Neopets reached reached an almighty crescendo of popularity some time in the early 2000s. In 2001, it was ranked as the 4th most popular site on the internet. To put that in perspective, in that same year Google was ranked at 12th. It’s been on my mind lately: what ever happened to it? It was a little over a week ago that I decided to put that exact question to test.
I go to neopets.com and everything is as I remember it, all yellow stars and cute animals defying the laws of nature (see: peophin). I start the account creation process. Choose a username. Calkrool, naturally. Now come the big questions. When was I born? Well, I’m old enough to go on the chat boards now. It’s all flooding back to me. Being the un-rebellious child I was, I actually had my parents sign a printed-out form and fax it off to far away America to say that, yes, Callum did indeed have their permission to talk to other 9 year olds about their computerised unicorns.
I was obsessed with Neopets for a number of years. I had the trading cards, the plushies, the electronic Tamagotchi-like toy I would carry on my person everywhere. Notebooks filled with Neopian to-do lists were always in my backpack, and I made extravagant webpages for my pets using HTML I’d taught myself out of an old book of my dad’s. It was my Utopia, all until one day my account was viciously hacked, and frozen a few days later. Not only were my pets no longer mine, but they were to be stuck in Neopian purgatory for the rest of time. R.I.P. candyvampire114.
I’m making my first pet. I pick my personal favourite, the usul, or as I like to affectionately call it: the bunnyrat. I name her after two of my biggest influences, Sailor Venus, Senshi of Love, and the space pirate Ridley from the Metroid series. To make sure that we’ll get along, I try to make venus_ridley as similar to me as possible, so I pick “reading and learning” as her interests, and deign that when meeting others she would “insult from afar”. I feel an affinity to her already, we’re like peas in a pod. Once I activate my account I am greeted by some sort of slot machine that when I play it gives me 4000 neopoints. Sweet! Then I go pick up my newbie pack, which is exactly as I remember it: terrible. The cold dead eyes of the blue ixi plushie stare me down as I wonder why the hell it’s marked as “rare” when it’s given to literally every single person who makes an account and is therefore possibly the least rare thing on the entire site.
According to some stats on the site, there are 282,503,413 pets, which means there are over ten times as many neopets as there are australians. According to Reddit posts from a couple of years ago, the “users online” counter was stuck at 3,254 for a number of weeks. It’s since been taken down, and the general consensus is that Neopets is in a state of gradual decline. And it shows: Neopets is really funny these days. It’s kind of a ghost town. I go to the pound and refresh a few times, and every second page says there’s no pets to be found. A lot of the site reminds me of what I’ve read about Chinese ghost cities: the infrastructure exists, but no one is around to use it.
It’s at this point that I decide that the best way to spend my Tuesday night is by drinking cheap wine and shopping for virtual treasures using my sweet, sweet neopoints, which are the Neopian currency. I thought maybe I’d even get tipsy enough to approach some people on boards and say “hey, I’m a terrible adult too!” but decided to see how things pan out. I decide to focus my consumerist attentions and desire to bolster the Neopian economy towards buying Usuki dolls. Usuki is kind of like Neopia’s barbie, only she’s an usul. You can even paint your pet to look like her, except I can’t be bothered saving the neopoints and Google told me that those “buy neopoints online!” sites weren’t secure so I’m really not game to gamble my credit card details for a rabbit-mouse-barbie made of pixels. I buy four Usuki dolls, an Usuki dream pool, an Usuki dream stove, and something called an Usuki “neogarden set” before realising I’ve probably forgotten what I’ve bought, and it’s of grave importance that I don’t buy anything else at this point.
To recover from my shopping-blackout (art really does imitate life) I decide I’m going to venture into guilds. I’m not scared of these elitist Neopians. I don’t care that the shield on my page still says “newbie” instead of bearing that illustrious 14 year badge. The guilds are special clubs where people that share similar interests chat, kind of like a digital clubroom. But when I get to them, I realise that my concerns about neopian elitism were unfounded. In fact, finding any neopian proves difficult. The guilds too are but a shadow of their former glory; I search for “adult” guilds, finding only the sad carcasses of clubs once brimming with life. Some of them have as little as one member now, but these digital club-houses still show up as having hundreds of messages.
Since the guilds have offered me nothing, I continue to wonder about other adults on Neopets, but it doesn’t take long for me to discover that I’m not a total anomaly. I go on a board, second from the top on the “evil things and monster sightings” forum—which I’m glad to know is still just a place where people talk off-topic shit—that queries whether there are any other older Neopets players. It’s quickly made clear that “older” means people around my age, who range from people who come on every day to check the Neopian stock market, to those who are in medical school and use the site as a means to relax and unwind. After doing a couple of quick google searches, I find out that apparently the newbie boards are a veritable goldmine of humour and near stream of consciousness monologue. Basically, it’s a place to talk shit.
The newbie board offers me everything, but something’s off and disjointed. It’s obviously adults talking: there’s a board discussing people’s heroes and there’s mentions of Che Guevara, husbands, and even Mao. But there’s something off about everything. It’s a site that expressly bans politics, religion, sex, and even the word “damn” . There’s another board where a guy is talking about moving in with his boyfriend, and the problems they’ll encounter based on whether they share with a friend and his girlfriend. Is mentioning a boyfriend akin to discussing sexual orientation? Probably, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone around to report it, and more to the point, no one who is seems to care.
In my best attempt at Louis Theroux style investigative journalism, I made a board titled “Why do you come to Neopets? 0:-)” I added the angel smiley so that the tyrannical staff wouldn’t think I was trying to badmouth their crumbling empire. Even the lack of an Emoji feels archaic and wrong. I went to bed thinking nothing of it, but I woke up to about twenty responses to my question. Many people said they were trying to escape a boring or depressing life; others were here to achieve the near unattainable goals they had set themselves as children. Others pointed out the addictive quality of coming back to Neopets and the boards themselves, and of course, the most obvious answer: pure nostalgia. I’m even told that the restrictive nature of the Neopets chat rules are good, as they prevent a lot of fights from ever even starting.
As I clicked around the site a bit more, it seemed to me that all the magic was still there, and it was not Neopets that had changed, but us. I still felt enjoyment looking through its brightly coloured worlds, I still felt a rush going shopping with my virtual currency, and I still sure as hell didn’t know how the Altador Cup worked. But as my generation grew up and dispersed, and we had to spend our time studying and working and paying our rent, we lost our perfectly balanced savvy naivety, and a community once bigger than some nations was left nearly deserted. But I remain forever the optimist, and so I sit in my apartment on a Tuesday night drinking cheap red wine and clicking around my own pixellated Ordos.
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