You don’t expect to get many genuine “death of my childhood” moments in your 20’s, or at least not often; the closest I’ve come was trying to cope with reboots of shows like Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony, and even Sailor Moon (I’ll let Maya tell you all about Crystal). So when I read this article in Kernel about the collapse of the Neopets empire you could say I was a little unprepared. I mean, Neopets can’t die. That’d be like our moon up and deciding, “Nah, bruh, f these tides, I’m gonna go chill at Mars’ place for a minute.”
Before I delve into my virtual pet reality nostalgia, I should confess here that the only gaming console I grew up with was an Atari that my mother’s coworker bought her as a gag gift, and even that was played maybe twice. It’s easy to see then how Neopets served to fill the Gameboy/Playstation/whatever it was that kids my age were supposed to be playing in the late 90’s void in a way that constant trips to the library and artistic endeavors simply could not. I still remember sitting next to my mother as a third grader setting up my first and only account, struggling to come up with a password close enough to my AOL email that I’d remember it (RIP, Lauren4Spinach@aol.com). As mentioned above I was a bit of a MLP fan, so almost immediately I was attracted to the equestrian Neopets of Peophins, a kind of literal take on a seahorse, and Unis, which were basically pegacorns. Since my favorite color at the time was yellow, I decided my very first pet would be a yellow Peophin named Oemph, which to this day is still just an undecipherable mash of phonemes without origin. This didn’t stop the website from telling me that the name was taken, however, so I tried again with “Uniomelle,” then “Uniomellah,” then “Uniomellion,” until I finally discovered my computer had actually glitched, maxing out my number of pets with a set of quadruplets. Eventually I rectified this by purchasing pet paintbrushes to individualize my girls, but I never did get to own a Uni…
Like any good Neopian player, I hustled to get my babies fed on that age old staple of nourishment, free food. Remember being poor enough to actually feed your pets at the Soup Kitchen? Or when you finally figured out that you could sell pieces of free omelette for additional coin? Of course, there was always the old-fashioned gaming method (Meerca Chase and GadGadsGame are still my favorites) or you could just take care of your friends’ account(s) when they were going to be without internet. And by “friends” I mean anyone who was willing to give out their password to skip out on pet care.
While some users may have been drawn to the vividly painted storylines and epic wars the staff liked to throw at us now and again as well as various art or trivia contests (did anyone else actually try to get their story published in the Neopian Times?), I had to try my hand at the Battledome because… well, Pokemon. As one might expect these digital brawls came complete with the opportunity to show off your pets’ leveled up skills as well purchase various kinds of armor and weapons, so when my attention span ran out I ended up with a whole gallery of impressive, though otherwise useless Peophin-themed gear. Soon I was indulging my inner collector and stocking up on Peophin plushies, beauty items, cookies, you name it. Add all this time together and, according to the Neopets’ business model, my prepubescent friends and I were part of the reason why the website became the blueprint on retaining users for long periods of time (“stickiness”) and thereby collecting gobs of ad revenue.
The Kernel article hints at this, but the Neopets experience wasn’t always one of mindless childhood pleasure and innocent preoccupation, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who ultimately fled as kids became less of the target demographic. One of the best examples were the Neopets chat boards, or Neoboards. Forbidden to anyone under 13, the Neoboards were my first lessons in how to connect and maintain friendships across time zones, how to troll anonymously (if you’re reading this, creator of the “I love horses” thread, I’ve never actually eaten one and I’m sorry I told you they were delicious), and that some older teens and adults will find a way to bully children and steal their joy if the opportunity presents itself. I can remember countless instances when a user would post an impossibly long diatribe insulting someone’s religion or how many lewd words slipped under the filter with a well-placed “x.” When I first learned to roleplay (an activity a little like writing fanfiction with your friends/strangers, but from the perspective of a particular character), there were actual suspiciously adult-sounding groups dedicated to terrorizing threads under the thinly veiled guise of offering critique.
Am I surprised, then, that when the moderation system failed all Hell broke loose? Of course not. As many have pointed out it’s a wonder this relic from a time when anything in Flash was still impressive has survived this long (although I use the term “survived” loosely post-purchase by Jumpstart). While disabling my account meant I never had to live with the paralyzing guilt of knowing my pets were starving to death for over a decade, it’s still saddening to think that somewhere a shy nerd girl might never have the opportunity to click a button too many times and produce a set of her own pet quadruplets to fall in love with. Alas, poor Neopets! I knew them, reader; a site of infinite fun, of most excellent fantasy, and forever a precious memory.