My Neopia Myopia

Last semester, I took an anthropology class called Technology and Culture that led me to rethink many forms of entertainment I encountered in childhood and consider how my experiences of them have changed over time. After class one day, some friends and I started talking about multi-user dungeons or domains (MUD), which are virtual spaces on the internet where people from geographically distant areas come together to interact and form relationships between their online selves. Think Club Penguin or Neopets. We reminisced about taking our imaginary pets to the Giant Omelette or Soup Faerie and playing Extreme Potato or Destruct-O-Match.

According to our Google searches, Neopets released a mobile, Legends and Letters, about a year ago. We were immediately skeptical. With high-resolution graphics and Scrabble-esque gaming visible on the Apple App Store preview, the app seemed more like a sleek Words with Friends. It was clear to us without even downloading the app that Legends and Letters was an inauthentic experience of Neopia. I think Neopets’s prior branding starts to explain this response; each of us had internalized both a coherent understanding of and lasting affection for a bygone Neopia. The universe of Neopia of yesteryear left a space for childish imagination that the polished appscape of Legends and Letters foreclosed.

What exactly was different about the experience of Neopia in Legends and Letters? On the original Neopets website, varied mini-games enabled a more textured worlding. No particular activity was representative of users’ experience in general. We didn’t even need to download Legends and Letters. We didn’t need any more information. Our conviction was unwavering that Legends and Letters was not and could never be a familiar experience.

I think Tom Boellstorf, in his book Coming of Age in Second Life, affords a way of comprehending why we felt this way: “Time resists virtualization in a way that space does not.” A resident of Second Life, another MUD, ostensibly “dies” when players log out. Every time a player isn’t active, there’s a discontinuity in the resident’s lifespan. The resident apparently lives again when the player logs back on the MUD. Second Life does not virtualize players’ lifetimes in the same way the MUD constructs space. A user can imagine spatial continuity whether they are online or offline, but temporally, continuity is disrupted offline and only preserved online. 

This effect translates differently in Neopets nostalgia. Again, time resists virtualization: a decade of time has passed in the physical world since we logged into Neopia. We experienced a decade of physical lifetime and, at whatever point we stopped using Neopets, our experience of Neopia became static. Any changes in Neopia that challenge this static image necessarily feel inauthentic. Technological nostalgia feels exceptionally weird. This 90-degree folding of time preserves virtual worlds in perfect condition, impossible for sullied attic teddy bears.

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