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An ode to Neopets, the game that taught capitalism to kids

24 years after its original release, the 2000s virtual pet website is back – but will is stand the test of time?

For a few years in the mid-2000s, as a preteen, I was a dedicated business owner. Every morning I’d wake up, open the doors to my store and wait for the customers to roll in. Mostly, I sold food: cheese slices, tacos, meatball subs, and tasty-looking pies with unique fillings. My primary speciality, however, was omelettes: Strawberry omelettes. BBQ omelettes. Juppie omelettes. Little fishy omelettes. An omelette called “fresh fruit surprise”. If these don’t sound like the type of omelettes you’d usually have for breakfast, that’s because they weren’t. They didn't physically exist. My shop was virtual, and the world in which it lived was Neopia, a colourful and complex environment brought to life for a website called Neopets dot com.

Despite its virtuality, the currency of Neopia felt very real. With neopoints – which could be earned via a series of flash games, or cashed out via your shop till – you could purchase even more items, some of which were particularly expensive and rare, to be sold on for even more Neopoints. If this sounds suspiciously like “Capitalism: For Kids!” that’s because it was. The motivation behind the game was to make as many neopoints as possible, and there was even a Neopian stock market, called the NEODAQ (a nod to the NASDAQ), in which you could buy and sell stocks. There were actual Neopets too, obviously (cute and vivid virtual pets, sort of like Pokemon, that required care and feeding). But really, the fun of Neopets was to hoard currency and become a 13-year-old business mogul. Some even ran their own galleries, with rare “neggs” (Neopian eggs), on display for thousands.

I mention all of this because, this week, Neopets has relaunched, this time with “an improved website” and “fixed flash games”, 24 years after its original release in 1999. This will come as welcome news to those who, like me, spent years crouched over a chunky glowing PC laptop, socialising on the site’s sparkly chat rooms and updating their individual store aesthetic. Indeed, at its peak, Neopets boasted around 25 million users – twice the population of Sweden – with the digiverse becoming as integral to 2000s culture as Tamagotchis and Habbo Hotel. Its return, then, signifies yet another gesture towards our endless obsession with early web nostalgia; a launch designed to appeal to Zillennials hungry for their candy-coloured, Web 1 childhood spaces, long before endless branded content and social media cynicism. 

That said, could Neopets ever be as popular today as it was at its peak? I’m doubtful. In 2005, platforms like Neopets – that combined social media, virtual pets and in-game currency – were few and far between. Farmville was still five years into the future. Animal Crossing had yet to gain the rabid popularity it enjoys today. Now, of course, a 13-year-old needn’t own their own virtual animal when they can simply become a virtual animal, within the metaverse. And they needn’t bother earning Neopoints when they can earn real world money, via virtual reality businesses (if you happen to know your way around design software like Blender, you can earn thousands per month simply selling avatar accessories). These little Gen Alpha entrepreneurs are perhaps way too savvy to invest their time and energy into a platform with such minimal returns.

Still, like Minecraft and the Sims, the appeal of some games is eternal and Neopets could be no different. “The fun of Neopets lies in its simplicity,” says 28-year-old Kara, who, like me, used to run a Neopets business back in the day. Her shop sold paintbrushes. “Think of the games; these weren’t complicated games with storylines, they were basic, addictive games that you could smash your keyboard to.” Liam, 27, another former Neopets obsessive, agrees: “Some of us aren’t intense gamers and miss the ease and simplicity of something like Neopets. You don’t always need exceptional graphics and proper gaming setups to enjoy something. Neopets gave you that dopamine hit and escapism.”

Logging onto the freshly launched Neopets today – with my new pet blue Blumaroo in tow – the site appears largely unchanged since its heyday. There are much fewer games than before – the original site had hundreds, this one currently only has 14 – but the graphics remain the same, and you can shop, sell and browse virtual items just as before. 

For a moment, I feel an old, familiar rush: maybe I should start stocking up on “Kau Kau farm milk” and “Tangy Tyrannian Cheese and Crackers” and get to work, like, right now? But then, just as quickly as the rush appeared it wanes again, and I’m already bored. Neopets came at a time in which there were only a handful of things to do online – MSN, Habbo Hotel, MySpace. Our attention spans were longer, more forgiving perhaps. Now it barely takes five minutes and I’m out. I’ve got real money to earn. Still, it was fun while it lasted. Long live Neopets.

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