clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

For more than two decades, Neopets has been teaching us how to care for virtual pets — and each other

The early social network featured cute animals, games, forums, and even a stock market. It helped bring a whole generation Very Online.

A group of four Neopets and a baby petpet. Neopets

It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, kids and teens became 100 percent plugged in — fully online, all the time. But 1999 would be a decent guess, and November 1999 an especially good one, as it marked the launch of Neopets: a kid-friendly social network that combined virtual pets with discussion forums, games, and even a stock market. Neopets ultimately evolved into something magical, and an inextricable part of many a millennial’s formative years.

Created by a 20-something British couple, Neopets was based on a simple concept: Users owned up to four of the eponymous pets, which were slightly tweaked versions of animals both real and mythical, like puppies, penguins, and dragons. The whole point was to care for the pets, feeding and playing with them on a regular basis. (If you think they sound kind of like Tamagotchi, you’re not wrong; more on that in a second.) Neopets could even have their own pets to take care of, which was pretty meta. They were called Petpets.

There was a financial component too, thought it didn’t involve any real-world currency. Instead, pet owners could play several different games (from a version of solitaire to a version of Whack-a-Mole) and buy, trade, or sell various in-game items to collect “Neopoints.” Raking in the Neopoints dough was as important as keeping your Neopets fed — because you could use the points to buy them fancy outfits, toys, and food, and then you could brag to all of your friends about how rich you were on your public profile page.

Virtual pets were not unheard of in the 1990s. Tamagotchi had become ubiquitous after they launched in 1996 — for a while, the small, egg-shaped toys with a virtual pet on a screen were seemingly in every elementary schooler’s backpack. But the little Tamagotchi characters couldn’t do very much. They whined to be fed, ate, pooped, slept, then whined to be fed again. And on the Tamagotchi’s extremely small screen, the little monster characters looked like nothing more than pixelated blobs on a gray background.

Neopets, by contrast, were colorful, distinguishable from each other, and undeniably cute. Just the fact that anyone could own four Neopets at once put one over on Tamagotchi, which locked owners into a single creature that could die at any moment. Plus, Tamagotchi was an individual pursuit, while Neopets were inherently social. If you and a friend each had a Tamagotchi, your pets couldn’t hang out or play together. Neopets had the infinite space of the internet at its disposal.

Indeed, living online gave Neopets the latitude to be much more than just a pet playground. In some ways, the website was a productive way for kids to spend time that went beyond learning how to care for fake animals. The profile pages where users could show off their family of pets were fully customizable through basic HTML and CSS, a veritable first lesson in coding. And Neopets presented a unique take on the real-world stock market, called the NEODAQ, to teach kids some wayward economics by inviting them to invest in fake Neopian companies.

A custom profile page in Neopets.
Neopets users — Neopians, we were called — spent hours creating custom profile pages.

And crucially, Neopets was a place to make online friends, pets aside. Forums provided a moderated space to hang out and share jokes, give or receive advice, or talk about favorite TV shows (though there weren’t really any memes yet; this was 1999). For many users, Neopets became less about the pets, and more about the shared community that they were building together — such was the power of the forums.

Chatrooms became a big deal online in the ’90s, but they were rarely appropriate for young people. Parents understandably expressed concerns about their kids talking with strangers late into the night. Neopets scratched an itch as a candy-coated safeguard for this new online frontier, to give many kids their first real taste of the rare beauty that is making conversation over an internet connection, without the social pressures (or geographical limitations) of being face to face.

Twenty years later, Neopets is remembered fondly as an influential moment for many of us in the Very Online Generation. It’s also still operational — but hasn’t been updated much over the last decade-plus, and its user base has dwindled; a visit to the homepage reveals a messy jumble of banner ads and archaic web design. There’s something comfortable about returning to this relic of a website, however, that instantly dredges up those long-gone memories of a simpler internet.

To honor the milestone 20th anniversary of Neopets, I (Allegra Frank, associate culture editor) asked two of my Vox colleagues and fellow Neopets fans — podcast producer Byrd Pinkerton and associate identities editor Karen Turner — to join me in reminiscing about what made Neopets so important to us when we were young and just discovering the internet.

