Everything I needed to know in life, I learned from Neopets. A bold statement, which may not be strictly true, but let’s examine the facts. First, I learned to code on Neopets when I made my own webpage in HTML lauding my pets. Second, I learned how an economy works on Neopets, participating in trading and figuring out the importance of the“store of value” aspect of currency. Finally, I learned what meant to be in a community, supporting one another and enjoying each other’s company. These were all formative experiences for young, middle school me.
Neopets is a fad internet game; it was most popular in the mid-2000s, but now still has a decently-sized user base. The company underwent several transfers, from Nickelodeon via Viacomm, to now JumpStart Games (which is owned by a Chinese company). Historically, Neopets was rated among the “stickiest” websites, peaking in 2009 with 54 million users playing 4 hours and 47 minutes per user per month. This incredibly dedicated user base allowed Neopets to explore new advertising-based monetization strategies, especially Immersive Advertising, in which ads are built into gameplay. In middle school, I had invested a lot of energy into this digital world, participating in the stock market, betting, customization, and site design, but as quickly as I had entered, I stopped. Eight years later, this summer, I stumbled upon a hilarious article: “Woman Logs Back Into Neopets After Fifteen Years to Find Her Kacheek Doing Well and Taking Business Classes at Community College.” (Virginia 2019).
Of course, I had to log back in and explore. I was, like many others, following the impulse to look back, to reminisce about childhood. Neopets is interesting to analyze both from a hermeneutic and a humanist perspective. Users who return to Neopets expect the unchanging experience of their youth; the “old” internet feel of the website contributes to the returning users sense of nostalgia. For example, most of the website’s art remains the same and most aspects of gameplay require Flash, which is being retired from the internet in 2020 and takes up significantly more battery than other websites. Users even endearingly refer to a Neopets server lag, which would never be tolerated in most other websites where users have been conditioned to expect instantaneous and continuous connection. These visual cues and experience cues bring users back to what they perceive as a more innocent internet of their youth, an escape from the realities of adulthood. Furthermore, users bond together to set and achieve goals, including earning millions of Neopoints, the in-game currency, painting pets, or gaining trophies; the achievement of these goals, some of which were set in childhood, prompts the posting of a joyous outburst on the conversation forums like the subreddit r/neopets, where many others will celebrate success together. Indeed, the analysis of virtual interactions between Neopets users forms the crux of this paper, especially important is a discussion regarding the process of mutually constructing a digital reality where individuals find meaning, feel belonging and take ownership.
This paper will analyze the conversations on Neopets the website and the subreddit r/Neopets to reflect on three aspects of digital world in relation to the “real world:” first, this paper will call upon Foucauldian discourse analysis to consider creation of communities for discourse on Neopets; second, this paper will draw on Derrida and Barthes’s tools for analysis, using topic modeling and distant reading to reveal key discussion subjects like nostalgia and celebration in r/neopets; finally, using close reading techniques rooted in both the interpretation of meaning and structure via the New Critics, and in the reader-focused perspective of Barthes and McGann, the paper will discuss the formation and disruption of digital communities that support each other.
I. An Analysis of a Neopets Discourse Community
The analysis of conversations about Neopets first begs the question: “Where do people have conversations about Neopets?” There are three main places; first, neopets.com itself hosts conversation forums called boards, organized by notable subjects, including art, avatars, trading, and more, and conversation forums in guilds, which are smaller groups of Neopians who’ve banded together via joint interests such as virtual battling, role-playing, or spreading kindness; second, r/neopets, a subreddit dedicated to the the site, is a conversation forum that claims to be “the place to be without fear or scorn by TNT [The Neopets Team],” a conflict that we will discuss in the following paragraphs; and finally, clraik.com, a black market website for Neopets that is out of the scope of this paper.
