- I’ve been comparing how children play with traditional dolls and how children relate to robots since Tamagotchis were released in the United States in 1997 as the first computational playmates that asked you to take care of them. The nature of the attachments to dolls and sociable machines is different. When children play with dolls, they project thoughts and emotions onto them. A girl who has broken her mother’s crystal will put her Barbies into detention and use them to work on her feelings of guilt. The dolls take the role she needs them to take.
Sociable machines, by contrast, have their own agenda. Playing with robots is not about the psychology of projection but the psychology of engagement. Children try to meet the robot’s needs, to understand the robot’s unique nature and wants. There is an attempt to build a mutual relationship. I saw this even with the (relatively) primitive Furby in the early 2000s. A 9-year-old boy summed up the difference between Furbies and action figures: “You don’t play with the Furby, you sort of hang out with it. You do try to get power over it, but it has power over you, too.” Today’s robots are even more powerful, telling children flat-out that they have emotions, friendships, even dreams to share.