Here’s an overlooked statistic. By their tenth birthday, many millennials had opened their first bank account, taken out stocks, moved into their first house and opened their first shop – all while looking after several dependents. Today, when one of my more Tory relatives hectors me over how I really have no future prospects and no valuable assets, I tell them I was one of those millennials. I tell them I’ve already won at capitalism – and I did it all on a little website called Neopets, now celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.
Launched by students at the University of Nottingham in 1999, the website was originally touted as the digital evolution of the Tamagotchi. Early users logged onto feed, play with, and water their pixellated pets, and by Christmastime that year, the site was receiving around 600,000 daily hits.
By the time 2000 rolled around, the website’s creators enlisted American entrepreneur Doug Dohring, who encouraged them to lower the age of their target demographic, while they experimented with immersive marketing strategies; seamlessly blending product placement into the holistic user experience. It was a groundbreaking move that presaged the rollout of new virtual worlds geared towards kids, tweens, and teens – including the likes of Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel – both of which incorporated Neopets’ groundbreaking immersive marketing into their cosmos, to varying degrees.
But Neopets still remains a greater success than any website which tried to follow in its footsteps. As one of the ‘stickiest’—a term used to describe the amount of time a user spends on a page—kids’ sites in the internet’s history, the enjoyment its users get from the site is matched by advertisers’ interest in it.
While it’s tempting to look back on Neopets with uncomplicated, Web 1.0-tinged glasses, it feels far less guiltless when I log back onto my inactive account as a tax-paying, bill-paying, working adult. Due to my inactivity (it’s probably been about two years since I last logged on), my pet ‘ILoveJoannaNewsom’ is starving—’dying’ even—as she slumps over in rawboned sorrow.
As I play a game called Ice Cream Machine, which has me dodging swipes of ice cream with my cursor in order to feed her, I encounter at least six adverts. I try to remember if I thought anything of this as a kid—the fact that I was being solicited as a nine, ten, whatever year-old into having a networked relationship with a hoard of advertisers. Probably not. But today, it’s inescapable. The adverts are built into the website’s bone structure, as I’m made to mimic a warped form of capitalism. My labour is keeping ‘ILoveJoannaNewsom alive’.
Neve, who is 29 and currently works as a server, has been playing Neopets since the year it was created. Having grown up playing Tamagotchi, she naturally sought out sites like Neopets when she first got online. Now, as a 20-year Neopian resident, her reasons for returning to the site have shifted over the years. “ Every Neopet has a pet page, and I was able to turn my pets into actual characters that lived in this little world, which got more and more entertaining as staff added new features and plots,” she says. After studying folklore in college, she finds herself fascinated by the “niche, internet-driven folk art created by players” when she returns to the site as an adult.
Yet, even as a child she remembers feeling put off by the sponsored content. “As a ten-year-old, it felt weird and inappropriate to me that I was being so aggressively targeted with advertising.” She’s since tried to create her own pet-based game, which unlike Neopets, is anti-capitalist in nature. “I came up with features that would encourage more collaborative approaches from the players, and I tried to figure out plots that might highlight capitalism's failings,” she says. “I concluded that in-game capitalism makes for a fun game, even if real life capitalism is going to kill us all.
Gabe, 24, who works in HVAC restoration, first logged onto Neopets when McDonald’s launched their range of Neopian Happy Meal toys. Playing for 11 years, he forced himself to log off for good after throwing a pocket knife at his computer screen, while experiencing a fit of rage inspired by one of the site’s minigames. He’s since made several intermittent returns, “purely out of nostalgia”, he says. “It’s a nice reminder of a simpler time on the web, and one of the few relics of recent internet past that is still working more or less how it’s supposed to.” He likens the experience to “pulling your old toys out of a box in the basement” or “a socially acceptable version of going to hang out on your childhood playground”.
That purehearted nostalgia was sullied when Gabe came upon a YouTube video around three years ago which outlined Neopets’ “controversial” advertising techniques. “Likely the only thoughts I had about it as a kid were “oh look, my Neopet can eat Lucky Charms like me. Cool.” As he returned to Neopets as a teenager, websites like Habbo Hotel had by then helped to normalize this kind of in-world advertising.
Those were the kind of websites that attracted the now 23-year-old postgraduate student Emily. While Neopets had imparted some useful Web 1.0 skills on her, like the HTML that allowed her to create a webpage for her pet ‘zoomer536’, the website began to lose its appeal once she discovered MMPORGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) like Habbo Hotel. “I think those games also mimicked capitalism and that was an attempt to get kids wanting to spend real money and bring real capital into the game,” she says.
Today, a number of first gen Neopians, like 29-year-old Bess, are returning to the world of giant jelly and *fun capitalism* during their workday. Bess was active on the site from the age of 11, but “stopped playing seriously” at 16. A few months ago, she decided to log on again because she “was bored at work and the dailies [reward-based activities dotted around Neopia that you can only access once a day] gave her something to do.
While she’s also there for the annual Christmas advent calendar (in her opinion, Neopets’ greatest draw), she now notices the more sinister parts of the website, too. “They talk about inflation, they stop supporting you at the soup kitchen thing after you have more than like 1000 NP [Neopoints, the currency that allows you to take care of your pet], there's employment tabs… It definitely has occurred to me that it feels super brain-washy almost?”
As someone who participates in actual capitalism now – Bess doesn’t pay for her bills with NP – she finds it “fucked up” that Neopets is gamifying capitalism into “a fun diversion for kids”. So, while it might be time for the kids to log off, “you can bet your bottom dollar my ass will be hitting up the Advent Calendar in December”, says Bess.