Comparing these venues of conversation allows us to begin discerning the dynamics of user-to-user interactions and user-to-administration interaction. The subreddit r/neopets, is an anonymous place to discuss the features of neopets and engage other users outside of the site itself. Currently, the subreddit membership is at 36.9k members, and it claims to be a place, as stated earlier, “to be without fear or scorn by TNT [The Neopets Team].” The thesis of the subreddit (via its description) is in conflict with the administration of the Neopets, providing a safe haven for discussion about potentially disallowed topics. Immediately, I had assumed that these topics would lean towards black market activities or explicitly against-the-rules behavior. However, the subreddit’s Rule #1 is “No Cheating/Stealing,” specifically stating that “this is not a community that encourages illegitimate actions.” This dichotomy between legitimacy and illegitimacy is particularly interesting to me; it seems that the subreddit positions itself against the site’s administration, but still follows the rules set by TNT. With these two statements, it seems that not many posts would be actually be about the problems encountered with TNT, and in Section II, we will explore this hypothesis.
“Remember the human” is the second rule of the subreddit; it notes that “We’re here to escape the horrors/responsibilities of outside life, and take care of our pixelated pets. Personal attacks, slurs, threats, harassment, sexism, racism, homophobia, discrimination, or general outward hostility towards another person are not allowed.” Having the term “outside life” represent non-Neopian existence puts forth another interesting dichotomy — that Neopets becomes what is “inside,” something real and tangible, or perhaps simply what is more relevant to the users on the subreddit. In fact, “outside life” reads like a deliberate choice over the more commonly used phrase “real life,” implying that the digital existence is just as “real” as one in the physical world. Escapism is built into the subreddit, and so is a recognition of the somewhat absurd activity in which each member of the subreddit is partaking. The text states somewhat indignantly that “we’re here to […] take care of our pixelated pets;” the statement is an affirmation that the pets are “pixelated,” acknowledging the potential trivial nature of the game, but it also reads like a rebuff to doubters, asking the question: “so what?” Also interesting is the attempt to depoliticize and sanitize the space to make it pleasant; perhaps it harks back to the original experience as a youth playing the game without an understanding of more harmful interactions in the “outside” world, suggesting that much of the discussion will be positive, celebratory, and imbued with nostalgia. Section II will explore the topics of discussion in the subreddit r/neopets.
In guilds, users choose their own community, finding their specific guild based on mutual interest; off-topic conversation is entirely on-topic, and users often share more about themselves and their lives outside of the digital world. Guilds still have an underlying power structure, the leadership of the guild organizes activities and sets the tone for discussion; additionally, there is a group moderator, whose role is to remove double postings and unnecessary additions to the conversations — rarely do they act on any posts. Much like in a real-life club, guilds are based more on the people than the activities themselves. In section III, we will examine a guild, the Kindness Project, and close read the interactions between users when real life problems merge with digital life; observing this close knit online community is useful in understanding how individuals can find meaning and support digitally.
On Neopets boards, users post in order to ask specific questions, trade for items or pets, or achieve certain goals. Boards are divided into subjects chosen and set into stone by the administration, TNT (The Neopets Team). TNT does monitor user interactions, restricting the conversation by banning certain words and occasionally freezing users based on the posted content. The freezing of users over their language is the means for requesting obedience of the users on the site; what can and cannot be said is directly tied to the whims of TNT. Users on these boards also do self-regulate; boards are topic-specific, meaning when a user posts something off-topic, they are often requested to move to a different board. Interestingly enough, it is impossible to delete one’s posts, meaning that there are times when a post is taken out of the original poster’s control; for example, when a user lamented about how poor they were on Neopets, they were rapidly exposed for having great wealth by other users, causing that board to be a humorous roasting of the original poster. While bullying is considered against the rules on Neopets, this thread was not taken down, speaking to the fluid rules or perhaps the lack of continuous in-person moderation on Neopets boards. However, boards are also the most direct form of communication users may have with TNT. Updates, suggestions, and disputes are occasionally aired on these boards. While it is out of the scope for this paper, further research may explore these interactions; one interesting avenue for further exploration may reside in how conversations about the manipulation of a digital economy reflect real world perspectives and power relations.
