Ever since we’ve been young and could move a mouse and cursor around, my generation has been indoctrinated to be extremely cautious of generally suspicious activity we encounter on the internet. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that that “activity” isn’t just any activity, but the interactivity one might have with someone online, hence, we were warned against the socializing aspects of the internet before social media and social networking sites were a commonplace idea. The idea of “making friends” through my computer was both seen as preposterous and dangerous.
So when I read Denise Carter’s article “Living in Virtual Communities: An ethnography of human relationships in cyberspace” and her study of this world called Cybercity, my mind immediate went back to my Neopet days. I probably started Neopets later than some, but the height of my activity lasted from about 5th to 7th grade.
^Does this look familiar to anyone? This area of Neopia used to look a little different, but the entire site began moving to flash graphics instead of html as they ushered in the new millennium back in 2000.
The way Neopia fosters an idea of “everyday life” for children can be seen by the way this location, which is one of many “worlds” in Neopia, tries to incorporate features of everyday life into their playing experience. When users make an account, they need to make a Neopet and can choose from a wide variety of species in one of four basic colors that can eventually be upgraded if you can afford to buy paintbrushes and potions. I think the nature of even owning a pet correlates to some kind of luxury in real life — a household being unable to afford a pet for their child, no matter how much they beg, is a valid and legitimate reason. But the concept of having a “pet,” complete with its own name, and navigating through Neopia is interesting because while they essentially act as your avatar and give you a medium with which to do anything in this world, the pet’s identity isn’t user’s and that detachment from the avatar is something I’d like to study more if I could.
In this world, you can own up to 4 pets who need to be fed, groomed, and played with on a daily basis. You have the option of taking them to the “Neolodge” if you want them to be pampered so you can increase their happiness while you’re offline for long periods of time. The currency of this place is run on Neopoints, which can be earned by playing games and stored in a bank account where you’re allowed to redeem an extremely generous interest. So in this sense, Neopia does help provide one with “a means of escaping those limitations that gender, age, and other cultural roles impose” IN ADDITION TO fostering a sense of friendship. In my experience, as a child playing Neopets, I really felt like I was able to pick up an idea of “growing up” while I was in my young age.
Additionally, the notions of friendships being built in the world of Neopets is a little different from how most cyberworlds run. There’s no platform where you get to navigate your avatar around with other users, but you can join guilds, message boards, and multiple clubs, as well as establish your allegiance to offline friends via the credentials and pizzazz you put on your profile. Friendmaking isn’t one of the objectives of Neopets, which makes sense considering how there are very young children who might not know how to interact with others in a discretionary way. However, through certain activities, such as buying items from other users’ stores, auctioning, one-upping another user on leaderboards for game high-scores, or even joining multiplayer-game events help one realize that the messaging system on Neopets isn’t a completely useless feature after all!
I played a lot of Neopets when I was younger and the enjoyment intensified when I became friends with people who also happened to play Neopets in their free time as well. If I wanted to conduct a more thorough examination of friendships formed through richer media, I’d probably look at something like Maplestory, but after seeing how it became an addiction to many of my friends, I swore to never make an account. However, I probably have to owe more to this game than I thought for the ways in which I find myself opening to people I blog with on Tumblr and how that skill has carried over into my real-life personality. It’s my understanding that while I have the ability to protect myself by not sharing, I can still protect myself even after I share something and learn how to react to that: I think that’s something a computer-less generation might not be so able to do.
The kind of people I found on Neopets were people my age, but I was also keenly aware of people much younger than me (who have stores and profiles that were HTML lacking) and adults who have no shame to admit that they play a few runs of Meerca Chase while they’re at work or if they have nothing better to do as a stayhome parent. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many “voluntary, informal, and personal” means with which to learn more about their activity because of Neopet’s lack of interactivity, but it’s interesting to see who happens to congregate here.