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You Don’t Have to Stay Six Feet Apart in Neopia

Quarantined and looking for entertainment, one writer returns to the Neopets account she created 20 years ago

Neopets/Ringer illustration

The sports and pop culture calendars have paused. The safest thing that you can do right now is stay inside. And millions of people are looking for creative ways to pass the time. The Ringer is here to help. We’re running a series called the Social Distancing Diaries, with our staff’s ideas for finding comfort, joy, community, or distraction while doing their part to flatten the curve. In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what we’re passionate about and want others to discover—from bidets to buried treasure and everything in between.

My oldest Neopet is 19 years, three months, and 10 days old. His name is Devine_Devil_666, because that is how I thought “divine” was spelled at the time and because I was going through a phase where I thought the devil, as a concept, was extremely funny. His hunger level is “dying,” as it has been for the vast majority of those 19 years, three months, and 10 days. He has never died.

I joined Neopets on July 25, 2000, three days before my 11th birthday. My profile, written in the style of something to be taped across a closed bedroom door, reads: “This account is only here to help my brother DinoBo92. I don’t have any NP or any items. DONT BUG ME!!!!!!” My interests: Cinema, Fashion and Clothing, Health and Beauty. Had Lip Smackers or AJ from the Backstreet Boys been options, I surely would have chosen those, too.

You, too, may have played Neopets. If you did, you in all likelihood are well-adjusted enough that your account went the way of DinoBo92’s, long since purged due to lack of activity. As you are perhaps beginning to suspect, my account has not been inactive.

In my meager defense—it mostly has. For much of the nearly two decades since I joined Neopets, I have logged in just frequently enough, using the fake birthday I registered with to get by the site’s 12-and-older policy, to avoid deletion. When I logged in late last month, though, it had been a few years since my last visit—long enough that I forgot my password and had to appeal to the Neopets support team to get back in. Suddenly, like most of the rest of the world, I had a lot of time to kill at home. Why not, I thought, give Neopets a whirl?

Neopets, perhaps not coincidentally, launched in 1999, around the height of the Pokémon craze. The concept is basically the same: adopt a pet from one of the vaguely animal-resembling species and go wander the digital world together. There is not, per se, a point to all of this. You can train and battle your Neopets, or you can not; you can build and decorate a house, or you can not; you can hunt for rare items, or you can not. You can feed your pet or, yes, you can not, and they will carry on either way, albeit with a cartoon frown.

But I have not been doing very well lately with indeterminate goals, and so I make a decision. In Neopia, I have a goal, and it is this: I am going to get fucking rich.

Contrary to what I had written on my profile so long ago, I did, in fact, have NP. NP—neopoints—are the game’s currency, and, as it turns out, I had slowly worked my way into neomillions. My account at the National Neopian Bank shows a balance of a little north of 2 million. In the real world, I might be reading headlines about layoffs and furloughs and the dawn of a crippling recession. But in Neopia, I can throw caution to the wind. I begin by adopting a new pet—a friend, I tell myself, for poor Devine. I pick a cat-ish species called “Aisha,” name him Madison Bumgarner (gone, but not forgotten), and we set off.

To go on Neopets in 2020 is to encounter a 20-year-old time capsule. It’s not merely that my account, pets, and misspellings are still intact—it’s that the whole of has somehow managed to carry on virtually unchanged for all these years. The Games Room—always my favorite part of the Neoexperience—is the same collection of creaky Flash games that it was before. There’s an early-internet inconvenience to much of the site, things that require a dozen clicks through complicated menus that should need only a single tap. Just as was the case when my friend Caitlin and I would madly refresh her family’s computer during sleepovers, valuable treasures appear in shops at regular intervals—requiring, all these years later, that same mad refreshing, and delivering that same whoosh of glee when I beat my unseen fellow customers to a Bottled Earth Faerie. In my shop—Neopia is nothing if not a highly capitalist society—a message appears: “Please clear your Sales History regularly to save space on the Neopets servers! :)”

In that shop, I discover that my goal is perhaps not a new one: Visitors—I guess there are visitors?—are greeted with a message I wrote who-knows-when that instructs them, “Buy stuff so I can be rich.” (Fair enough, past Claire, though maybe learning Mandarin or Python would have been a better use of your time.) The Neopian world is a pastiche of fanciful kingdoms—an island of pirates, a cloud of fairies (er, Faeries), a pseudo-Atlantis I vaguely remember once having strong feelings about—where you can buy and sell items, many of which can be found simply by wandering around. I sell everything I get my hands on, even, horrifyingly, a “Pack of Snot-Flavoured Gum” (the site’s spelling has a decidedly British bent). One page insists that Neopian inflation is currently at 2.31 percent. I can’t decide which is weirder: to pretend that inflation exists in an aging children’s game, or for inflation to actually exist. (Is there a Neopian finance minister?) Neopoint by neopoint, my total climbs.

I take Madison to see my single proudest Neoachievement: a secret lab that I paid a vast sum to gain access to years ago, wherein a mad scientist will randomize a characteristic of your Neopet once a day to varied and oft unfortunate effect. Madison looks at me and tearfully asks “What if I turn into a frog?” and in return I zap him, day after day. He changes color, at one point settling into a leather-and-mesh getup that looks worryingly fetishistic, and which I learn would have cost millions of neopoints to procure intentionally. He changes gender five times (fortunately Madison is a versatile name, with at least one IRL female Madison Bumgarner on the loose). He—now she—gets faster, then slower, then turns into a different species entirely—a vaguely giraffe-looking thing that comes, fortunately, sans leather. The mad scientist cackles. I take Madison to a giant omelette, which exists, and feed her. She is, Neopets informs me, terrifically bloated.