“Neopets helped me cope with social anxiety”

I’ve always had a mighty case of social anxiety. It’s manageable now, thanks to a cocktail of medications and therapy and understanding that’s come with adulthood. But as a kid, I was wracked with nerves in anticipation of nearly every social function.

My coping mechanism was to find common interests between me and the people who scared me, and then lean into those. The tactic still works well for me today. But it first worked really, really well for me in third grade, when I was introduced to Neopets. Its popularity and accessibility were both much broader than my other favorite thing — Nintendo — because all you needed to play Neopets was a computer and an internet connection. In 2002, most people I knew had those.

Turns out, most people I knew also had Neopets. I found this out from a friend in my class, who was one of my rocks; she was a clever and likable person, much cooler and more outgoing than me, with my averted gaze and velcro sneakers. She casually mentioned it to me in our classroom one day, and immediately a group of other kids who I rarely could summon the effort to talk to flocked over.

Meerca Chase artwork from the Neopets social network.
Let’s be honest: I was on Neopets for fun games like Meerca Chase.

My friend gave out her username. “We can be friends,” she said to the group. “I have this Neopet, and this one, and this paintbrush,” and so on. And other kids started to trade their usernames back, and brag about their own item collections, and compare which species of pets they had, and which games they liked to play on the website.

And how badly I wanted that! To just share a username and become friends with my classmates, in such a low-effort way that only really involved looking at each other’s cute animal pictures. When I went home that night, I was fully convinced I needed a Neopets account.

Once I joined, I quickly found something bigger than an antidote for my debilitating fear of socializing: an entire world on the internet that felt more expansive than any I’d ever seen before. At 8 years old, I’d stumbled upon a land of endless opportunity: a collection of those one-note puzzle and racing games people loved playing illicitly on school computers; fun mysteries to unravel through message boards that were full of middle schoolers whose posts I read in awe. (A middle schooler was practically an adult to me.)

Neopets was a perfect time suck for someone already inclined to love looking at cute animals, reading, and playing games. I learned all of the Neopets’ names, and read as much as I could about the rare items, and how many Neopoints I’d have to earn to buy any of them. I made my friends get in on it, too — an earnest plea to ensure that they would still have this, my new favorite thing, in common with me. Those commonalities were my lifeline. It felt amazing to have found such a satisfying new one.

I did become more friendly with some of my classmates through our mutual Neopets love. But more importantly, Neopets strengthened the friendships I already had. Online, we could have a cohort of cute animals our parents would never let us have in real life. We could keep talking through the Neopets forums, a novelty that was much more glamorous (and more difficult for our parents to spy on or interrupt) than emails or phone calls. I got them hooked on the game Meerca Chase.

Neopets took over my life throughout elementary school, the same way it did with my classmates. I didn’t have much in common with many of them. But being able to share Neopets jokes or tips made third grade a whole lot easier — and a lot more fun after school too. —Allegra Frank

“I got so involved in the NEODAQ stock market that I abandoned my poor Neopets”

Neopets dominated my after-school life for about a year in junior high. But what started as an innocent exercise in caring for virtual alien pets and messaging internet friends eventually turned into the all-encompassing, bloodthirsty pursuit to acquire as much wealth as possible. It all went downhill for me once I got involved in the Neopets stock market.

The Neopets economy seems simple at first. You earn Neopoints by playing games, and then use points to buy rare food, toys, grooming, and other fun stuff like outfits or other ways to personalize your pets. But the system ballooned out in surprisingly complex ways. You could trade Neopoints for items, sell your own stuff for a profit in your shop, and put bids on items sold by other Neopets players. But all of that was small potatoes compared to the Neopian stock market: NEODAQ.

I had hit a point where mining points by playing Neopets’ games like Ice Cream Machine or Meerca Chase wasn’t yielding enough. I wanted to save up to buy rare items to resell in my own personal shop, or get special “morphing potion” items that would enable me to acquire limited edition Neopets. NEODAQ was widely considered the best way to rack up Neopoints, so I decided to get involved.

