When Allison Kennedy visited her Neopets in May after a four-year hiatus, they were crying. Big blue tears of hunger and sadness ran down their cheeks. Feeling terrible that she had neglected them, Kennedy sprung into action.
She selected a piece of “Thornberry Jelly” from her inventory, chose the “feed” option from a drop-down menu and clicked the giant yellow “submit” button, repeating this process several times until a dialogue box on Neopets.com confirmed that her virtual pets were “satiated.” With her pets happy again, Kennedy, who goes by the username “iplatypus,” realized just how comforting it was to see their smiling cartoon faces on the browser-based game she’d been visiting since 2003. “It felt like coming home,” Kennedy, a 29-year-old web developer from Arizona, wrote over Neomail, the website’s internal email system.
Kennedy isn’t the only millennial who logged back into Neopets during the pandemic. Many former users returned to their dormant accounts in the last year or so, driven by boredom, nostalgia or a desire for escape — the site’s team reports a 30 to 40 percent spike in usership in the months following March 2020. For the uninitiated, Neopets is like Animal Crossing meets Pokémon meets early Myspace: The platform allows users to explore a charming, click-based universe and rear magical pets while building their own webpages and socializing on glittery chat boards.
When Neopets was first introduced in 1999, it was an instant success among children browsing the internet for the first time, boasting 25 million users by its peak in the mid-2000s. Neopets rivaled other digital pet fads like Tamagotchi and was cross-promoted with small pet-like toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals, but over the years, it struggled to adapt to new technologies and attract younger generations of players, and, as a result, the website slowly stagnated.
According to the Neopets website, these three pet types represent the most common species on the platform. Users can own up to six pets per account and in total, there are over 50 distinct species.
No. 1 SHOYRU 17,609,589 created
The Shoyru is a dragon-like Neopet introduced to the website in 2000. According to Neopet lore, despite lacking the ability to breathe fire, Shoyru have fiery tempers — and they’re particularly loyal to their owners.
No. 2 KACHEEK 17,383,869 created
Among the original Neopet species, the Kacheek is described by the platform as being one of the smallest pets, with an average height of 31 centimeters (about 12 inches). They tend to live in tall grass and are known for their shyness.
No. 3 KOUGRA 15,572,754 created
The Kougra is a playful tiger-like Neopet, introduced to the game in 2000 with the introduction of “Mystery Island,” a new Neopian land with a tropical island theme. While their appearance suggests otherwise, Kougras are said to mostly eat fruit.
All numbers as of Nov. 2, 2021.
While pandemic returnees discovered this digital world is like a living time capsule, a steady corps of committed users have been dutifully caring for this cyber village. These players, the majority of whom are women, according to Neopets, got their first tastes of coding, web design and animation on the site. And as much of the website is breaking down after the recent discontinuation of Adobe Flash — critical software for the platform — these longstanding users are now taking its future into their own hands.
“My pets, oh dear, my pets, I really love them even if they’re just little drawings on a screen,” said Adriana Freitez, a player in her 20s who has had her tiger-like pet Kougra for nearly 14 years now. Represented by a cute and customizable illustration, each Neopet belongs to one of many imaginary species and possesses its own unique name and character traits; by collecting Neopoints (the site’s virtual currency), users can buy clothing, food, toys and other items for their cyber companions. Together, they inhabit a vast digital world known as Neopia: It includes games and guilds, elaborate quests and a battle dome, hotels and a hospital, a hidden island and a fully functioning stock market.
For Hannah Allwood, 23, who works the night shift at a veterinary hospital’s emergency room in Seattle, it’s the feeling of “nurturing rather than just self-achievement” that keeps her returning. Allwood has spent countless hours accumulating imaginary wealth and achieving missions that allow her to dress her pets in gothic accessories and paint them magical colors. She’s especially proud of having won a quest that let her give her catlike Aisha, named i_Ophelia_i, snot-colored skin. Allwood herself has tattooed arms and wears dark clothes. “My pets are expressions of myself,” she said.
Because the platform was originally intended for children, its current user base — made up mostly of 20- to 40-year-olds — is not allowed to share identifiable information, like real names or external social media handles, and certain topics are banned in its chat rooms, including politics and Covid-19. The anonymity of the site has also made it a haven for its queer usership. “Recently, the site feels like the one place on the internet that can be an escape,” said Liz Morris, 30, who lives in Texas with her wife and dog. Morris said that after players successfully pushed to allow discussions of L.G.B.T.Q. topics on the site last year (which were blocked by “child-friendly” keyword filters), people started coming out on the site when they hadn’t yet anywhere else in their lives. Neopets, she said, “gave them a safe space to voice who they really are for the first time.”
