Lindsey DeSilvio was 11 years old when she realized that the stock market might be rigged.
No, not that one. The one on the website Neopets, where in the heady days of 2000 trouble had broken out on the Neodaq stock exchange.
Neopets, the then-fledgling digital pet website, had rapidly become a hit following its 1999 launch: Just two years later, the site was celebrating 14 million accounts; by 2005, that number had climbed to 92 million. In the site’s early years, The Guardian dubbed it “an online hybrid of Pokémon and Tamagotchi,” which made sense: Like its fellow ’90s sensations with similarly youthful fan bases, its central conceit was that a player would adopt and care for digital pets. But with its emphasis on forums, direct messages, and friend lists, Neopets was an inherently chatty, communal place—in other words, a social network, and a massive one at that.
By 2000, Neopets was dotted with guilds—small, private groups that users could join to chat about shared interests. With 40 percent of users under the age of 13 and another 40 percent between 13 and 18, many of those early-aughts passions were what you might expect: The Lord of the Rings and Britney Spears were common themes; one guild called “In the middle (school that is)!!!!!” described itself thusly, “Need a help line? One for homework, school, dating, sports, and other stuff as well (even parents)??? Well then, this is the guild for you!” Some players swapped tips about the site’s beloved Flash games and how to make personal pages colorful and expressive. And there was plenty of discussion about a most untweenly obsession: how to become a millionaire.
If you once considered yourself a Neopian, it’s likely the games that you remember best: the Snake-esque thrill of Meerca Chase, the falling cones of Ice Cream Machine, the conspicuously branded corporate partnerships like McDonald’s: Meal Hunt, which at the time raised eyebrows for the use of then-novel immersive advertising—a phrase that Neopets trademarked. But many of the games weren’t exactly games, at least not in the sense of being something that you might find pre-installed in a school computer lab. Alongside the match-three and pseudo-Tetris options, there were contests dependent on chance and built around gambling with the site’s in-game currency, neopoints. There were wheels you could pay to spin for the slim chance of winning a jackpot, plus slot machine and tombola giveaways. (Following parental outcry, the site “limited access to its roulette, blackjack, and slots to players 13 and over,” according to a 2005 story in Wired.)
If it was a really big payday you were after, there was no better place to turn than that ultimate adult playground: the stock market, where players could buy shares of companies like Balthazar’s Faerie Bottling Inc., Cybun Electromatics, and Unis Beauty Salon, whose value rose and fell over time.
“As a fifth-grader, I had set up extensive spreadsheets in Excel to track Neodaq stock market prices daily so that I could pick up on stock patterns, and buy low, sell high,” says Neelou Etesami, a 29-year-old former Neopets player who is now studying biomedical science at graduate school. “I ended up becoming a neomillionaire fairly quickly this way, and my friends saw me as some sort of neopoint baron.”
For some, merely becoming a neomillionaire wasn’t enough. Enter the guilds. Twenty years on, specifics are hard to come by, but everybody interviewed for this story agrees on this: The system Neopets used to determine the stock prices each day was initially tied to player activity in some way. According to Jellyneo, a Neopets fan site, the original market generated prices fairly linearly: “Years ago, the Stock Market was actually influenced by how well certain Neopian businesses did; for example, Hubert’s Hot Dogs stocks went up and down in value depending on how many items the shop of the same name sold.”
Somewhere along the way, an enterprising guild member figured out the system and began rallying fellow guild and message board members to join in on the quest. Stock prices soared. Timely investors got rich. The Hubert’s Hot Dogs of the world—not to mention Neopets administrators, Neopia’s stand-in Securities and Exchange Commission—were left scratching their heads. In other words: Two decades before Redditors waged war on Wall Street through the unlikely vessel of GameStop stock, the kids of Neopets happened upon a similar strategy.
In 2002, a player who went by webman88 wrote lovingly of the Wild West days that followed this Neodaq stock market discovery. “People would artificially inflate stocks as a guild making everyone millionaires, even some billionaires,” he wrote. “If you asked someone rich, they would probably buy you anything. Everyone was happy because Neopia was a better place back then. I would label this time period as the Prosperous Era.”
Plenty of players found themselves brushing up against the Neopets Gilded Age. While DeSilvio says she wasn’t involved in the market shenanigans herself—again, she was 11—she was aware of rumors that concerned Neopets staff members had begun to monitor some of the site’s trade message boards, where shadowy schemes had started to take off. In a bid to outsmart the monitors, ne’er-do-well Neopian traders began to migrate to less obvious places—like the roleplaying board where DeSilvio spent much of her time. “This was back in the day so typing st0cks or st**o**cks was enough to get past the screen,” DeSilvio says. “So I was a child trying to roleplay my Shoyru”—a baby dragon of sorts—“hanging out in a forest and British grown-ups would come on to scheme some insider trading.”
