Chasing Tail

Looking for (virtual) puppy love in all the wrong places.

LATELY, I’VE BEEN cruising the streets of the Twin Cities, looking to hook up with strangers. It’s just for a little petting, though—dog petting, the virtual kind you find in the Nintendogs electronic pet simulator.

What’s Nintendogs? Perhaps you remember the Tamagotchi, the Japanese-made, egg-shaped electronic toy introduced in the 1990s. With the push of a few buttons, you hatched, fed, and raised your Tamagotchi as a virtual pet. If you didn’t care for it properly, it died. (In Japan, if you killed your pet, you had to buy a new game; believing Americans couldn’t deal with that kind of responsibility, the makers gave our version a reset button.)

Nintendogs is made for the Nintendo DS, the latest GameBoy device, which at first glance resembles a personal digital assistant. It opens like a clamshell to reveal a screen on which you can watch your puppy play in cartoon-quality graphics, teach it tricks, talk to it via a built-in microphone, and enter it in dog shows. You can dress the little bugger up with cute accessories—even pick up its droppings.

But it’s the game’s bark mode that has sent me to the streets. Using a wireless signal, the game searches for other trainers nearby. When you’re near another person with Nintendogs, the games communicate, sending out a recorded message, your profile, and a virtual gift, such as a rubber bone or a Frisbee. In the Tokyo subway, Nintendogs owners often encounter other players on their commute to work. Some even use the game as a dating tool, sharing phone numbers via their virtual pups. Nintendogs is an icebreaker, like karaoke, providing a socially acceptable way to open up a little. And if it’s popular in famously reserved Japan, I’m guessing it may be catching on, for similar reasons, in Minnesota. Only one way to find out.

The Mall of America seems a good place to start. As I spiral down the Dante-esque levels of the shopping mecca, I set Porco, my miniature pinscher, in bark mode, and suddenly he’s walking around with a present tied with red ribbon in his mouth, looking for a prospective playmate to give it to. My hopes perk up when I happen upon a live performance by Japanese pop star Yoko Ishida. But there’s not a Nintendogs trainer in the house.

In an attempt to replicate the Tokyo subway phenomenon, I ride the Metro Transit Hiawatha Line at rush hour. I check for trainers as I hop from car to car, but my results are the same. On my return trip, I notice the rows of abandoned grain elevators along the track. Atop one boarded-up building, a faded logo remains—the red-and-white checkers of Purina. Alas, Porco is hungry only for friendship.

Finally, I find an announcement on the Nintendogs website of a meet-up event at Maplewood Mall. The site urges owners to bring along their copy of Nintendogs “so you can let your puppy meet new friends.” But all I see when I arrive are high-school-age girls crowding around a stage in anticipation of appearances by pop singers the Click Five and Ryan Cabrera.

Suddenly, I spy a small Nintendogs booth where at least a dozen people are gleefully playing with their hand-held games (and entering their names in a raffle to win a pink-and-white Nintendo DS decorated in fake diamonds). One boy is on crutches, thanks to a skateboarding mishap. He says his dream job would be writing about video games. “I’m glad there are grownups playing Nintendogs,” he murmurs as our dogs frolic together in their virtual play space. They meet in a small urban park, chase each others’ tails, and cuddle in the sort of super-cute puppy poses reserved for inspirational posters. Doggone happy—or something like it.

Freelance writer Gus Mastrapa shares a Minneapolis apartment with his wife—a veterinary medicine student—and four cats, themselves students of the ancient art of 4 a.m. ninjitsu.