Looking back at the cursed and controversial legacy of Neopets

From Scientology to stocks, gimmicks to gambling, we’re covering the murky history of Neopets, the cute game with endless controversies.

If you were an early 2000s internet kid, chances are you’ve heard of Neopets. The cute and colourful virtual pet game was a pioneer of online gaming, connecting kids and young adults all over.

However, behind the mini-games and collectable pets lay a mountain of shady practices with devastating social consequences. This is the OG #ripfortnite.

Image: Neopets

We’re running through the Neopets timeline, from its inception in 1999 to its contended position today. Expect chaos, financial manipulation, and increased distrust of the free market economy.

We could be squandering some precious childhood nostalgia right now, so our deepest apologies there. You’ve been warned.

Humble beginnings

Donna Williams and Anna Powell initially created Neopets with some down-to-earth goals. To “keep university students entertained” and to “possibly make some cash from banner advertising”. Fair enough.

Users went onto the site to play mini-games, feed their online pets, and chat with other players. The patchwork (or, more frankly, non-cohesive) style design of the avatars had a homey charm, contributing to the sites’ rapid player growth.

Users also had to return to the site to feed and keep their pets happy, making Neopets incredibly addictive. That’s right. Neopets was one of the pioneers of the return-to-manage genre of mobile gaming, adopted by countless hits like Farmville and Clash of Clans. Inevitably, Williams and Powell got overwhelmed by the site’s traffic and went looking for investors.

Funded by Scientology

December 1999, Scientologist and key investor Doug Doring became CEO. Doring began branding Neopets at a massive scale and applying the Org Board Scientologist method to the company.

The Org Board hierarchy structure is a can of worms we won’t open today. Still, all you need to know is that the ‘Org Board’ is sketchier than it appears, and definitely shouldn’t be subliminally messaging young audiences or company employees.

Once people discovered that Doring and his team were Scientologists, Williams took to Reddit in an attempt to clear the air:

We wonder what would have happened if Tom Cruise got his mitts on the game…

Agro Advertising

It turns out Scientology wasn’t the most cooked thing Doring brought to Neopets. The CEO actually spearheaded an immersive advertising strategy, which essentially blurs gameplay and paid advertisements. Instead of separating ad banners and gameplay, Doring merged the two to no end. Take a look.

Neopets world map

He partnered with McDonald’s, Cocoa Puffs, Disney Movies, Oreos and more, subconsciously incentivising players to purchase these products. While this is more commonplace in today’s saturated online landscape, immersive advertising was revolutionary for the early 2000s.

This quickly became controversial, as the marketing was aggressive, and 80% of Neopet’s audience were under 18. The whole approach received backlash for its unethical, queasy, and predatory nature.

Hit Me!

The young audience of Neopets also made the site’s gameplay problematic. A large portion of the sites’ mini-games were clearly inspired by popular, real-life gambling games.

From blackjack to pokies, there was a Neopets ripoff, where you could blow in-game currency on big bids. You could even invest in the game’s stock market, which developers apparently fucked with all the time to troll users.

Underage kids gambling on Neopets resulted in a Today Tonight story after a mother’s complaint. Neopets had to temporarily remove the gambling-based games from the site for Australian users.

However, this was later lifted. Child psychologist Michael Carr-Greg argued that the mini-games were “sanitising, normalising, and glamourising gambling”.

Black Markets

Some quick context. Viacom took over Neopets in 2005 and overhauled a large chunk of its original artwork. Avatars received updates, but some originals were left untouched. The OG pet avatars were labelled ‘unconverted’ and became a prized rarity. UC pets were perceived by the Neopets community as exceptionally valuable and collectable – like an original Charizard Pokemon card.

Here’s another knotty precursor. Every Neopet had to have a unique name, but there was now over 280 million pets. Normally spelt names were coveted, selling for thousands of real-world dollars. Much like how people pay thousands for a clean Instagram tag, pets called ‘Timmy’ instead of ‘XxTimmyxX94510’ were in serious demand. Users quickly started organising pet trade deals outside of the site.

These monetary deals, of course, went against the companies’ T&Cs, which stated that Neopets could only be traded for other Neopets – definitely not real-world currency. This obviously didn’t stop die-hard fans. Gotta catch ’em all… right?

Exhaustive measures

The skyrocketed value of simple pet names and UC’s resulted in a few chaotic methods to retrieve them without paying real cash. 

  1. Hacking. A big hack in 2013 leaked usernames and passwords of thousands of accounts, with the goal of sourcing out UC’s and other high-value Neopets. 
  2. Manipulating the code. Applying revealing code into an excel spreadsheet to manually search for available UC’s was tedious and seldom rewarding. However, it did avoid the game’s bot detection and sometimes succeeded.

My god, what a mess. As you can imagine, scams and dodgy deals were happening left and right. What’s worse is that Neopets remained incredibly popular with children, and real-currency deals for in-game pets were spiralling out of control.

See you in hell, Neopets.

Neopets still runs to this day, but its reputation remains tattered. Account theft, shifty schemes and more are all largely the result of the Neopet owners. No wonder users are distrustful and tired of the bullshit. There are even more scams from Neopets we could go into, but we reckon you get the gist.

We hope your childhood memories aren’t totally ruined. As they say, ignorance is bliss.