Whenever people talk about the wilder stuff they did as teenagers, I nod along as if I can relate. The truth is – like millions of kids growing up in the 2000s – I spent almost every evening aged 13 to 16 playing Habbo Hotel.
At its peak around 2011, the website (or “Habbo” for short) attracted up to 10 million monthly users to its pop-coloured, pixellated virtual world. Built by a Finnish company named Sulake, it eventually spread to 31 different countries on five continents. Users today still create personalised avatars to meet new people, join chatrooms, roleplay, earn credits and buy “furni” (furniture) to decorate their rooms.
On its 20th anniversary, however, Habbo Hotel offers something very different to its dwindling user base – a relic of early internet culture that conjures up all the nostalgia of being online in the first flush of the 21st century.
I first played Habbo in 2004 and used the site to set up my own modelling agency, which other players would sign-up to. I was 13 and had a crush on my real life neighbour, who was the only other person I knew that played it. I’d visit his overcrowded rooms to gawp at his golden statues, golden eggs and gold-rimmed jacuzzi. It was a bit much, to be honest, but I didn’t ask any questions. He occasionally gave me a palm tree or pastel pink dining chair. I wondered if this was true love.
My Habbo journey came to an abrupt end in 2006, when a male avatar with a buzzcut asked me what my pet’s name was. The next time I logged into my account, my furni was gone and XxGoldilocksxX modelling agency had fallen into administration. I cried for a week, and so did my dad (all that furni had to be bought with real money).
For most Habbo fans, it was a site-wide mute (or “The Great Mute” as it’s known within the fandom) that changed everything. In 2012, a Channel 4 investigation found that pedophiles were regularly using Habbo to engage children in sexual conversations. The following day, Sulake issued a site-wide mute on its chat function, which led to hundreds of users protesting within the hotel lobby, a popular gathering space for those just logging in. While live chat eventually returned, the damage was done – its user base had started abandoning Habbo.
Other players left following a merge of all the different hotel servers into one, which messed up the Habbo economies (the ice cream machines’ values fell dramatically) and hurt certain communities.
Despite everything, Habbo Hotel is still going and has outlived more modern social networking sites such as Vine and Google Plus. When I logged back in for the purposes of this article, I felt like I was travelling back in time. While I couldn’t remember the login details to my original account, the process of creating a pixelated me (complete with blonde bunches) and wandering the soothingly square rooms chatting to strangers lulled me into a swimmy state of nostalgia.
I desperately searched for the old diner I used to visit and typed swear words just to see “bobba” (the filter word that censored profanity) appear. Nothing was the same, of course, but it still surprised me how easily I slipped back into the cosy routine of chatroom hopping. My favourite room was a meditation studio where a man in a face mask sat on a tree trunk, simply eating ice cream cones from a fridge.
Sam, 25, first played Habbo Hotel at the age of ten. “I came from a small town and what I liked best about it was the community of dedicated fans who made creative content within Habbo, such as themed rooms for roleplaying. It allowed me to make friends with like-minded people easily,” he says. “I still revisit Habbo now, but mostly just to sit in one of the public rooms and reminisce with other people who have come back. We’ll say things like, ‘Wow, I see your badge says you’ve been a member for ten plus years!’”
Katie, 27, also uses Habbo as a portal to the past. “My account is from June 2004. When I visit now, my pet dog and all the texts on my sticky notes remain untouched.” This nostalgia, however, is tinged with the reality of a digital space that has only been partly preserved. “All the pictures I made with the old camera [function] don’t seem to exist anymore. That quickly turned my joy into sorrow. Seeing these things from the past is a comforting trip, but they have also been moved to a very unfamiliar place.”
For Sam, the changing audience means Habbo will always feel like a ghost town to older users, many of whom made life-changing friendships on the platform. “You used to have to wait in a queue to get online – now I see hardly any people. The games, roleplays and discussion rooms seem to have all but vanished, aside from a handful of sparsely populated ones.”
As the internet grows older, the first generation to log online en masse are now considering how our younger selves are being archived. Our parents might have looked through photo albums or home videos, but millennials like Katie and Sam are logging back onto their MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) accounts to re-immerse themselves in a platform that once offered so many hours of escapism.
“Websites such as Habbo can act as anchor points, especially in times where everything is moving so quickly and keeps changing. It’s nice to go back there to remind yourself of a time when you were finding yourself,” says Hilde Van Den Bulck, a professor of communication at Drexel University.
She also believes that Habbo has survived because of its timeless visuals and community-building appeal. “It’s less complicated than more hyper-realistic games but still has that range – you can log on and wander around or invest more in building your own world,” Bulck says. “The developers also seem to have connected with Habbo’s fansites, which creates a connection for players that’s beyond them just being in the game.”
This is certainly true of Habbox, the oldest official fansite for Habbo. Jarkie, one of the fansite's volunteer staff, tells me that most of its users now are people like me – millennials who return to Habbo in their 20s. “Habbo has changed, but not massively,” she says. “[The developers] are always doing their best to keep the site as fresh as possible – their main focus at present seems to be releasing clothing and furni bundles, and letting fansites do the community engagement.”
Is there still a future for Habbo? “I think there is – for a few more years,” Jarkie says. “But I believe the end is coming. I believe fan sites like Habbox will outlive Habbo itself.”
While Habbo’s original target audience of teenagers are turning to social media like TikTok, Bulck believes that online games like Habbo actually prepared many of us for social media. “They were a place where you’d make friends with people who you might never actually meet in real life. These communities then tended to move together to platforms like Facebook and Instagram.”
The strength of the relationships built on Habbo is easy to see on the game’s dedicated subreddit: r/habbo. One user talks about how they met their fiance on the game six years ago, while countless others hope to be reunited with friends they once knew. These were relationships that, while formed through pixelated avatars, helped people to discover who they were – or wanted to become.
I tried searching for my neighbour’s username to no avail. We don’t talk any more IRL, anyway. That’s the thing about nostalgia: the deeper you go, the closer you get to a more disappointing reality. And so after one last visit to the welcome lobby, where another player asks me if I want to kiss, I decide to check out for the last time. I’m not 13 anymore, and that’s OK.