Man’s Best Friend


“Machines take me by surprise with great frequency.”
—Alan Turing

Computers were still huge assemblies of vacuum tubes and transistors when the German-Jewish émigré and computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum published a paper called “ELIZA—A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication between Man and Machine,” in Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery 9. It was 1966, and Weizenbaum programmed ELIZA to simulate the “active listening” psychoanalytical strategies of the Rogerian therapy in vogue at the time. It began:

>>Hello. How do you do.

Please state your problem.

Any typed response elicited a question in return from ELIZA, with key words and phrases substituted and organized in such a way as to sound meaningful and further probing. ELIZA’s mere 200 lines of code, running on the room-size IBM 7094, were effective enough to quickly draw the deepest secrets from many users, including several psychiatric practitioners, who asked if ELIZA could be adapted as a clinical tool; Weizenbaum’s own secretary, who had seen him build the program, knew her interlocutor was not real, and yet still found herself so engaged in personal conversation with the machine that she asked to be alone with it for privacy.

So unfolded a watershed moment in the long history of people and their machines. ELIZA struck a deep chord: It was the first simulated intelligence, and already presented the possibility of people having an emotional relationship with a computer. That raised the issue, since taken up by computer scientists and philosophers and and eager post-humanists: What do such relationships mean? An early exploration appeared on The Twilight Zone, in the infamous “From Agnes—With Love” episode, in which Wally Cox plays a researcher whose computer eventually falls in love with him. Arthur C. Clarke deepened the troubled bond a few years later, when HAL 9000 elaborated ELIZA to its logical conclusion: true artificial intelligence, a self-aware machine that’s willing to kill but also vulnerable enough to pray for an afterlife, as is HAL when it asks David with trepidation if it will dream when the power is switched off.

Today, the saga further unfolds with the Nintendogs phenomenon. That’s a form of computer intelligence running on that experimental platform, the Nintendo DS, a hand-held game system far less advanced than the theoretical HAL 9000 but still powerful enough to let you walk around with a bunch of simulated beings living in your pocket. Yes: virtual pets. A game of tail-wagging, ball-chasing, romp-loving puppies is the latest evolution in the man-machine interface, now available for $29.99 at Wal-Mart and quality electronics retailers nationwide.

In its two months on the market, the game’s been a huge commercial success, as people worldwide clamor to see their beagles and golden retrievers and Chihuahuas running around on the DS. (DS stands for double screen, and it opens like a clamshell.) Seven hundred thousand copies sold in Japan, where Nintendogs added yet another mode of expression for that country’s overpowering . Stateside, Nintendogs was an equally instant success when it hit our shelves a half year later, outselling any title for the rival PlayStation Portable, or PSP. Soon thereafter, Europe also fell to the Nintendogs invasion.

This despite that the ostensibly hipper and much more powerful PSP has been heavily marketed with the likes of Franz Ferdinand singing “Take Me Out” as vaguely hip, tastemaker-looking GAP ad extras run the lanes of the grocery story sitting in shopping carts while having oh-so-much-fun with their PSPs. But as any good post-humanist would say: Hardware’s irrelevant; get with the program. Nintendogs trumps anything on the PSP because it’s so much better conceived. (Famitsu magazine, the gold standard in Japan, had given only four perfect reviews prior to Nintendogs.)

The game starts at the kennel, where you can choose from six different breeds to take home. Once there, you can name your new critter, play with it, feed it, shampoo it, blow bubbles in its face, take it for walks, furiously wave its tail around, and enter it in Frisbee competitions to earn enough money to buy food, accessories, a new house and, of course, more dogs. All this happens with a direct and engaging interface: Rather than buttons, you use a stylus to pet your puppy right on the head, scratch its belly or shake its paw, and you talk into the DS microphone to teach it tricks. Each dog has its own personality and responds to how well it’s treated. Just like your parents said when you begged and begged for that smelly hamster: “You brought it home, now you have take care of it.” Nintendogs are needy. With good grooming and attention, they become well-adjusted, joyful creatures; abandon them and they turn into soiled wretches who eventually run away. But why would you want to do that, when your fuzzy-wuzzy-Muffin-face-McScrunches looks at you with eager eyes like 5 million chocolate cupcakes that say without words how much he loves you unconditionally and just wants to be played with and loved?