Neopets is now a punch line for adult millennials, many of whom got their online sea legs by dressing up their Aishas or hunting for bottled Faeries. Yet however unlikely it may have seemed at the time, Neopets predicted the financial saga that would dominate the news cycle two decades later. And the stock market wasn’t the only way in which Neopets offered a glimpse of the future.
A stock market might seem like an unusual feature for a game like Neopets, but it was always part of the plan. The site’s creators—the now-married British duo of Adam Powell and Donna Williams—designed Neopets as a self-contained world, dependent on exploration and, yes, commerce.
Central to the game is its economy. Users gradually accrue neopoints as they play: They win neopoints for getting high scores on games, stumble across treasure troves while traversing in-game lands like the Haunted Woods and the Lost Desert, and find items they can then sell for neopoints in their personal shops. Neopoints, in turn, can be exchanged for coveted items and features: special paint brushes that transform pets into unusual colors; larger, fancier “neohomes” for pets to live in; and rare collectibles like stamps and coins that completionist users spend exorbitant sums to acquire. (The Inverted Space Faerie Stamp, for example, currently goes for 15 million neopoints. This is a fortune likely years in the making—Neopia’s answer to a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog for the website’s elite to display in a place of honor.) The goal isn’t to get rich, per se, but nearly everything in Neopets connects to neopoints and the broader site economy.
Introducing a stock market, then, made sense. The market debuted in August 2000, less than a year after the site itself launched, with its very own Neodaq Index measuring aggregate performance.
“I think Adam and Donna in particular had a very natural tendency to do stuff they thought would be cool, without any kind of calculation as to whether players would like it,” says Matt Waggoner, who joined Neopets as a developer in 2000, by which point the company had grown to nearly 100 employees and moved from England to Glendale, California. “You always have to be careful in situations like that not to give too much weight to individual player feedback; players aren’t game developers.”
In those early days, Neopets leadership had a tendency to steer into whims—some driven by an outside world of which its youthful players had little understanding. Doug Dohring led the group that purchased the site in 2000, and later recalled intentionally messing with the game’s stock market. “Around the time of the Enron scandal, we bankrupted three of those companies just for the hell of it,” Dohring said in 2005, shortly after selling the company to Viacom for $160 million. “They were saying, ‘This is no fair!’ But, hey, stuff happens in the world.”
This ethos also made Neopets a world all its own. Users were encouraged to enter their pets in sitewide beauty and caption contests, submit articles to the ad hoc newspaper (The Neopian Times), and pitch ideas for new pet species. (A young Chrissy Teigen was among the contest winners.) Early games often featured animated popups of Neopets employees to offer bonuses, and one of the site’s first major plotted quests led players through a murder mystery in which the site’s staff members were being offed one by one. Most of the people at Neopets were avid players themselves; in the same way that developers working on today’s games might drop in to play as they test and tinker with features and story lines, so too did the creators of Neopets. Users weren’t just playing the devs’ game. Much of the time, they were playing alongside them.
Some users managed to make their way onto the staff. In 2001, a then–14-year-old Claire Hummel cold-emailed email@example.com. She was, she says, a devoted player, and as a budding digital artist, insisted that she could make better art than what was featured on some parts of the site. Williams and Powell invited her for an interview; she bluffed and said that she knew Flash, leading to a summer artist job at Neopets for each of the next seven years before she graduated from college and took a job at Xbox. “It was an absolute dream job for me as a kid, and while it would have been completely illegal, I’m sure I would have paid them to let me work there,” Hummel says. “It obviously dramatically shifted my relationship with the site—suddenly being able to log in to the admin and change my pets’ colors using a dropdown menu instead of having to scrimp and save for paint brushes robbed it of some of the magic.”
But it remained a vaunted place. As more players sought to customize shop and guild pages, Neopets published a guide to the markup language HTML. For Hummel and many others, early experiments with rudimentary Neopets code led to careers in web and game design.
“I think the visibility of the staff back then was also pretty remarkable, in a way I don’t think you’d see today,” Hummel says. “We were all active users, everybody knew our staff handles and avatars, and we didn’t really have any internal rules, for better or for worse, in terms of going out and interacting with players.”
