Ever since virtual pets first hit the market in the mid-1990s, their popularity has literally exploded around the world. Nowadays, there are many such examples available on the market, and the online world is not without its own share of cleverly designed virtual animals as well.
Much like a real flesh-and-blood pet, artificial pets are often cute and endearing, and they can really liven up anyone's day. Just like a real dog, virtual dogs require a great deal of care and attention as well, although much of this takes place "virtually". Nevertheless, you do have to make sure that you give your pet the very best care possible, as this will have a significant effect on their "lives".
The very first example of raising such creatures in a software environment was Puppy Love. Released in 1986 on the Macintosh platform, the game was developed by Tom Snyder Productions. This idea was later used in another game called Dragon Quest V, which was released in 1992 by Chunsoft.
Numerous variations on the theme were quick to follow, with the 1990s being a particularly active period for many software developers. The decade saw the release of Dogz in 1995, with Catz making its commercial debut the following year. The two would later be merged into a franchise called Petz. Perhaps the most famous virtual animals however, were the Pokémon released by Nintendo in 1995. Bringing the concept of computer simulated pets into millions of homes across the globe, the franchise is still widely popular to this very day, and it basically laid the groundwork for the hordes of virtual pets that followed over the next several years.
One of the more popular virtual pet sites nowadays is Disney's Club Penguin. Intended for children aged 6 to 14, the site gives users the opportunity to create their own penguins and join in on a variety of interesting activities.
Neopets is another popular site, and it has consistently earned praise since making its online debut in 1997. The site offers a wide variety of games, simulated worlds, and playing environments, and there is even an exclusive community populated by other pet owners.
Finally, you may want to check out Webkinz, which offers access to a virtual pet after you input the secret code that comes with the purchase of an actual Webkinz stuffed toy.
Virtual pets and games involving them are of course immensely popular with children all over the world, although questions have been raised with regard to their suitability for such a young audience. Many of these games involve gameplays lasting several days and even weeks or months, and they can take up a hefty chunk of time that would be better spent in studying. In fact, many educational institutions around the world now ban students from playing these games during school. Although these games do have some value in terms of teaching children about chores and priorities and for preparing for actual pet ownership, it would be best to limit to their use by younger children.