“Please, Mom, 10 more minutes! I’m almost done saving the innocent petpets from Gargrall!”
That was me as an online-gaming teen. 6th grade had been defining — the year I crawled deeper in my shell from anti-LGBTQ bullying, but also the year I became aware of factory farming and turned vegetarian. At the same time, I started playing Neopets. This virtual pet site became my way to relax from the world’s uncertainty.
I’m grateful for what gaming helped me express. Tired of conformity and grades, Neopets was a place I could freely play and explore again. This silly realm was my solace from growing up too fast, where imagination and animals still reigned. The imaginary land was filled with fascinating creatures called neopets (and petpets, and petpetpets… but it’s a long story).
Neopets felt safer than the real world. People here knew me by my writing and gaming—my choices. No one could judge me by my appearance, and I even got to declare my own name and gender. (Sadly, the site did not yet give a non-binary option.) Neopets was a kid-friendly environment that forbade difficult topics. I could forget about animal suffering for a while and just focus on fun.
However, I soon realized Neopets distracted me from my true dreams. I wanted to use writing to advocate for animals. Countless personal goals called to me as well — even simple things like going for more walks. One day it snowed, but instead of frolicking outside with my sisters and dog, I stayed glued to a screen helping Hannah the Usul survive the Ice Caves.
Not all of Neopets felt like training for a future animal activist. Similar to Pokémon, the site had a “Battledome” where you made animals fight each other. There was a game Snowbeast Snackrifice where you threw hundreds of live petpets into a cave to appease a larger creature called the Snowbeast. There’s a certain catharsis to make-believe horror. Still, it was weird to spend so much time on games that portrayed the opposite of my values.
I also became so caught up impressing people with my high scores, I cheated to get ahead. First, I learned to pause and lag the games illegally to get more points. Then, an accomplice and I went on each others’ accounts to win the trophies that the other person couldn’t get. Online anonymity made this easy. But the dishonesty felt completely awful. I froze my own account and started over, losing every trophy I had won. In fact, this happened twice! At one point, I argued with other players about who was a cheater and it felt like a teen gamer version of Real Housewives.
As intense and perhaps unbelievable as my addiction sounds, it’s hardly an isolated or unintended incident. Founded in 1997, Neopets has consistently ranked as one of the “stickiest” sites for children. Neopets is designed to attract, enthrall, and hold onto young people with dopamine hits, similar to drugs and cigarettes; and it is funded by immersive advertising for brands such as General Mills, Disney, and McDonald’s. That’s not by coincidence—the world’s biggest brands know when they have a captive and impressionable audience.
In the end, I escaped the drama and only had positive interactions on Neopets. On my final account during college, I played every game honestly and cheered on my friends. While the site sometimes hindered my studying and real-life social life, I was better about taking weeks-long breaks from the game when I needed to focus on a big project. Near graduation, I reached 100 gold trophies, my new personal best which had been an aim since I’d first started playing. This ranked me in the top 20 gold collectors in the world.
But my ultimate redemption? After putting thousands of hours into a game over the course of 12 years, I finally quit for good. To me, Neopets was so enthralling, I couldn’t play at all without wanting to invest half my life. Like Cam Adair of the site GameQuitters, I considered myself an addict. I knew my life would be better gaming-free.
After quitting, I could finally devote more time to animal advocacy. Like I had dreamed of doing since that very same year I began gaming. In spring 2017, I applied to an activism job and got it! My new teammates and I would be working all day on Warped Tour, screening a 4-minute video about our food system to encourage a plant-based diet.
Issues with our van cut the tour short, unfortunately. Yet from there, I kept taking more opportunities. I helped at an animal rights conference. Then I moved to San Francisco to volunteer for a chicken welfare campaign. Next, I was hired to gather signatures for a new law requiring more space for the most badly confined farmed animals.
Finally, I got my dream job as a brand ambassador for a plant-based meat company. My role was to go to all the local groceries and cook samples of vegan burgers and sausages for folks to try. It was heaven! I even petsat on the side. By that point, animal advocacy had long replaced gaming. Each gig was like a new “game” I got absorbed in and sought to master. When COVID-19 laid me off from vegan food sampling, I turned to the form of activism I’m even better suited for: writing.
Going on four years without gaming, I still treasure the Neopets memories. The biggest thing I celebrate, of course, is having quit. The game fulfilled my need for fun, imagination, relaxation, immersion, mastery, and introverted friendship. It really was a beautiful thing; it showed me much of what makes me happy. Yet I also needed exercise, financial growth, physical human contact, and to make a difference. More than that, I felt like animals needed me.
We all have so much we can do and give within our lifetimes. While we all require comfort and time off, we can build real lives of service that are just as joyful and rewarding as our favorite games, shows, or other entertainments. I dare you to dream bigger and take steps today.
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Photo: Neopets via Facebook