Williams and Powell launched a public, biweekly news log, on which they detailed new additions to Neopia and laid out what the team was working on. These updates were considered a vital part of the Neopets mission; at one point, a team of translators worked to translate the latest posts into 10 different languages. Modern devs, like those at Stardew Valley, maintain detailed logs of patch updates and bug fixes. At Neopets, the posts were more conversational. They were filled with smiley faces and Britishisms, giving the feeling that the site’s programmers were popping into your family room and grumbling at your laggy dialup connection right alongside you. “New Pet Animations have been added for the following pets,” offered one 2001 post. “We didn’t realise that they were so large again, the file sizes are MUCH less now :) Click on the Neopet to see the animation …”
Neopets, like so much of the early internet, was a sandbox—for good and for bad. Almost from the outset, Neopets developers found themselves playing Whac-A-Mole with rabid users willing to bend the rules for their own gain. Between 2000 and 2002, the news log reads like missives from a war against pirates. Enterprising thieves rigged votes in the beauty contest, posted scam chain letters, and uploaded Flash movies into their shops to dupe overly trusting—or just plain young—players into handing over their neopoints for items that would never arrive. Others created bots to assail the tech backbone of the site, automatically maxing out winnings in games and using scripts called autobuyers to instantly snap up just-released rare items from shops—a feat as infuriating then as it is on Ticketmaster today. The site creaked beneath the weight of players creating duplicate accounts to snatch up giveaways, an offense developers took particularly seriously because of the drain it had on the site’s limited database and the resulting lag it caused. As eBay grew in popularity, the auction site became such a hotbed of illicit Neopian goods that eventually Neopets products were banned entirely.
“It is unfair to people who play by the rules, and heavily scorned upon by the Neopets Team,” the site warned of creating multiple accounts. “Please don’t do it, and when your accounts are frozen please don’t email us asking for them back, because they will never be unfrozen.”
The infractions grew so frequent that the site’s administrators took to competing over how many ill-gotten neopoints they could seize. By April 2002, Williams was up to 800 million forfeited neopoints. Powell? A cool 5 billion. “Cheaters beware!” they wrote alongside the announcement.
Snarkie, who joined Neopets in 2002 as a PHP programmer and became the site’s longtime game director before departing in 2014, remembers the push and pull. (She prefers to be identified by her longstanding Neopets nickname, which is sometimes written with a lowercase s; she says she has no capitalization preference.) “It was cat and mouse for sure,” Snarkie says, “some of it kinda fun, like clever devils figuring out how to legitimately game a system, and some of it incredibly frustrating, [like] actual cheaters and scammers.”
“We were actually happy when we found someone had found a proper exploit,” Williams, who married Powell in 2008, wrote in a 2014 Reddit AMA. “It was good though, helped us make the site stronger.”
With the rise of the social internet, new, more serious problems arose, like compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). By the mid-2000s, Neopets had spun out a department specifically devoted to safety and security “to catch people doing wicked things and work with us to figure out how they were doing it and what we could do to outright prevent or catch them better in the future,” Snarkie says. “Not just scamming and cheating, but grooming and other nefarious things that people do on the internet.”
Some problems were more mundane. On the message boards, swear words were banned. Others that might lead to conversations deemed inappropriate for youngsters were programmed to change: The word “sexy,” for example, automatically switched to “stupid.”
Today, Neopets’ openness with users feels like an anachronism—but much about how the site worked to meet the needs of a booming and evolving user base still rings true. “It didn’t feel super exceptional then; it felt more like common sense,” Snarkie says. “I actually often get asked a question about some game doing A or B now and I’ll go, oh, yeah, we did that back in 2003.”
When the Reddit sub r/WallStreetBets helped carry out the GameStop short squeeze this winter, more than a few Neopets alums saw a parallel to what had happened in Neopia. In January 2001, a notice appeared in one of the site’s news logs. “IMPORTANT NEODAQ WARNING,” it began. “We have discovered that guilds have been set up for express purpose of influencing the Stock Market. Artificially inflating the stocks in this matter is not allowed, so we have removed the guilds and will freeze any people that are caught doing it in the future.”
“I remember helping do it, but was in elementary school at the time and those memories are super fuzzy,” a onetime Neopian recently told me via Twitter DM. “It’s way funnier looking back, because I don’t think any of us realized that we were gaming the system in a way the creators didn’t want, even though they designed it that way.”
