A New Pet Rock For The Digital Generation

SUMMER CAN'T COME TOO SOON FOR Steven Horvath. With school out, the 10-year-old Chicago youngster will finally have time to take care of his Tamagotchi. For weeks Steven has been defying his mother's orders and sneaking his palm-size techno-pet into his fourth-grade class. ""If you don't do something every four or five hours, it dies,'' explains Steven, who keeps the toy clipped to his jacket with a key chain. ""It kind of teaches you responsibility,'' he adds. His mother, Rosemarie Guadnolo, is dubious. ""It hasn't rubbed off that much,'' she says. ""He's still not taking care of the new cat.''

Who needs a cat when you've got this season's Tickle Me Elmo? Introduced to America last month by Japanese toymaker Bandai (its other notable contribution to our popular culture is Power Rangers), Tamagotchis, roughly translated as ""cute little eggs,'' usually sell out within hours of appearing on toy-store shelves. In Japan they're such a big hit that they sell on the black market for many times the list price of about $16. Bandai executives say they've sold millions throughout Asia, including lots to adults who apparently crave fake pets that don't take up room in crowded cities. In fact, many of the hundreds in line early one morning last week to snap up a shipment at the Toys ""R'' Us store in Santa Monica, Calif., were Japanese tourists or students who planned to send the toys to friends back home.

Perhaps the truest signal of the Tamagotchi's emerging significance in this country is the fact that it has already been banned as an annoying distraction in a number of elementary schools. Tamagotchis beep every so often when they need attention from their owners, who push tiny buttons to feed, clean or play with their virtual pets on a primitive LCD screen. Neglect them for too long and they ""die.'' Next step: reincarnation, via the reset button on the back. Stanley Greenman's 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter were among the first American kids to test-drive Tamagotchis. That's because Greenman is CEO of the toy-store chain Noodle Kidoodle. ""They are really enamored of them,'' Greenman says, ""but both of their Tamagotchis died, and I can tell you there was a lot of stress and agitation around the house.'' Fortunately, their grief was brief. ""They reset the button,'' says Greenman.

Some experts worry that this artificial life cycle imparts a harmful message. ""I don't like the dying and resetting,'' says Karen Shanor, a Washington, D.C., psychologist. ""That doesn't represent the finality of death.'' Shanor recommends that young children in particular play with toys that foster ""creativity and wonder,'' like Beanie Babies or Legos.

No such problem with older kids, who possess the requisite wisdom and maturity to use Tamagotchis as a lightweight distraction between classes. Daniel Goff, 15, a New York City high-school freshman, ""appropriated'' the game his 12-year-old brother, Teddy, got as a birthday present. Soon afterward, it was banned at Teddy's school. ""It's like having a kid for someone with a short attention span,'' Daniel says. ""It's a very, very small responsibility.''

Tamagotchis are big on the Internet, with Web sites de-voted to their care, feeding and collectibility. That's how Jason Hseih, a 22-year-old UCLA student, first heard about them. All of his friends have one now, he says. As he waited outside the Santa Monica Toys ""R'' Us last week, Hseih talked of his plans for his new pet: ""I'm going to try and see if I can kill it.''

For those who insist on seeking profundity, consider this intriguing difference between the Japanese and American versions. When a Japanese Tamagotchi dies, a headstone and cross appear on the screen. Dead American Tamagotchis sprout wings and return to their ""home planets.'' What does it all mean? ""A sale is a sale is a sale,'' says Gene Morra, Bandai's vice president of marketing, who claims he's not at all worried that at least two competitors, Tiger Electronics and Playmates, are rushing their own versions (Giga Pets and Nanos) into stores. The next sound you hear could be the patter of a million tiny beeps.