1. I made a Neopets account when I was six. Like many other things—candy,shoes that fit,an email account—I was inspired to demand my own after seeing my brother obtain one before me. A pioneer of our times, that one. He once convinced our parents to let us stay at Costco for two extra hours for the sole purpose of circling the warehouse eating samples. My mother is and has always been firmly Anti-Game, and at that point she monitored our internet usage like a prison warden, but even she caved at the Neopets phenomenon. I’m still not really sure why. All I know is that, at one point, I caught her playing Destruct-O-Match on her desktop. It was like watching a dog walking on its hind legs, or talking.
2. My first Neopet was a blue Shoyru named Jackruy. (I don’t remember exactly how I arrived at that name, I think it was an incorrect portmanteau of “Jackie” and “Shoyru”? Whatever, I was six.) I adopted other pets too—had four at one point, but gave one up to the adoption hound because I felt stretched too thin—but Jackruy was always my favorite. “We don’t pick favorites,” assured teachers and parents alike to the children under their care. Bullshit, I thought bitterly, feeding Jackruy an omelette while my other pets starved.
3. I recently logged back in. Jackruy; species: Shoyru; mood: delighted!; age: 4,465 days; hunger: dying.
4. There were “Neopets-famous” users who dominated the Battledome, whose profiles displayed hours and hours dedicated to constructing their little online universe, to carving out a corner of the website and marking it their own. Two of them linked their profiles to each other. They were a couple that had been together for years, apparently, though I’m not sure whether or not they met on the site, whether they started dating before or after Neopets. The order of events was unclear.
I used to go to their profiles and read through the meticulous details for hours, wondering with a sense of visceral voyeurism who they were. “xxshadowstar is the love of my life,” and “hopewithoutfeathers is the love of my life,” printed in their “About Me”s, two sides of a coin, mutual recursion. I thought it was so strange that there were Real Adults on this website, adults who not only immersed themselves in the game universe but also somehow found love.
“Hero” by Enrique Iglesias had been programmed to auto-play at the bottom of one of their pages. I must have listened to it dozens of times in the time I spent snooping on their profiles. I can be your hero, baby, Enrique crooned, the line looping through my head again and again.
5. The Battledome was a virtual arena that pitted two players against one another, each choosing a pet to fight for them.All of it came down to economics – the best equipment was naturally the most expensive, price tags of esteemed weapons and potions rising into the millions. I always wondered how the leading players in the Battlefield could afford those things—how many hoursmust you destruct virtual blocks or shoot virtual arrows to reach 400 million Neopoints (the price of Tazzalor’s Cutlass, in case you were wondering)? You could earn up to 1000 Neopoints per game, but you’d have to be very skilled to get that much—most games earned an average or five or six hundred, and each probably took about five minutes. So that comes out to 67,000 hours or 2,800 days spent on games alone, only to blow it all on one dinky-looking sword.
6. Me, I could never do that. Sure I could sit still long enough to spend eight or ten hours playing games, but it was never a good feeling—less about patience and persistence, more about the computer’s LED screen boring into my eyeballs, keeping me trapped within its power. And at the end of the day, as I lay in bed, I would always have a little existential crisis, even at age nine: what am I doing? What is the point of this? Will anyone ever love me? By the next day I would have forgotten and happily logged back in.
7. When I was eight or nine the game developers (our heroes! our gods!) rolled out a new feature—Petpets. Pets for our Neopets. I always imagined them to be about the same size as a softball. They were pretty cute, and I bought one for each of my pets at the time. You want to keep your pets happy, right? But it bit me in the ass when Jackruy had an allergic reaction to the Petpet I gave her, developing an infection, and I had to go shell out my hard-earned cash for the antibiotics. And when I’d almost reached the end of my Neopets days, they came out with another feature: Petpetpets. I’d learned my lesson by then.
8. How does the Neopets economy work, you wonder?Well,it doesn’t. The most popular ways through which you can earn Neopoints—playing games, using the stock market, going on quests—don’t actually exchange currency cyclically the way economies rely on. As more people joined the game, more people were making money out of thin air, and the entire Neo-verse accidentally became an allegory for post-World War II Germany. (I recently saw a plain loaf of bread on sale for 3 million Neopoints; ten years ago it would have been three hundred.)
9. Most people I knew who played the game spent their Neopoints freely.Someone in high school told me, waxing nostalgic, that she had never had a balance above twenty thousand Neopoints, because every time she’d earned enough she would buy a new round of gourmet food for her pets—which was just about the most objectively hare-brained way you could spend your cash. Feeding your pet a Moldy Tomato Sandwich versus a Cranberry-Orange Baked Ham made no difference in their health, and you didn’t even need to feed them to keep them alive. Their hunger status could stay starving indefinitely, as Jackruy’s has for the last seven or so years.
10. I used to have this fantasy: summer mornings, sunlight streaming lazily through the windows, our mother trilling us awake.Cinnamon-french-toast-ready-on-the-table-dear, orI-made-omelettes-I-know-they’re-your-favorite! She would be wearing a red checkered apron over a full skirt, ready to smile her way through a day of child-rearing. (It encapsulates much of my childhood, it seems: wistfully reimagining my Chinese immigrant mother, stern and stout in her decades-old sweaters fraying at the hems, as Donna Reed.) After breakfast, perhaps piano or art classes; then, after lunch, playing outside with the neighborhood kids—what else? Afternoon around five p.m., swimming in the local pool, sun in my face and a breeze in my hair.
In this dream, I could open my eyes underwater without the sting of chlorine.
This was all a horking pile of bullshit, of course. Albert and I had none of these things. What we did have was NeoQuest, a role-playing adventure game where you play a Lupe transported back to ancient Neopia, fighting monsters and collecting objects. We used to spend hours every day wandering around the game-world, hunched over our shared desktop computer inside.
This was how we passed our summers, our aimless sun-drenched days, our fleeting celebration of freedom.
Jackie Gu is a student at Brown University studying computer science and literary arts. Her interests include digital archival, projecting her problems on the internet, and that cat game. You can find her tweeting (sporadically) @jqlngu.