I didn’t grow up with a lot of Christmas traditions, but each year I do one very important thing: I return to Neopets. And why not? It’s December. The Advent Calendar is waiting in Happy Valley. It always feels like being home for the holidays.
I discovered Neopets around the time I made a Friendster account, in the summer of 2003. It became an instant obsession. There were, of course, the adorable pets who never died, no matter what their hunger status and doe-eyed, frowning faces would have you believe. But Neopia also had games and books and fairies — pardon me, faeries — and free omelette and, oh man, petpets and petpetpets. As a kid, I wanted to stay forever.
Nowadays, I tend to take it for granted. Truth to be told, I missed last Christmas and I haven’t been back in over a year. I’m often amazed I even remember my passwords (plural, since I’ve constantly “reinvented” myself and made newer accounts with less embarrassing usernames). But lately I’m beginning to realize just how much Neopets helped shaped me for the real world.
It wasn’t just that the “adult” aspects of the game, like the stock market and the shops, taught me the value of money (or Neopoints/NP, as it were) and how it actually flows in the system. It showed me how to appreciate different cultures with its worlds: the tropical wonders of Mystery Island, the mystical city of the Lost Desert, and the pure magic that is Faerieland. I learned how to keep up a routine through the infamous dailies, like the Tombola, which reset every day at 4 p.m. I got to indulge in and, eventually, grow wary of “vices” like hoarding Usuki dolls and gambling with scratch cards without real consequences.
It was on Neopets where I first truly interacted with people online, most of them from far-off countries. These interactions rarely resulted in Neofriendships, and some of them weren’t so nice. A number of users ganged up on me on the Neoboards just because my username was Lizzie McGuire-related (hence the new accounts). I’ve even been scammed out of a perfectly good Codestone; the other user said he just needed to borrow it and I never got it back. (Keep in mind: I was nine and gullible.)
But even so, I took it all in stride, because at the end of the day, it was just a game. And I turned out to be more responsible and able to take risks because of it.
The thing is, I never really “outgrew” Neopets. Even as widespread interest in it waned and everyone I know moved on, I stayed behind, content with my woodland Cybunny, AndrewVanWynBunny, and his petpet Libby the Snowbunny. Sometimes I worry that I’ll come back and they’ll be gone for good. But for as long as Neopia’s around, I’ll be there for days or weeks at a time, hoping for a respite from reality — or at the very least, something that’ll keep preparing me for it.