Need a lesson in fragility, transience and loss? Try this virtual pet

My heart swelled painfully with the pathos uncovered by Twitter user @mollybackes in the phone game Bird Alone. In it, you befriend a parrot that asks you thoughtful questions (“What makes you happy?” “Do you ever feel lonely?”). You and your parrot buddy, whom you name, fill a digital environment with art, drawing pictures, writing poems and tending a “garden of hope and beauty” together.

“I had a bad day … Anchovy gave me words of encouragement,” says one delighted reviewer. “By befriending this lonely bird, I don’t feel as alone as I have done these past few months,” says another. “Best friends for ever!” the trailer reads, foreshadowing heavily, over a sweet graphic of the happily flapping bird.

But here’s the devastating kicker: after a month your parrot friend dies. It just … fades away “like everything else in the world that isn’t MY DIGITAL PARROT I THOUGHT WOULD NEVER LEAVE ME,” reads one traumatised review. Here are some others: “Now all that is left is the empty places we once loved and enjoyed together.” “My heart is broken.” “THE BIRD DIES. I wish I had known this before getting it for my son, who is now in tears.”

It’s audacious in 2021 to make users fall in love with a chirpy (sorry) bird then kill it off, especially when you know real parrots can live to 40. However, it’s far from thoughtless: the developer, George Batchelor, references Sartre and Victor Frankl, and has explained he was “looking for a place to put my feelings after losing a close family member”. Do we need more lessons in fragility, transience and loss? Perhaps we do.

It reminded me of my own traumatic Tamagotchi experience. In 1998, fundamentally misunderstanding my personality, my now-husband got me one, which catapulted me into a spiral of existential misery. Hunched over the plastic egg, joylessly feeding and playing with it, my anxiety became overwhelming: how could I possibly make these pixels happy? In the end, he intervened and drowned it in our fish tank; we watched it sink, bleeping nightmarishly. Perhaps Bird Alone users need this option.

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