By Alice Tovey
Much has changed when it comes to how young people engage with cyberspace. For starters, they would never call it cyberspace out of fear that bullies would rightfully pick on them.
I was raised in the era of the family computer. The screeching of dial-up was music to our ears and the floppy disks were floppier than ever before. The computer sat in an open room in the house so that our parents could make sure we weren’t doing anything naughty like asking Yahoo to show us boobs.
After a hard day at school cutting our teeth on fiction and fractions (the sharpest of arithmetic), my siblings and I would fight each other for our turn on the internet. I’d spend my online time switching between MSN Messenger, Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel and watching badgers sing about mushrooms. But one website was an early favourite: Neopets.
Neopets launched in 1999 and by the mid-2000s had more than 25 million users. That may seem like a small number in a world where “Baby Shark” has 13 billion plays on YouTube, but given you had to kick your mum off the phone to surf the web (another thing the kids don’t say), that’s a massive number.
Neopets gives players the chance to care for their very own two-dimensional being (but enough about your ex). And there’s a Neopet for everyone. From the majestically named Shoyru, Wocky, Acara and Scorchio to the middle-aged-Dadly named Lenny, Bruce, and Grundo.
After a weird foray into NFTs, a dodgy connection to The Church of Scientology, and a big corporate buyout, Neopets is back for a new generation. But how will this old yeller website make a splash in an overly saturated market? Well, don’t you worry? They’ve launched with a shiny new brand ambassador that the kids can relate to: John Legend, because nothing says “down with the kids” like the dude who sang the songs to which they were conceived. Finally, with Neo-Neopets, today’s kids will be able to replicate my childhood exactly, which was good and perfect and the only way that people should be raised. Thank you, John Legend!
But am I looking at my 2000s childhood through Y2K tinted sunglasses, or is my generation truly the smartest and greatest generation to ever live? To the untrained eye, Neopets looks like a technicolour Ponzi scheme in which cute, cartoon critters slowly hypnotise kids to bully parents into handing over their credit card details. And it is. But it’s so much more.
The kingdom of Neopia is a world of possibility. You can play games, visit the village, collect Neopoints and adopt a petpet for your pet – introducing a horrifying conundrum of pet-on-pet ownership the likes of which we’ve not seen since Mickey Mouse had Pluto chained up in his backyard. You love your pet, care for it, and work your digital ass off to put food on the neotable only for your neoshit to spit it in your face. You would then rage-quit the game and let your disobedient ball of pixels starve, only to be wracked by guilt and overfeed them later that day with slices of infinite omelet and soup kitchen donations. You can even visit the bank; an endless world of whimsy!
Neopets taught a generation of young people how to take responsibility for a living thing. It taught kids to adventure without risking stranger danger, that life isn’t fair, and that kids in other countries had faster internet connections, so you could never win the games even if you mashed all the keys with your tiny fists. Plus, it gave you the chance to develop numerical and literary skills in exchange for sweet, sweet coin. Or, if you were like my family, you’d cheat the system and get your mum to play the Neopets computer solitaire so you earned the reward without having to do the hard work of learning. Mum got five minutes of peace from her horrible goblin children, and we got to experience more two-dimensional bullshit. The perfect heist. We Oceans 11’ed them.
Neopets has never been about kids, at least not today’s kids. The site requires that users be aged 13 or over, and the average user of the site is between 18 and 34. That’s right, the site is overrun by us, the bravest and coolest generation to ever exist. No self-respecting young person wants to hang out on a website occupied by strange adults. And that’s perfect.
It’s about us oversized Millennial babies who can’t own houses and seek safety in digital realities. Like Neo from the Matrix (at least the first bit of the movie), we’ve woken up to the world and it’s harsh. And in this world we don’t have cool sunnies and killer cheekbones to numb the pain. We’re in desperate search of escapism as we follow our pets to the big Neofarm up state.
Neopets represents a fine digital thread connecting 30-year-old teenagers to their past selves. We yearn for the days of the family computer, to return to the gentle naivety of our youth. In a world where computers are pocket sized and we never have to go to the toilet without the wealth of human knowledge ever again, I look fondly upon the simplicity of being a girl with a pet, and a pet with a petpet.
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