Neopet Nostalgia: Returning to Childhood During Quarantine
In the spirit of using this blog to "just share" more frequently, I thought I'd publish this feature I wrote in June 2020 that never got published and that I think about from time to time. Enjoy!
Quarantine has been a time for escapism. Forced to stay inside, there’s a place people are converging on to play games, take care of their pets, sell digital wares and much more — and no, it’s not Animal Crossing. As nostalgia also tightens its grip on our lockdown pastimes, people have been returning to Neopets.
Created in 1999, Neopets is a virtual pets website that exploded in popularity in the early 2000s. At its most basic, users adopt neopets — which can have their own pets, called “petpets” — and take care of them. Beyond that, what you do in the digital world of Neopia is completely up to you.
Unlike Pokémon or Tamagotchi and other contemporary “pet” games that were all the rage twenty years ago, there isn’t a particular goal. Your neopets can’t even die, although they will look noticeably sad with the status “starving” in red. And unlike Pokémon, which has gone through several updated iterations, Neopia has remained almost exactly the same in all its clunky early-2000s glory and aesthetic.
To properly research this article, I created a new account — the chances of recovering the one I had sixteen years ago are slim, at best. Seeing the familiar yellow background, the rounded bold font and yes, the adorable neopets themselves was admittedly fun. I adopted a red Kau and named her Firantia the Younger, after one of my original neopets.
When the Animal Crossing craze hit in early 2020, I wasn’t the only one who was reminded of their pre-teen Neopet days. After discovering that Neopets was alive and well, with a subreddit of almost 50,000 users, it becomes immediately apparent that there has been a surge in neopet owners recently.
“Now since the quarantine, people are coming out of the woodwork and they're streaming Neopets, some as a joke, and some serious like me,” said Kimberly De Winne, a business analyst who goes by the username shploofs. “It's just so interesting to meet people that are like, ‘Is this really a dead website?’ No, sweetie, it's not, just stay in my stream and I'll prove it to you!”
De Winne streams her Neopian wanderings on Twitch every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, starting at 7pm Central Standard Time. In fact, she is a Premium user with seven neopets, each with their own petpet, including a Wraith Uni — which looks like a dark unicorn — called Neightzche.
De Winne introduced me to a whole new Neopian world that I had been unaware of as a twelve-year-old. I hadn’t even scratched the surface. There’s the Neopian Times newspaper with in-depth analyses of the Neopian economy and Gooples. There is a stock market. An evil lab ray. Battles. Inflation. Guilds.
“There are so many paths that one can take on Neopets: you can become an avatar collector, you can become a restocker, which is where you sit in shops and refresh to hopefully one day, buy a rare item that pops up,” Kimberly explains. “You can be someone who's an expert in the stock market, you can train your pets for the Battle Dome. I am all about helping you choose that path and live your life to the fullest on Neopets.”
Kimberly calls herself a Battle Dome Boss Babe. Claire McNear, a staff writer at The Ringer, had a different goal: “to get fucking rich.” In her personal essay, “You Don’t Have to Stay Six Feet Apart in Neopia,” McNair reveals that by virtue of having access to her original account, she has managed to accrue over two million neopoints — the site’s currency — in her National Neopian Bank account.
“Every night, I deposit my winnings in the bank; every morning, I collect interest,” McNear writes. “I consult my stock portfolio. I understand nothing. I buy more.”
I have no such Neopian identity. My main reason for playing Neopets was the games. My favorites were “The Castle of Eliv Thade,” a game where you escaped a scary castle by solving anagrams, and “Hannah and the Pirate Caves,” where you nimbly explored underwater caves with dynamite to loot hidden treasure. I would venture to the giant omelette on the Tyrannian Plateau, picking up whatever flavor of the dinosaur-egg concoction I could for my neopet, but that’s about it.
Unfortunately, Hannah and the Pirate Caves depended on Shockwave, a discontinued software plugin. In fact, most of neopets.com runs on Flash, which will no longer be supported on Chrome, Firefox or Safari in December 2020. There are, however, efforts underway to migrate the entire site to HTML5 and protect Neopia from being lost forever. The Neopets support team and Jumpstart games, the current owners of Neopets, were unavailable for comment.
But why go back to what is essentially an online time capsule that runs on outdated software?
“I could imagine that people turn towards these games to somewhat keep the connection, even under social distancing, in a playful way to have this very basic human need to belong,” said Tim Wulf, media psychologist at LMU Munich, Germany. “But, of course, for some people it might also have this nostalgic component.”
Wulf conducted two studies in 2016 before and after the release of Pokémon Go which indicated that people were both more likely to have initial interest if it sparked nostalgia and more likely to enjoy it more.
“We found that the more nostalgic people were playing Pokémon, the more they had fun doing that,” Wulf explained. “They were also very small effects on well-being, but the main effect was that nostalgia contributed to their overall playing experience and their entertainment experiences.”
In twenty years of study, Wulf explains that the field of nostalgia in psychology has identified three main functions, although they have not been studied in equal measure: social, self-oriented and existential.
“We are mostly nostalgic when we think of fond memories that we often experience with other people together,” Wulf said. “And if we remember these events, we are reminded that there are these people who support us even if we don’t have it right now because we feel lonely.”
In fact, loneliness and nostalgia are closely related. In a 2006 study by Tim Wildshut et al., nostalgia was found to have a restorative capacity precisely because of that social function Wulf described.
“When I feel lonely, I'm more likely to think about the past, which makes me nostalgic, which also helps my loneliness, so this is somewhat the psychological mechanism behind it,” Wulf said.
Loneliness has certainly been omnipresent for many during quarantine and as our lives have moved completely online, so have our social interactions. For De Winne, the Neopets community has been incredibly supportive and continually helped her achieve her goals.
“I’ve been streaming consistently for two months and my chat would think it was funny to gift me one of the items to complete my goals. I’m like, sobbing and my chat is laughing because they think it’s funny to help me,” she said. “The people that I've met in my Twitch community are quickly becoming really good friends of mine. And it's just wonderful to be able to be vulnerable and real with these people, but also come together over a common love for this world.”
Beyond its social function, Wulf explained that returning to games that you may have won earlier in life hearkens back to our achievements — that self-oriented nostalgia can bolster our feeling of self-worth. Finally, the third function of nostalgia, the existential function, can act as a buffer to our own fear of death by giving us a sense that our lives are meaningful.
Any or all of these elements may ring true for many during a global pandemic and there are more than enough emotional scenarios in the present to contend with. McNear describes recklessly investing in the Neopian stock market as she faces economic uncertainty and a cancelled wedding. For De Winne, rediscovering Neopets has been an opportunity for self-discovery.
“I have used this quarantine period to really dive deep into myself and figure out what I want. I had just gotten out of a rather abusive relationship. And I was just like, ‘I have to ignore him, I have to focus on myself’,” De Winne said. “And that's when I fell back in love with streaming and Neopets and it's just been so silly, but I'm two months post-this person and I feel so happy.”
“I'm literally the most confident I've ever been and the happiest I've ever been because I have Neopets and I have a community that I'm building.”
As for myself, in what is probably the only thing I have in common with my twelve-year-old self, I’m here to play games and take care of my neopet. Firantia the Younger is hungry again. How do I get to that giant omelette?