A screenshot of the NEODAQ page on Neopets.
The NEODAQ stock market landing page.

I started out buying modest shares of stocks where I thought the company had a cute name. But over time, I grew greedier. In the morning, I’d log on to my family’s desktop computer and check for bargain stocks, buying up the maximum number of shares, 1,000, in various companies.

When I’d come back from school, I’d check on previous stock holdings, seeing which ones had risen to my selling point value, at which point I’d start unloading a third or half of the shares and hold on to the remaining ones to see if they’d rise more. I’d spend an hour or so reading stock trends on the forums, seeing which companies had good track records. Over time, my portfolio grew and I was making enough from my stock sales to fund my daily investments. I was Neopian rich.

The more points I gained, the more I wanted. Even after I made a killing on some stock I’d hoarded that inflated to a very high value, any sense of accomplishment I felt was so fleeting it would immediately be overtaken by the need for even more Neopoints. It wasn’t about saving up for morphing potions or even about having fun. All I wanted was more.

Eventually the high I once got from accumulating wealth faded and it started to feel stale. My poor Neopets — sick, utterly neglected, and starving, as I had completely stopped feeding them — mattered so little to me that even they couldn’t keep me on the platform. It wasn’t even about chatting with my Neopian guild friends on the forums. I had won NEODAQ, but for what? The experience left me empty.

I eventually logged off for good and never returned to my trading days. But it was a good lesson in the ephemeral high of accumulating wealth — at least in the virtual world. And it’s a good thing I left when I did. A few years later, there was a Neopian economic crash due to inflation, and the heads that “rolled” were the richest Neopets players who were forced to give away billions of Neopoints. Good thing I wasn’t around for that. —Karen Turner

“Neopets offered me a comforting source of human connection at a time when I really needed it”

My friends and I were on a road trip. I posted a picture and geotagged Chicago.

“Hey,” I said a few minutes later, “this woman I met on Neopets years ago just messaged me. She lives in Chicago, I guess? She wants to know if I want to meet up.”

There was a short silence in the car.

“She is probably not a serial killer,” I added.

I first started playing Neopets when my grandmother was sick. My parents flew to visit her, while I stayed with a friend, who introduced me to the game. It was a nice distraction.

I played it all through middle school, swapping digital points for items with my friends at recess, but we all lost interest around the time that most teenagers lose interest in overly cute digital cartoon worlds.

Then, after high school, I took a gap year. I was living and working abroad, and I was lonely. My friends had stopped responding to my emails — or at least, stopped responding quickly. I was having trouble making new friends. So I decided to venture back to a place where I knew I could socialize. I logged back into Neopets, opened up the forums, and found a group of people to talk to.

The Neopets forum landing page.
The Neopets forums contain multiple different sub-forums devoted to all sorts of topics.

A group of maybe 15 of us created a message board that we kept coming back to each day. When it hit the maximum number of posts, we’d create a new one. It was my favorite place to go when I needed to tell in-jokes, or share dumb pictures I made in PhotoShop, or tell someone about something amazing I’d seen that day. It was almost like a proto-group text, with inside jokes and secrets flowing freely.

I kept coming back to it daily for several months … until, eventually, I found an offline way to fill the social void. I didn’t need the forums anymore. I added a few members of the group on Facebook, but didn’t stay in touch. I stopped logging onto Neopets.

Until this woman reached out. Her message brought memories of that harder time in my life flooding back. Even though I was among friends, I felt something pulling me toward this woman, something that encouraged me to connect.

I did end up meeting up with her on that trip through Chicago. She was not a serial killer. She was a grocery store employee, a few years older than me. We walked through an empty sports field one night and talked. About her struggle to have kids. About my fear of graduating and entering the real world.

I eventually graduated from college, and learned that adult life isn’t as scary as I thought it would be. She eventually had three kids. They are, if Instagram is to be believed, extremely adorable.

But it was nice, in that time of transition, to feel like Neopets was there for me, yet again. Even if I didn’t need to log back on. —Byrd Pinkerton