The virtual reality game Neopets, which boomed in the 2000s, has seen a resurgence. Danielle Kurtzleben explores why some users returned and why others never left.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Pets, pirates, fairies and a magic money tree. These are the kinds of things that populate the virtual magical world of Neopets.
KURTZLEBEN: It’s a website where users create and care for their own digital pets, take them on adventures, and engage on message boards with other users. Seems familiar? Well, in the early 2000s it was hugely popular. And, apparently, it is experiencing a resurgence during the pandemic. A story in the New York Times about the longevity of the website caught our attention. And we reached out to some users to ask them what held them back or brought them back after so long.
ALEX PISCATELLI: I ended up with literally all the time in the world because I couldn’t go out with friends. I could not do anything. And so I decided to go to Neopets.
KURTZLEBEN: This is Alex Piscatelli (ph), who played Neopets in primary school. She is now 25 years old and lives in Boston. When the pandemic began, she was put on leave from work. So like she said she had a lot of time to kill and she was also struggling with a lot more anxiety.
Piscatelli: If I felt like I was having a panic attack or started to feel really anxious, I would kind of open my computer, go online and have Neopets there for me. And I knew it would be a heartwarming thing that could kind of calm me down.
KURTZLEBEN: Alex says other forms of social media can be heavy. It’s easy to feel judged on Instagram or feel pressured to put on a character. But on Neopets, there is no pressure to be anything other than who you are.
PISCATELLI: The internet feels like such a place where you can kind of get lost in negativity. But Neopets is a bit the opposite for me.
KURTZLEBEN: Dana Hill (ph) is a Seattle artist and unlike Alex never took a break from Neopets. She’s been a regular since she was 17 and is now in her 30s.
DANA HILL: For me, Neopets is kind of a creative outlet.
KURTZLEBEN: She says the site gave her a chance to develop and sharpen her artistic skills, in part by making the animals themselves.
HILL: They’re on two feet. They are wearing clothes. They’ve got, you know, flat, almost human faces with a little short muzzle.
KURTZLEBEN: Dana thinks a lot of the appeal of the site is the sense of nostalgia and security people get from it. It is a haven from real world stressors.
HILL: I think Neopets as a whole is just a place where people can go, where things will always be familiar, and the world will always kind of be the same vibe it’s always been. And nostalgia is a pretty powerful thing.
KURTZLEBEN: She says it’s nice to see more people coming back to the site over the past few years.
HILL: People would show up and I would see usernames that I haven’t seen in, you know, a decade or more. And they’d be like, hey. I just recovered my account and I’m back. What’s up?
KURTZLEBEN: Neopets says the number of daily users jumped by around 30% at the start of the pandemic and has declined since, but remains around 5-10% higher than before the pandemic. Alex is one of those people who stays. She has a new job and no longer works every day. But when she’s having trouble, she goes online.
PISCATELLI: Sometimes I really want it when things were simpler, when I was younger, when I didn’t have to worry so much about everyday life. When I’m on Neopets, I’m just me. And I’m just playing this game that I love.
KURTZLEBEN: It was Dana Hill and Alex Piscatelli.
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