When we were kids, my brother and I had pet turtles. But they never really felt like real "pets" because our dad wouldn’t let us hold them or play with them at all because they were smelly and slimy, and honestly, I think this was the right call on my dad’s part. Instead, my brother and I found all the joy and satisfaction of actually interacting with a pet in the form of a virtual pet — the Tamagotchi. We would take our Tamas everywhere with us, and got to feed them, play with them, clean up after them, and felt the rewarding warmth of slowly watching them grow. We loved our Tamagotchis, and for a long time, no other virtual pet could compare — not the Dinkie Dino, not the Gigapet, not the Nanopet.
But one day, a new virtual pet came into our lives that completely overtook the Tamagotchi. Our Tamas were set aside for Digimon. Specifically, the Digimon Digivice D3 toy. And the reason it did, the novelty and the innovation of the Digimon Digivice D3, was that you had to “walk” it. The toy had a little internal mechanism that clicked every time you took a step with it clipped onto to your waistband, and it would count your steps as you walked, and you had to walk it in order to progress in the little game and to grow your Digimon pet.
In today’s language, it was perhaps the first fitness wearable of our young lives — a pedometer-based game meant to track the number of steps we took in our day and incentivize walking. And it was exciting to us because it turned walking into something… well, more than walking. The toy said to us: Hey, walking around is just getting from one place to another, but what if you could get rewarded for doing this boring thing that you have to do every day? What if we could make walking more... meaningful? Now you’re not just walking, you’re also gaming and raising a pet and earning points! And to get more points in the game, all you have to do is walk!
In my memory of my childhood, I believe that this was the first time that I was made to feel like my current, regular, everyday life wasn’t enough — that in order for something to be “worth it”, you had to make it productive — it had to count. There had to be some number, some metric, attached to it so that you could measure how much it "mattered". This toy introduced the idea of this scary form of "added value” in my life — because now that walking was no longer just walking, and that I could be earning points while walking, I had to make use of it! I felt like walking without this toy, walking without this added layer of value and meaning, was no longer enough. And every time I walked without my Digivice toy, I felt regret, like I somehow wasted my walk, like somehow I missed out on the potential to earn points.
I suppose that all of this, perhaps, could be argued as somehow “worth it” if the end result was that this toy actually incentivized us kids to go outside and walk around more, because then at least I suppose we’d be going outside and walking around more.
But instead, we didn’t walk any more often than we already did. Instead, we would actually just sit around and shake these damned things while watching TV, while reading, while in the car or on the bus, while at the dinner table, while we were in class (until our teachers would tell us to put them away). We'd sit around and shake our Digivices while doing anything at all, whenever we could, triggering the internal step counter mechanism and gaining points and growing our Digimon and progressing in the game without actually doing any of the walking.
But I don’t think we were breaking the rules of the game. I think that what my brother and I did was take this idea of added value that this game introduced to its natural conclusion. We weren’t excited about adding value only to the act of walking, because how often are you walking around in a day, really? No — we were excited about using this toy to add value to every waking moment of our lives. After all, if you were only progressing in the game when you were walking, you wouldn’t be getting the most out of the game, right? What about all the untapped potential of the hours you were wasting while you were sitting down, too? Because now, every single second of boredom and downtime in our lives could mean something. These moments became meaningful because we were using our lives to progress in the game. The game promised us that every moment of our lives could finally be "worth" something more.
I wonder how much of this has shaped my own current critical framework of (and perhaps, desires around) technology. I believe that we have been indoctrinated into this belief that our lives will never be enough on their own, with technology positioning itself as a means to constantly add “value” and “meaning” where we can never have enough “value” and “meaning”. Every single possible moment of our downtime can be more productive, more valuable, more meaningful if we just post this thing, or scroll through this thing, or buy this thing, or connect to this thing, or inhabit some bullshit virtual reality space, or mine some bullshit currency that’s destroying the planet. Once this promise is made, though — that you can always make your life more — how and why would we ever stop? How can any version of life without “added value” be better in any way when compared to the one with all these added layers of manufactured meaning? And what happens when we have no more downtime at all now that it’s all claimed as "valuable" instead?
At least the game built into the Digimon Digivice D3 had an ending — once you progressed far enough and grew your virtual pet enough and beat the final boss, the game was over. That is how we, as kids, were finally freed from shaking this toy and that is how our parents, as parents, were finally freed from the endless CLACKACLACKACLACKACLACKA that filled our house at all hours of the day.
But where we are now, this promise of endless optimization and added value and reward does not have a final boss built in. And I fear that I cannot get myself to stop on my own.
I wish I could say that this is one of those times where identifying why something is not particularly healthy leads me to moving away from it, but just this week, I downloaded the hottest new walking-as-gameplay game, Pikmin Bloom (which is endlessly charming and cute and adorable, by the way), and I immediately reverted to shaking my phone to trick it into thinking I was taking steps when I wasn't. And even worse, now that I am no longer a kid who doesn’t have access to online shopping, I proceeded to buy a little device that rocks your phone back and forth to fake your phone’s step counter, all so I could continue logging steps in Pikmin Bloom and getting points and making the most productive use out of the moments when I’m not holding my phone (aka. literally only when I’m sleeping and writing and being on zooms).
This phone-rocking device now sits on my desk, perpetually swinging my phone back and forth, like one of those perpetual motion Drinking Bird office toys, or like one of those Newton’s Cradle clicking metal ball office toys, converting all my non-walking time into what is being recorded as walking on my phone.
So now, it’s not only my own downtime that could be more productive at any given moment, but also the downtime of my devices. And as all this manufactured virtual value adds up and threatens to become more important and more apparently meaningful than whatever system of value we used to have before it, the question I fear that I am beginning to ask myself is, Why would I ever go for a walk if I could just trick my phone into thinking I did?
NOTE: I write more about the relationship between value and time and technology in my latest book, Goodbye, again — particularly in the essays “Building blocks” and “Farm game.”
From "quietly provocative" international best selling author and TV writer Jonny Sun, a weekly illustration and reflection on a personal object close to his heart. If you haven't already, you can subscribe here.