Virtual pets became all the rage for kids and tweens in the late 1990s, way before smartphones ate up all their attention. The website “Neopets” sprung up, which allowed users to raise colorful pets, buy them accessories, take them on adventures, and interact with other users along the way.
Then when the pandemic hit last year, a lot of Neopet fans — now well into adulthood — logged back into the website. Not much of that world, called Neopia, changed. And their Neopets were still alive but hungry and teary-eyed. But then this January, a software update and the end of Adobe Flash nearly destroyed Neopia.
“In the months following March 2020, the Neopets had this 30 to 40% spike in usership, with most players who were coming back … being between 20 and 40 years old,” says Madeleine Morley, freelance writer and editor.
One reason why players returned: nostalgia. “Neopets really reminds them of a time when they would come home after school with their backpacks and dump them on the floor, and then go up to the computer and use dial-up to log on to Neopets. So it reminds them of a time where they didn't have a lot of responsibilities.”
People also craved community during COVID lockdowns, but felt anxious about other social media platforms.
“Because Neopets was intended for children, certain topics are banned from the site. So if you discuss them, you'll get blocked. So for example, you're not allowed to talk about COVID, you're not allowed to talk about politics,” says Morley. “So for a lot of people going on the site last year in the dead of lockdown, when they were being constantly bombarded with difficult and anxiety-producing news, it was an escape to go into Neopets so they could feel connected to each other, but minus this constant reminder of everything that was going on in the world.”
There was a sense of safety too. “You're not allowed to give people your real name, you're not allowed to give them your phone number or external social media handles. So all the people on Neopets are anonymous. … There's a large, queer usership on Neopets, and a lot of them have come out on Neopets when they haven't in other places in their life.”
Morley says people told her they love being anonymous because they didn’t feel like they had to self-promote and perform their best selves like on other platforms.
Preserving the past
Because much of Neopia relied on Flash, when people logged back on this January, they saw a blank box with an illustration of a tombstone, describes Morley.
“Initially, fans that I spoke to were really devastated by some of the things that they lost on Neopets when Flash came to an end. But then what happened in the months that followed is that players started to find workarounds … ways to put the website back to how it had previously been. So for example, some players maintained out-of-date computers that still have Flash downloaded on them to keep playing the game. … One player I spoke to, he made a script that altered pages back to their former design.”
She says Neopets was where many people first learned to code. The site allowed people to build their own pages, decorate them using HTML and CSS, and upload illustrations. “A lot of people who made these browser extensions had actually first learned how to code using the site. And now they’re using those skills to preserve the platform in the way that they want it to be.”