As in the real world, I have the distinct feeling that I should probably get involved in the stock market. But in Neopia, as in the real world, I have absolutely no idea how to do this effectively. I spend a week maxing out my investments, mostly at random. The most expensive stock belongs to a company called Virtupets, whose official market description is, “This evil company is a front for Sloth and his nefarious schemes. Do not invest, we repeat do NOT invest!” I buy three shares.

The most reliable way to make money on Neopets is also the most fun: through winning the creaky Flash games. There are versions of Tetris and Snake and Pac-Man that feature colorful fruit and shockingly loud sound effects, which I manage to mute only after my fiancé in the next room has heard cheerful polka music or a childlike voice cheering, “Woohoo!” There are games with ice cream and bank robbers and a particularly disturbing one in which a pack of enraged, deformed townsfolk chase a wolf creature—me—who they believe is responsible for their lot in life. My favorite involves a seesaw, from which you leap to catch donuts of different colors and values and try to avoid flying clods of poop. It is, yes, stultifying stuff.

My fiancé is not always in the next room. Most afternoons, I shrink my game down to half my screen, and in the other pull up the president’s daily press briefing. My fiancé is a reporter, too. He covers the White House, and so a couple times a week, there he is in the briefing room or the Rose Garden, where medical staff will already have taken his temperature a couple times that day and, I surmise each time, been satisfied with the results. I take screenshots when he appears, the president cocking his head at him on the right side of my screen while I match piles of rainbow jelly dice on the left. Most Neopets games don’t have pause functions, you see. I have hundreds of these screenshots, kept for I don’t know what future occasion.

In Neopia, my plan progresses. I accrue thousands, then tens of thousands, of neopoints. I solve a puzzle and get something called an Ultimate Icy Negg in return, which I am informed in a pop-up is very precious and immediately sell. I find a carnival game called the Wheel of Extravagance, which I spin for 100,000 NP, only to win back half of it, which I suppose could have been worse. Every night, I deposit my winnings in the bank; every morning, I collect interest. I consult my stock portfolio. I understand nothing. I buy more.

But while Neopets has somehow endured for all these years, remaining perhaps the lone intact artifact of my first years online—when I first booted it up, it was via AOL on a second-generation iMac, the first computer and email account and, well, online anything of my now very-online life—its fate might, at long last, be imperiled. This time, I accessed the arcade only after manually instructing my browser to load Flash, at which point I was given a dire warning that Flash support will cease entirely at the end of the year. The staff at Neopets, where not just the games but the maps and much of the site’s backbone depend on the declining plugin, are reportedly working on migrating the site into the present before the cutoff, but it’s hard to imagine the whole, vast, weird world of Neopia making the jump. And if the version that emerges is something slicker, is it really still the same site?

Neopets, after all, is no place for the modern internet. I find some corners of Neopia where players can communicate with one another—a notice board with, among other things, stock tips (“Try and diversify your portfolio as much as possible and buy the maximum everyday if you’re able to”), and “guilds” devoted to activities like organizing battles or, as best as I can tell, stamp collection. As with every other place online where people can talk, there are heated conversations about civility. I close out those tabs and go back to poop-dodging, glancing at a notification that says that today’s briefing has been delayed.

There’s not much of a record of my early years in Neopia, but my profile shows the dates involved. It was the summer break between the fifth and the sixth grade when I first joined, and it was six months later—the tail end of winter break—when I created Devine. I was, like so many suburban kids before and after me, stuck at home, entirely at the mercy of my parents giving me a ride to do anything at all. I was, in short, bored. It is a familiar feeling these days.

On a Saturday, my fiancé wandered into the living room, where I sat sprawled on the couch, eyes itchy and laptop warm in my lap. “What do you want to do today?” has become my favorite social distancing non-joke; to this, with the room listing slightly rightward as I looked momentarily away from the wizard I’d been casting animated spells for, I added, “Maybe I shouldn’t play Neopets puzzles all day.”

“Yes,” my fiancé replied.

As it happens, my fiancé was meant to be my ex-fiancé at this point. Our wedding was scheduled for March 28 in New Orleans, a city we both love, where my uncle Dan would play honorary bagpipes and a 10-piece soul band would serenade us with Otis Redding after we made things official. We would go to Arizona for a few days afterward—something quick, simple, warm, before something grander, perhaps European, the following year. We would celebrate with a Diamondbacks game, maybe even see the real Madison Burmgarner on his new team. An omakase reservation; a lot of sunshine; rings; champagne.

But then, well, you know. “I am so truly sorry,” our florist wrote, “this is such a crazy time!” She gave us back half our deposit. We opened the glass box we’d purchased for cards and arranged the little wooden blocks we’d ordered to hold table numbers inside in a lumpy pyramid. Things could be worse, we tell people, a lot worse, and may yet be—who knows? On what would have been our wedding day, my uncle Dan took a picture of himself with my aunt and cousins, dressed up as they would have in New Orleans; a friend texted us from outside our building, where she stood holding a sign: “HAPPY WEDDING! (close enough)” So the rings have stayed in the pile of wedding supplies by the side of our bed, and as my fiancé, my once and future future husband, sat down next to me on the couch, I clicked out of the puzzle and went to collect my daily interest at the National Neopian Bank.