately something designed to help me prepare a lecture about online ethics one day. An abstract future for an abstract topic.
Just one problem: I needed to go back to the site and grab a quick pic of Apollonia, preferably still scratching at my screen, to illustrate the post. I was in full utility-mode. Get in, get the pic, get out. I needed an image depicting our strange and fascinating online era, nothing more. So I returned to the virtual pet site and looked...
I couldn't find her.
Was Apollonia dead already?
I began to click frantically. Where is she? Has she starved, her cries so long ignored by my email filter? I clicked and clicked.
And then I found her.
Apollonia was panting, mewing frantically; she was hungry.
I clicked the virtual "food" icon.
A big bag of Purina cat chow appeared and poured itself into her bowl. Apollonia ate heartily, kicking the bowl back when she was done.
She was thirsty too, and she trilled with joy at the sight of a bowl being filled with life-giving water. She gulped it down.
I looked into her half-crazed eyes - an expression that asked, as only a cat can ask, "where the hell were you?
I pet her, trying to soothe her fears at being left alone so long. She purred.
I offered her a toy mouse, a gesture of regret at my cruelty. She played.
I then closed the page, checking one last time to confirm her healthy status, and opened my calendar. There, I added an item to my daily schedule: Feed Apollonia.
The reminder appears every day, weekends, furlough days, holidays: Feed her, repeating at the same time each afternoon. Until September 15th.
After that, we'll see...
November 28, 2009 update
Well, slow graphics and buggy interface inspired me, at last, to send Apollonia to a "farm - upstate." No worries. She's playing with lots of virtual mice and has, I suspect, many friends.