Neopets: The power of children and their imagination.

If you haven’t heard of Neopets than I have to seriously wonder what planet you come from, you definitely don’t hail from Neopia. www.neopets.com is one of the most popular sites on the whole Internet, and what does this mean to you and me? It’s a kid’s site.

If you haven’t heard of Neopets than I have to seriously wonder what planet you come from, you definitely don’t hail from Neopia. www.neopets.com is one of the most popular sites on the whole Internet, and what does this mean to you and me? It’s a kid’s site. Our next generation is finding a home in virtual reality, and they love it. Neopets has over 70 million members from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo, and has had a total of over 300 billion website page views. According to Wired magazine’s Dec. 2005 edition, Neopets is the second most ‘sticky’ website on the whole of our planet’s World Wide Web. Average users are on the site around 6 hours a month…with so many members the mind boggles as to how much time our future generations are spending time with their virtual pets. What is a virtual pet anyway? Why does every kid on the Earth want one? What do you do with them once they’re in your custody?

Things have changed since I was a youngster and that wasn’t too long ago let me tell you. I played video games, rode BMX bicycles, and even ‘toilet papered’ the occasional house or two-usually the girls we liked (this last activity wasn’t as socially productive as the former). Virtual reality hadn’t hit the main stage like it has today; computers themselves in my mind were for finding out stuff at school. No one knew what the Internet was when I was ten years old back in 1985. Now all the kids are playing games and participating in other activities online in order to gain more points which enhance their pet’s skills and talents. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It’s not weird to the little humans of the future.

Neopia is a strange world, and I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. As far as I can tell, you can create a virtual shop to sell items, or go to other’s shops and make purchases using your points (gained through all the pet’s experiences). For example, I went to a marketplace, clicked my mouse on the music section and was told that I could buy a ‘Chomby and the Fungus Balls’ T-shirt for only 1,588 neopoints, and that there were currently 7 of the product in stock. I guess it’s cool to buy your pet neat things…I don’t know if I understand it but I think it’s a huge phenomenon…there’s even a stock market called the Neodaq index! Talk about getting the children prepared for the future. One has to wonder how all this will affect society when our kids finally do grow up. That’s another point of contention. Where there’s action, there’s usually an adult trying to make a buck out of it, and this site is definitely no exception.

Neopets have coined its money-making model as ‘immersive advertising’. The content of the experience is no longer separate from commercialism. You’ve heard of product placement, well this is another whole step forward, or backward from that older model. I went inside the game section of the website (after choosing a species of pet: A Jubjub, then naming it, choosing its color, and rolling to get its characteristics.) and then had a look at the 160 possible games for me to enjoy. I decided to play the McDonalds Secret Image Game. There’s nothing secret about what the suit-and-tie guys are trying to pull off here. All my favorite Happy Meal characters were being portrayed in pictures that slowly gained more and more focus. If you could tell that the Hamburglar was dancing, you scored points. In the Wired article author David Kushner quotes James McNeal a professor in marketing who said, “It is not until around 8 years old that they (children) can mentally defend against a persuasive sales message if they wish to.’

The balance of the Universe is always in play and this is another case where both positive and negative possibilities stem from a new creation in human culture. Kids love Neopets. My Jubjub named Dogstarmaster looks pretty cool. I don’t know how I am going to get defensive armor for him, nor why I need it, but I guess that’s all part of the Neopet journey. Let your kids enjoy, learn and make friends with the other animals. Just be careful, they might end up becoming stock brokers…and watch out they don’t eat too many cheeseburgers. There’s no use having a virtual pet that is super healthy and strong, while the child owner is sick and obese.