II. Data Exploration of r/neopets
To begin examining the discourse community of r/neopets, this paper will use textual analysis tools like topic modeling to reveal underlying patterns in the forum posts. Using the top 1000 “hot” posts on the subreddit, I visualized the underlying topics with pyLDAvis (see section I.b. of Neopets.ipynb), and initial explorations do validate our hypothesis, but with surprising keywords. For example, the largest topic (1) on the Intertopic Distance Map pointed to users’ nostalgia, with keywords like “old,” “today,” “year,” “years,” “college,” “ago,” “remember.” These key words are interesting, because they imply specific events that users are highlighting. Close reading of certain posts in the topic confirm that the users use the post to remember their activities on the site when they were younger, however many years ago. Another unique theme was “luck,” as many of the games on the site are luck-based, users celebrate the luck given to them by posting on reddit, which we see in topic 2 of the map, with the key words “reddit” and “luck.” Other topics are less defined and discernible, but imply discussions about specific site events.
Using the basis of the original topic model, the next step is to be more discerning with a Gensim Topic model that can have better results with bigrams and trigrams included (see section III.b of Neopets.ipynb and below). This second topic model showed more specific changes. Setting the relevance metric to zero allowed the analysis of words that only appear in topics. Identifying topic areas and the fluidity between topics because much more intuitive. For example, the topic areas related to the achievement of various goals are clustered in the bottom right corner, encompassing topics 15 to 19. Each circle is small, but identifies a specific goal that is being celebrated and discussed. For example, the displayed segment seems to be about adopting certain dream pets, the “lupe,” or winning random games like the “fruit machine. In other circles, there’s a significiant usage of the word “luck” as well as specific achievable things e.g. colours like “maraquan.” The two topics in the upper right quadrant are curious, because they appear mostly apart from the others, but that don’t seem very related at first glance. One circle emphasizing “first”, “remember”, “start”, and the other “look”, “nice”, “image”. Both, however, when setting lambda to 1,0, display the word “pet” as one of the highest probability of appearing. These words suggest that the upper right quadrant topics are about showing off pets and their looks, rather than achieving goals. In both topic models, there are few mentions of TNT; it does not seem like users come to the subreddit to vent their frustration about the rules of discussion of Neopets boards or about the administration of the site.
Both topic models suggest the importance of goal-achieving and nostalgia in r/ Neopets. In order to have a better understanding of the uses of specific language in discussing achievement and memories, I count the appearance of words in a subreddit post’s title, posting that the title contains the most relevant key words. In the counter, a few words stand out: “day”, “year”, “finally,” “first”, and “old.” The word “finally” implies both a celebration and a nostalgic element, for example many are finally achieving a goal that was in place since youth. “Finally” exudes relief and joy; pointing to an achievement that was the result of labor and time. Further examination using concordance reveal a similar pattern. “Finally” appears in the concordances like such: “became neofriends way back 2000 almost 20 year later finally met in-person,” “finally getting dream pea chia, “finally reached goal,” “i’ve been waiting 17 year finally happened.” Following in Derrida’s suggestion to observe how certain words influence other other words, the words “year” and “finally” seem to reveal an interesting relationship; that the longer one waits to achieve a goal, the greater the impact of the word “finally.” Furthermore, concordances reveal an interesting connection between the words “forget” and “remember,” which are seen as opposites, but in this subreddit, they imply similar reactions of nostalgia. The action of rediscovering something once forgotten creates joy, for example: “Forgot how much I loved collecting these cards…” This rediscovery is joyful, because the poster remembers their childhood excitement. Similarly, calling on others to remember and reminisce provokes that same feeling of innocence: “Remember fighting your sibling for time on the computer.” These statements hark back to a simpler perhaps colored-with-rosy- glasses time, in which the people of your youth interact on a daily basis. From our analysis, r/Neopets seems to be celebratory and nostalgic. Further explorations could compare r/Neopets with subreddits of other early 2000s websites like r/Maplestory or r/ClubPenguin to see if there are similar discussions on nostalgia.