Morris has been maintaining and perfecting her oldest pet’s petpage (its individual “profile page,” which players can design with HTML and CSS) since she first created her account as an 11-year-old; her drawings of Moss_Covered_Ixi are presented on a background of forest tiles and low opacity boxes of orange text. Neopia is filled with similar sparkling, homespun web pages — the fruits of thousands of late nights spent learning how to code.
For many young players like Morris, Neopets was also their first introduction to Adobe Flash: Much of the site’s universe was originally built using the computer software, which was first released in the mid-1990s to support interactive games and videos. So when Adobe discontinued the antiquated software in January, Neopia experienced a new crisis. The site’s interactivity — especially its mini games and fashioning of pets — crucially relied on Flash. Clicking through Neopets’s pages this year, fans were quick to discover an illustration of a tombstone engraved with “Flash” in place of various web content.
In an attempt to address its broken pages, the small Neopets team at JumpStart Games, which acquired the platform from Viacom in 2014, introduced a redesign this year — the first since 2007. Now, instead of a cacophony of glitchy banner ads and naïvely drawn maps à la Microsoft Paint, the website’s pages are sleek and uncluttered, more akin to a contemporary iPad app than the early web. “While we want to modernize the site and bring people back, we also definitely want to keep our current users in mind with every decision we make,” said Neopets’ brand manager, Stephanie Lord, known to players as Scrappy.
Nevertheless, the redesign has been deeply unsettling for longstanding fans. Neopets “hadn’t changed at all since I was a kid and that was comforting in the big scary world,” one player wrote on the Neoboards when the new layout debuted; in the weeks that followed, the site’s chat rooms bubbled with sad blue emoticons and whispers of a “mass exodus.”
“We have just had to take changing the layout into our own hands,” wrote Steph Skrot, 24, over Neomail, sharing a link to a user’s repurposed petpage that features covert instructions for browser add-ons that alter the look of the site.
Skrot, an animator living in Pennsylvania, uses a script that adds an extra navigation bar to the platform and another to make the Neoboards more readable. “They’re coded by other players who were also frustrated with the new layout,” she explains. There’s one script that displays the now-defunct maps and another that removed the Adobe Flash tombstone when it appeared on a pet’s individual stat page, replacing it with a colorful portrait of the happy Neopet (the Neopets team has since fixed this specific issue, and now non-Flash-based pet portraits have reappeared).
Tristan Brown, 25, from Aiken, S.C., has created a script that changes some pages back to their former design; he feels “very strongly about the preservation of media,” he said, and cites Neopets’s HTML tutorials as his own introduction to coding. Players are unsure if running these scripts puts them at risk of having their accounts blocked; for now, they hope to go undetected by the Neopets team. Many also turned to using browsers that can still run Flash, like Waterfox, to dress up their companions, while still others maintain out-of-date computers to continue interacting with their pets as they once did.
“If I’m going to play the game, I need to play it in a fun way,” said Julie Bonk, 29, from St Louis, Mo., who also employs user-designed scripts. Bonk runs a YouTube channel about virtual pet gaming called Pet Simmer Julie and has been creating videos about Neopets since 2006.
When asked if Neopets is dying, Bonk is unfazed. “Even if you kill Neopets original, I don’t think the intellectual property is going anywhere,” she said. “People are way too bonded to it.”
Fan sites like Neopets Classic, a re-creation of the platform as it existed in the early 2000s, and Dress to Impress, which lets people accessorize their pets, maintain the life, love and lore of Neopia in new digital forms. On the podcast Neostalgia, Caroline Bartlett, 29, and Hannah Scott-Persson, 28, dissect their favorite childhood pastime. The loss of Flash has been “devastating,” Bartlett said, but she still logs onto the website every day. “It’s rare to have something on the internet last so long as a lot of our online lives are so ephemeral,” she added, while noting that being on Neopets reminds her of a “very happy time” when she “didn’t have a lot of responsibilities.”
The podcasters still have hope. “People have always left,” Scott-Persson said. “The death of Flash may be the site’s biggest challenge yet, but it’s always been the passion of the players that keeps it going.” For Bartlett, “I know my pets are just 1s and 0s on a computer screen, but I could never abandon them.”