Neopets: A Retrospective

The year is 2008, and I am curled in a ball over my mother’s laptop, crying. She has chosen the nuclear option in this fight, and made the ultimate sacrifice—Frodo throwing the ring into Mordor, Jay Gatsby denying Daisy’s manslaughter, Jesus atoning for humanity’s sins on the cross. I have tested my mother’s wrath for the last time. She has emailed the Neopets staff to delete my account.

 

Neopets, for the uninformed, is a virtual pets website that gained popularity in the early 2000s. Established in 1999, the site’s premise revolves around users adopting “Neopets,” fictional animals that live in the widespread universe of Neopia. Using long-outdated Flash, iffy HTML code, and a little bit of know-how, users would explore Neopia with their trusted pets at their side and uncover the mysteries of the planet. Along the way, you could customize your pets, build them a house, and maybe even take down a few planetary invasions if you were lucky. It also had some loose ties to Scientology, but we don’t talk about that.

 

For a while, Neopets was everywhere. It was featured in several fast food chain’s toy lines, sold practically thousands of different toys, and even had its own magazine. The game was praised for its interesting, dense, and often dark lore, which went far beyond most virtual pet sites of the era. Users regularly shaped and bent the site to their will, creating innovative “lookup” (profile) pages by teaching themselves code. Story arcs would take over the site for weeks at a time, encouraging users to find clues, uncover scandals, and delve even deeper into Neopian lore. Stories, art, and poetry dedicated to the characters of the site were regularly submitted to site contests in the hopes of snatching shiny trophies and cash prizes: all online-based, of course. Neopets proved itself to be a virtual (literally and figuratively) Mecca among the wide world of pet sites of the era, toting a massive, devoted userbase the scale of which had never been enjoyed by a games website before.

 

But all good things must come to an end. As time went on, it became increasingly obvious that the site would not change with the times, with the code of the site staying largely the same throughout the years without receiving any major updates. Neopets had been fresh and innovative for its era, but as time marched on and nothing about the site changed, it became more and more a relic of the past. Many users moved on, some due to frustration, some due to simply growing out of the site.

 

Here’s the thing—some of those users never actually left.  Even more users found themselves returning to their once-abandoned accounts—and then never leaving them to rot again.

 

This is how powerful Neopia’s spell can be.

 

Return to 2008 with me for a moment. Several month’s worth of hoarding Neopoints, getting high scores on the flash games, and building rapport with fellow Neopians are gone within minutes as the Neopets staff abide by my mother’s request and delete my account. the_girl_at_the_gate, a username fellow players often praised as being poetic and deep, is lost forever. Imagine the impact that has on a ten year old with no friends besides the people she rubbed elbows with at the Neopian Trading Post! Imagine the pain that swelled in my heart knowing that I would never see Princess_Camo_Kitty, my favorite underscore-of-a-nightmare neopet, ever again.

 

It was in that moment that I made myself a sworn promise. I would return to Neopets, no matter the cost. I let that pain fester and swelter into a hot ball of anger that I never quite abandoned across the years. I knew it would take me a few years, but goddamnit, I would take my birthright in the land of Neopia and raise my banner right where it belonged—in a land of fantasy that I could make my own.

 

Plenty of articles and videos already exist detailing people’s dives into Neopia, all previously under the impression that the site was long dead. There’s also a wealth of interesting articles detailing the culture Neopets created during its most popular years, including the world of underground gay guilds and how the site encouraged a generation of girls to learn code. I’d like to combine the two and explore the culture Neopets currently nurtures, now that it is 19 years old and clearly not going anywhere.

 

I rejoined Neopets on May 25th, 2016 for the same reason any returning Neopets user does: to make sure that Neopets is actually still a thing. When I finalized my account details and waited for the confirmation email that would allow me to truly experience Neopia at its fullest, I half expected to never receive anything in my inbox. The email took twelve hours to reach my inbox (a process that takes most modern sites minutes, if not seconds) and confirmed the unbelievable. Neopets still had a beating pulse.

 

 

It didn’t take me long to get back into the collectivist crazy swing that Neopets encouraged in its users. If excess is the root of all evil, truly Neopets is the Fourth Circle of Hell. I was almost immediately overcome with the sudden desire to customize my pets to the brim. The Neopet you first get comes in either yellow, blue, green, or red, but who would want to keep their pet when you can turn them colors like pink and cloud (or, personally, my favorite, zombie)? Back in the day, “painting” your pet different colors was a sign of social status. Paints tended to run on the expensive side, and gathering enough Neopoints to change even one of your pet’s colors could be a year-long affair for a small child with parentally structured internet time. Not so nowadays. Having painted pets is more or less the norm for active users, which would have been absolutely unthinkable for me as a child. Finding that it wasn’t as difficult as I had thought to obtain the paints I wanted for my pets instilled me with a weird sense of maturity—which I would soon find was the running theme of what was left of the site.

 

Trotting back to the site chatboards, I found them alive, active, and teeming with adults who had no idea what the fuck they were doing in their lives. Topics on the chatboards ranged from general talk about their day to day lives…

 

 

 

 

...to fear about their general lives…

 

 

...to learning how to take care of themselves.

 

 

There’s something surreal about returning to a website plastered with kid-friendly graphics and stumbling upon hard-hitting topics about the point of life, anxieties and the unknowability about the future. Multiple times, I found myself engaging in conversations with other users about the prospects of grad school, something that weighs more and more heavily on my mind the closer I get to the spring.

 

The openness of the Neopian community is made all the more amazing when you consider that the site’s internal model has practically gone unchanged in ten years. The chat boards are monitored by an automatic bot that hands out bans for the lightest of rule infractions, such as referring to the word “hotdog”. Users regardless talked openly about incredibly sensitive topics such as abuse and mental illness, using “safe” words that wouldn’t be picked up by the chat filter. Sometimes they even used the boards as a place to give sage advice, with a touch of classic cynicism.

 

 

Random kindness, indeed. There were multiple times I mentioned a particular virtual item I was looking for on the boards, only to find it gifted to my profile for free by a Neopian stranger. These items ranged from cheap in nature, food and basic pet necessities, to expensive blessings—like items to convert my pets into new colors. In a website attended to almost exclusively by disgruntled and in pain adults, kindness was found in these small gifts.

 

There’s also much to be said about the simple joy that Neopets continues to bring to its users to this very day. Checking fansites dedicated to Neopets where the filters are much more relaxed reveal pages upon pages of people celebrating their Neopian accomplishments. Obtaining the perfect outfit for your pet is a cause of celebration. Completing a quest warrants an excited post to the boards for a congratulations from your peers. This is not an unusual feeling. There’s a beautiful simplicity in completing the goals that my younger self would have wanted that still elicits as much joy in me as it would have in 2008. My page of perfectly painted pets makes me smile—even if it doesn’t stack up to much in the “real” adult world.

 

Neopets hasn’t escaped the melancholy our adult years tend to bring to the table, but it has surely adapted to them. It absorbs the woes of its users while providing a space for them to healthily work it off. When I am feeling depressed, I can distract myself by building up my virtual shop stock. I can throw myself into building a backstory for my Neopets.

 

Or I can simply turn to the Neopian community and know that I will find kin.

 

Follow Her Campus @ Geneseo on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Pinterest.