Neopets’ solution was simple, and one decidedly not in the actual SEC’s toolkit: Stock prices were randomized, and the days of guild manipulation at last came to an end. The jig was up.
With the ruse exposed, the Neopets staff could only tip their caps to the players who’d figured it out. “Stuff like the guild stock market thing is less serious and just a side effect of building a game where skill and cleverness are rewarded,” Snarkie says. “Those types of players will min/max your systems and try to find weaknesses. It’s kind of the point!”
For Neopets, identifying cheaters was a pivotal mission. But it was less about stopping users from unfairly filling their coffers or cartoon stamp albums, and more about preserving the underlying structure of the game.
“When making any kind of game, you want to set an even playing field,” Snarkie says. “Cheaters and scammers ruin that, so it was very important that we prevent it as much as we could for the happiness of players and health of the game.”
The Neopets economy was a real and delicate thing—one whose well-being had implications for the health of the site itself. Any large-scale game with its own universe and currency—particularly one in which players set prices for items they sell to one another—is bound to run into economic questions. EVE Online, for example, had an in-house economist keep an eye on the game’s financial health; in 2018, it and World of Warcraft were cited by the Bank of England’s chief economist as models for the real world.
Neopets went through several bouts of extreme inflation in its early years, with the cost of items skyrocketing and then crashing. The fundamental problem was less the scammers than the fact that the introduction of more players meant more neopoints would enter the game, with nowhere for the currency to go. “There’s no Neopian Federal Reserve or limited NP pool, for example,” Snarkie says. “It’s just created on the fly as it’s earned.” To account for the perpetual influx of players, the Neopets team added “money sinks”—expensive add-ons that would suck some money back into the ether, like collectible avatars or, yes, stamps. During a particularly bad rash of inflation in the late 2000s spurred by promotional giveaways without corresponding money sinks, Neopets took to increasing the supply of ultra-rare items, which were sold off in dev-controlled auctions and shops. The neopoints were removed from circulation once the items had sold.
As in the real world, solutions could be slow to take effect: There was a nudge, then a wait to see how things changed, then another nudge, then another wait. Serious economic turbulence could take years to stabilize. “Virtual economies are a bunch of levers you’re always trying to tweak very slightly to make sure you’re staying relatively in balance,” Snarkie says. “Any sudden moves can do more harm than good.”
She adds: “There’s a balance between a real economy and making sure the game is healthy and players are happy. Basically, you will never get it right. You always have to keep on it. And that’s fine.”
Neopets lives on. These days, its user base is a fraction of what it once was, with CNET estimating in 2019 that it had 100,000 daily active users. Viacom sold the company to JumpStart Games in 2014, which in turn was acquired by the Chinese gaming company NetDragon; nearly all the staff who worked on the site in its aughts heyday has since departed, including Williams and Powell. Modern efforts to monetize the site—most recently by inventing a second in-game currency that could be purchased with actual, real-world money and exchanged for actual, real-world stuffed animals, as well as flashy Neopian items—have sputtered, as have attempts to make the site more mobile-friendly. Flash, the platform upon which that vast library of quirky games was built, was officially sunsetted at the end of 2020, rendering the near-entirety of the arcade and many other site features inaccessible. Neopets says that it is working to convert more games away from Flash, but at present, just seven games are playable.
But the Neopets meta-game goes on, as savvy Neopets users continue trying to exploit holes in the site’s system, now more likely to swap tips on Discord or Reddit—ahem—than in a guild. (“Is this the real stock market?” one user asked on the Neopets Discord as GameStop’s stock skyrocketed in January. “Yes,” replied another. “Real money is involved. Real investors are crying real tears.”)
Below-board autobuyer scripts still exist; one charges $5 a month for access. The stock market, where on Sunday Hubert’s Hot Dogs shares were going for just six neopoints a piece, remains a target: In 2015, after a move to a new server, players discovered that they could set their accounts to Portuguese and access a version of the site that held certain high-value stocks at artificially low prices, which they could buy, return to English, and then sell for substantial profits. It took two months before the problem was fixed, during which time some users managed to rake in neomillions.
“Hopefully one day I’ll be able to let it go and give my account to a kid and say do whatever you want,” one player lamented on a Neopets message board of the endless pursuit of more neopoints. “Then I’ll be free of all this madness.”
Neopets still maintains an official stock market message board. In late January, it lit up with activity. “Can’t find GME stocks,” one user wrote. “I heard AMC is the way to go on Neo,” another replied.
Said a third: “CYBU”—Cybun Electromatics—“to the moon.”