Therein lies Nintendogs inexorable pull: It’s the first game powered by empathy. These things are much more convincing than the Tomogatchis, those rudimentary keychain creatures from the first virtual pet craze a decade ago. Nintendogs go a long way toward satisfying a sort of canine Turing test: If they look and act enough like dogs, then at a simple cognitive level, they’re a pretty good substitute. It’s rewarding when your digital dogs bring you a present, upsetting when they try to eat trash on walks, and they’re so cute that when you find a big green floppy hat you want to make them wear it until you see in their little faces that they know the big green floppy hat is really a form of humiliation and you half-reluctantly take it off.

This is why, according to relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, Nintendogs has “many soft psychological benefits . . . bonding, nurturing and the increase in emotional regulation and stamina” and “teaches us how to bond and provides us with a sense of nurture and responsibility.” Quilliam’s assessment was invited by Nintendo, one must note, but it seems appropriate. The rise of online play—The Sims Online, Xbox Live, EverQuest, World of Warcraft, et al.—has turned video games increasingly into a meeting place. The software mediates bonding between people. But Nintendogs moves beyond the interpersonal, and instead facilitates bonding with the software itself.

It was at the Ashley Paige runway show during Fashion Week that I realized how much I’d become bonded to my little buddy Ding Dong. A very lithe Bijou Philips was trotting toward the cameras in a $300 trim-tailored knit bikini, but I was busy opening a can of virtual wet food for Ding Dong, whom I’d just noticed was “famished,” “thirsty” and “filthy.” Oh my god, poor little Ding Dong—I’m sorry I forgot about you! Can you ever forgive me? Incidentally, who knew Siberian huskies were always so hungry? And rambunctious: That little fucker is always barking, or wanting to go outside or play Frisbee or needing a shampoo. Truth is, I just can’t tell what he wants anymore. But he’s so adorable rolling around my newly decorated modern condo, I can’t hold it against him. Plus, the little guy is my bread and butter: Ding Dong has won $5K+ in Frisbee competitions to date, paying for all my fancy things. By the time Ding Dong was finished with his much-needed shampoo—”Somebody looks beautiful!” the screen says as he shakes himself off—another five smoking looks had passed by. I kept one eye on the unbelievably appealing models and swimsuits—Ashley’s show was killer—but it must be telling that not even brilliantly commercialized sex could tear me away entirely from the hand-held puppified purity of Ding Dong.

It wasn’t long, of course, until the purity of Nintendogs was violated by the prurience of the human mind. In England, there quickly appeared a Web site called Nintendogging, where the singles market approach to urban dog parks was dutifully applied to the virtual world. (A typical post reads: Carpet Hound, 31.10.2005. Has two clean balls to play with. Enjoys a good lick and perks up at the sight of wet cats.) Just as I brought home some friends for Ding Dong, a new pug (BoBo) and golden retriever (Loki), I myself wondered whether they’d all try to hump each other. Amorous play, I am disappointed to report, is not part of Nintendogs‘ behavioral vocabulary, although hoaxes did circulate online about a rumored “hot biscuit mod” along with doctored screen shots of the supposed virtual puppy love.

And that’s the game’s one shortcoming: The simulation is incomplete. Nintendogs never actually look dirty or snarl with anger. They don’t crap in the house, and they never grow old. This imposes a ceiling on emotional identification. The fuzzy charm of a new puppy is no match for the abiding love of a dog, cheerful or grouchy, that you’ve raised yourself. ELIZA’s success stemmed from the ongoing investment in the seeming therapeutic relationship. Even the Tomagatchi grew handsome or ugly over time and eventually expired. When so many other games these days incorporate decision-tree ethics—good or bad choices constantly influence your digital avatar’s moral and physical evolution—Nintendogs seems to be missing the finishing touches. Ding Dong will never fully suspend disbelief as a permanent puppy, and a cheerful one at that. Nintendo personnel have recently hinted that dogs in the next iteration would have a broader range of behavioral development and would age. They should go one further and let them die. Consciousness has no stakes if it’s never-ending. For machines to become man’s best friends, there must also be the prospect of losing those friends. Then it won’t be Ding Dong worrying if he’ll dream without power, but us.