Neopets hasn’t changed much since 2004. The site today is a primary-coloured relic of an era where drop-down menus and outer glow were the height of cutting edge. The homepage recalls computer mice with dysfunctional roller-balls, and printer paper with perforated edges. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear the dialup modem.
When the haze of nostalgia clears, though, the horror comes into focus at 20 kilobytes per second. The “users online” counter has conspicuously disappeared from the homepage, an act of censorship perhaps intended to disguise the massive virtual death toll. Cheerful anthropomorphic creatures dot the landscape, faces frozen into grimace-like smiles. This is a children’s website, but it is no place for children.
And strangely, it no longer is.
They refer to themselves variously as “mature”, “established users”, or, in one case, as an “elite group of adults with zero tolerance for drama.” They range from eighteen to thirty-ish, and a number of them are stay-at-home parents. They have, so they say, flourishing “IRL lives”. And yet, inexplicably, they make the near-daily pilgrimage back to Neopets, to huddle in the forums and talk about “the lag” like ordinary people talk about the weather.
I meet them in the forums one evening, having hunted down my old password. One of them complements my “siggy”, short for “forum signature”, which is notable in that it is neither song lyrics nor faux-philosophy. My conversational partner, by contrast, signs off every message with a reminder to “never let someone who is a few fries short of a Happy Meal tear you down. Live, Laugh, Love.”
The conversation swings between reminiscence about the golden days of Neopets, and a steady stream of parenting tips, recipes, and mundane updates on household chores. The moderators remind those conversing that they must be “semi-literate”, which is defined as “n0+ t@lk1n lyk d1$”. Anything else, it seems, is fair game, except “hell”, “damn”, and any mention of politics or religion. I am briefly suspended for mysteriously contravening one of these rules. When I return, I have missed one post, in which someone apologies for delaying the creation of a feral dog roleplay group, blaming their carpal tunnel syndrome. Consensus is reached that it is probably okay for them to take some time off Neopets to recover, so long as it’s a one-off thing.
In a particularly active period, I witness someone suggest that another user take Neopets less seriously. Things deteriorate rapidly, until, foaming at the keyboard, they descend into a charmingly censored argument about how hurtful it is to call someone’s “baby” a “bunch of pixels.” I sit back with a box of digital popcorn (procured at the low, low cost of 599 neopoints) and watch the drama unfold. Many unhappy smiley faces are posted. A bystander looks to the sky and offers a neutral observation that the lag is bad tonight.
I leave the forum and visit my actual Neopets. They are all dying from hunger, but their moods range from “content” to “delighted”. They will always be this way: pixel-perfect children who never grow up, or move away from home, or get into trouble, or fall off the rails. It’s the parents who need taking care of.