Twelve years ago, when I was 12, Neopets—that virtual pet site that allowed you to nurture and battle cartoon pets, explore virtual worlds, and chat with other kids—was the most important thing in my life. I was shy and unpopular, so almost all my self-worth came from Neopets, from my Maraquan Shoyru to my Turmac Roll trophy. If you didn’t play Neopets, this may sound delusional. If you did play Neopets, this may sound like name-dropping. Both are correct, in a way.
I started playing Neopets in elementary school because it seemed fun—the pets looked cute and I had fallen in love with the internet—and I kept playing Neopets in middle school because it has become a lifeline. During a time that my face and body unpredictably secreted oil and sprouted hair, it was easier to disappear behind a candy-colored avatar and inhabit a world I could control. Neopets was my favorite way to flee real life. I loved zapping my pets in the secret laboratory to change their species, solving quests for exploitative fairies, and playing mini-games until my eyes glazed over. I also found community on the Neopets chat boards, making friends to whom I would tell my deepest secrets even though we’d never meet in person.
To people online today, Neopets is either a distant memory or something they’ve never heard of. The site, which once boasted 25 million users worldwide, is now a virtual ghost town riddled with broken links, sponsored content, and empty chat boards. But Neopets remains my way of escaping the most stressful things in life. Today in the real world, I ate four hard-boiled eggs for lunch and dinner in an attempt to save money. My Neopets have me beat—they haven’t eaten in over a decade—but since they’re pixels, it doesn’t really matter. This year, I downloaded (and deleted) two budget management apps. On Neopets, I buy scratchers and play rigged carnival games just for the thrill of losing.
The only sign of life remains on the NeoBoards, the forums meant to discuss Neopets. As a kid, I spent hours on the NeoBoards asking for advice about my pets and how to solve a quest or piece together a treasure map. These forums no longer discuss such things, but they’ve taken on a purpose far more useful to my present life: a millennial support group.
Unsurprisingly, not many people on Neopets want to talk about the game anymore. They want frank talk about real life—how finding a job sucks and working a job sucks and getting fired from a job sucks even more. They want to talk about moving cross-country, moving on from relationships, or moving back in with their parents.
No actual children play Neopets anymore. They’re all nostalgic twentysomethings like me, dripping with uncertainty about the future and malaise about the present. It’s both absurd and comforting to see this familiar forum from my childhood re-appropriated to commiserate about our generation’s shared dread on how some of us feel we’ll never pay off our loans, and sometimes we feel depressed. Reading these boards doesn’t take me back to middle school (thank God), but it does make me feel less alone.
No one on the NeoBoards knows anyone in real life, so people are brutally honest. The NeoBoards host questions like: “Who else is gonna die when climate change happens?” and “sometimes i get rly sad that i’m not more beautiful.” Anonymity like this seems like a thing of the past, a kind of social media that explicitly bans faces or identifying biographical information. Plus, all the posts automatically delete when users stop responding. It’s like one big AA meeting, except instead of alcohol, our problem is that we’re all millennials woefully unprepared for the future.
More than anything, we modern-day Neopians worry a great deal about how our lives haven’t turned out as we hoped they would. The subject of one recent NeoBoard? “Anyone else ever feel like a loser?” followed by the comment “:( Like you aren’t where you should be in this stage of your life? That’s how I’m feelin’ guys.” This is the most dominant anxiety of a Neopian. We may have gotten a job we wanted, or kissed someone we liked, but that job turned into no more than fetching coffee for some rich guy and that someone turned out to be a douchebag.
Of course, we all realize that the one thing we are actively doing with our lives is eavesdropping on chat board conversations while we procrastinate. I tell myself that I’m only here to lurk, not engage (like that makes a huge difference).
Recently, while avoiding work, I saw a 24-year-old user post that he lost his job as a manager at Pizza Hut. The few but kind denizens of the NeoBoards flocked to share their support, writing how sorry they were, and that everything happens for a reason. For whatever reason, I felt moved to comfort him and posted a heartfelt reassurance. Almost immediately, confronted with the customized pastel font I had chosen in middle school and the advanced age of my account (a sobering 152 months), I froze. I had forgotten how terrifying it feels to be completely earnest on the internet. How terrifying, cathartic, and under this virtual cloak of anonymity, addictive. I flashed back to my middle-school days on the NeoBoards, confessing to complete strangers how much I longed for clear skin and to be a writer one day. I knew that once I started commenting, I might not be able to stop. So I closed out the tab, reopened a Google Doc I had deserted earlier that day, and I got back to work.