Beast Pets demonstrates how virtual companions can have a genuine emotional impact on users.
“Go fetch, Tux!” I knew he couldn’t fully understand me, but nevertheless Tux made his way over to the red and white ball I had just thrown across the small park. Quickly bringing it back to me, I gave him a small pat on the head as I took the ball from his mouth and prepared to throw it again.
“Sorry to bother you, but can I get your help with something?” I hadn’t heard my fiancé walk up, but I nodded and gave the ball another toss to keep Tux occupied. I watched him fly after it, his scaly wings flapping frantically, and took off my headset.
You see, Tux is my artificial pet dragon in the virtual world of Beast Pets. Launched in early access on SteamVR and the Oculus Store in 2019, Beast Pets allows players to play with and care for virtual pet dragons. Though new to the world of VR, the idea behind these digital companions was spawned over a decade ago.
“I used to be really active in Second Life, and actually ran a clothing shop in-world,” Vivian Tan, CEO and ‘Chief Beast’ of Beast, Inc. told me. “I created my shop in a remote area so that nobody would bother me, but I had a Chow-Chow that would keep me company. Her name was Rosie.” Mat Tyndall, CTO and ‘Tech Beast’ laughed before explaining how much Tan loves dogs, both virtual and mammalian. In fact, this isn’t the only virtual pup that Tan has fallen in love with. “I started playing Fallout 4 VR and am completely attached to Dogmeat,” Tan told me. “I modded him to look like Dino, the German shepherd I had when I was a kid. I panic when Dogmeat dives headfirst into a swarm of enemies or when I can’t find him.”
Hearing the sincerity in Tan’s account made it clear that both Rosie and Dogmeat’s companionship is not only extremely real to her, but that they left the kind of indelible mark that living, breathing pets have on their owners. Specifically, it’s Rosie and Dogmeat’s AI that elevated them beyond her polygons. These were no Tamagotchis, but rather digital companions that had (admittedly limited) minds of their own.
Autonomy, at its core, is what makes owning a pet so special. The unexpected behavior, adorable little moments, and choice to spend time with you are the hallmarks of a rewarding relationship with a pet. Similarly, the dragons of Beast Pets display their own autonomy, sometimes even disobeying the owner’s desire to use one of the game’s myriad interaction options. Even more unique is that each dragon you unlock has a unique personality, some being more assertive, while others displaying more timid behavior.
Tan and Tyndall saw an important need for virtual pets that provide fulfilling and realistic companionship. Between social media, texting, and email, everyone who grew up with the internet became accustomed to building relationships with asynchronous and often impersonal communication. The digital world has yet to find a way to provide on-demand, real-time companionship that forgoes the social pressures of dealing with other people – until now.
I found playing with Tux and his siblings incredibly relaxing, and with their ability to fly, Tan and Tyndall’s choice to use dragons also provided me with new avenues for species-specific fun. I can tell you from personal experience that there’s nothing more adorable than having a group of floaty, big-eyed dragons slow-motion descending on you for treats.
Looking to the future, Beast, Inc. is looking to expand the world of Beast Pets. More interactions, AI upgrades, and the potential introduction of other fantastical creatures mean that the world will only get larger. With people already living out a significant amount of time in virtual worlds, Tan and Tyndall’s vision is set to make the metaverse a little less lonely, and significantly more adorable.
Image Credit: Beast, Inc.