III. Community Formation on Neopets via Guilds
Even as Neopets is billed as an escape from the “outside” / “offline” / “real” world, the existence of private spaces like guilds in larger, already digital community like Neopets seem to imply that social structures are being reproduced online, whereby individuals seek more and more niche groups that fulfill their needs. In this section, we analyze the behavior of a guild in Neopets, called The Kindness Project, an adult group with over 300 members, who joined together to celebrate kindness, and “spread joy to others through Neopia.” This mission statement, or the root of what Barthes might
call myth-making, draws users together and informs the decisions made by the group. Our analysis centers around a series of posts from August 8th to 10th, in which one member of the group shared a recent family tragedy that his brother had died, and the responses of the group. This interaction is
valuable to analyze not only for its beauty, but also for its small window for understanding humans’ interactions online, both as a clearly individual experience (we are alone, facing a device) and as a group sharing similar experiences (we see the same page on our device).
“Hey Family,” the post starts, “It’s been a really rough 24 hours, in my family.” The repetition of the same word “family” with two different meanings tells us the power of the guild in the OP’s life, to be recognized on a similar level as their biological family that had suffered a loss. The OP’s wording, describing the situation in detail, including the brother’s occupation, gives the guild personal information that implies even further how trusting OP is of this online community. Moreover, the OP suggests that other members of the guild can discern that he “seems a bit off” through only posts on an anonymous platform further emphasizes the group’s connection to and understanding of the OP’s life.
Following that note, posters offer their condolences, mostly with thoughts and prayers, as one may react in offline to tragedy. But, as one may expect, many find thoughts and prayers to be hollow reactions. Another member of the guild
suggests that the guild “toss flowers at the Money Tree” as a way to commemorate the loss. While this post is rife with errors and the language is
more coarse to “toss” rather than to “lay” or to “place,” the message is particularly interesting. The Money Tree is place for Neopians to donate unneeded items, which will be picked up by anyone stalking the donation pile. Buying flowers and donating them, knowing they will be taken by someone else to resell, is a particularly futile and essentially human action. Furthermore, the only way the OP knows that flowers were donated is if the donator of flowers posted on the board about it; in this sense, the action is particularly performative: Could they not simple say that flowers have been donated? What is the purpose of donating itself? Perhaps to assuage the guilt of the donator, perhaps as a cosmic karma, perhaps to realize the full extent of what one can do online in support of another person. Many people in guild respond by donating Ghostly Rose Bouquets to the Money Tree.
Finally, the OP responds, “Hi family…;” somehow, referring to the guild as a family seems more appropriate after this loss, where people have organized together for a member of the community. OP refers to the the “tight-knit group of people like the members of TKP,” seeing that individuals have involved each other in their offline lives, drawing support and a sense of community. That something online can translate
to an offline experience is incredible interesting and important. People reproduce the social norms of an offline world, offering condolences and coming together. The ability of online community to perform these roles (to comfort, to commiserate, to rebuild) in this way is also a particularly compelling look at the power of virtual interactions, and how they reverberate in offline life.
There’s something entirely embarrassing about admitting to another person that you’ve played Neopets as an adult. I’ve covered by saying “oh no, it’s for a project, don’t worry,” and I’ve found myself rather amused by the varying reactions to this play. However, if there’s anything particularly interesting in this paper, it’s that childish joy and excitement is not be discounted; that there is value in rediscovering something that brings you joy.
This paper set out to explore virtual interactions on the subreddit r/neopets and on Neopets the site itself; its revealed how individuals congregate to celebrate and reminisce about their online experiences, and in the process, we’ve close read and interpreted an interaction between a close-knit community within Neopets. Further areas of exploration could be how the economy in Neopets reflects real-world dynamics, including discussions on elitism, accessibility, and power.
Virgina, Madeline, “Woman Logs Back Into Neopets After Fifteen Years,” March 25, 2019, https://thehardtimes.net/harddrive/woman-logs-back-into-neopets-after-fifteen-years-to-find-her-kacheek-doing-well-and-taking-business- classes-at-community-college/