I grew up as an only child, one whose parents were older. I was often left to my own devices for entertainment. Most often, this search for amusement resulted in something animal-related. When I was really young, I frequently converted our second-floor stairway to a hospital for stuffed animals. Then, as I got older, I grew bolder, politely asking (okay, obnoxiously begging) my parents for any and every living, breathing animal I could fathom.
Here's a quick list of the menagerie I convinced my poor parents we needed: four dogs, five cats, three hamsters. Borderline normal so far? Just wait. Chinchillas? Yup, two. Ducks? Had 'em. Of course there were a slew of short-lived fish and frogs. I even "rescued" a nest containing hundreds of caterpillars because I thought they were stuck in a spider web.
Then one day, something miraculous happened, which probably saved my parents' sanity: I found the internet.
In some ways, the internet worked against them, because I was able to research new animals and put together adorable PowerPoints advocating for my ownership of them. Mostly, though, it allowed me to vicariously experience animals without necessitating that they live in my house. It also created a space for virtual pets that, unlike my Tomagotchi, wouldn't die. Enter Neopets.
Launched in late 1999, Neopets is a "virtual pets website" where users can adopt aggressively cute animals and care for them using currency, Neopoints, earned by playing games on the site. (The site at present has unsurprisingly incorporated a second currency, Neocash, their own take on the in-app purchase model popularized by mobile games like Candy Crush.)
I spent a lot of time on Neopets from age 10 to 14. And before you laugh at me: I will defend those "wasted" hours to my grave because I actually learned quite a few valuable skills while glued to my glowing computer screen alone in my basement during the formative years of my adolescence.
Here's what I learned:
1. The world is bigger than Georgia
Neopets boasted 25 million members by 2005, with most users spending an average of 19.5 minutes on the site on a daily basis. The meteoric rise of the site presented me, a 10-year-old girl from the Atlanta suburbs, access to millions of strangers all over the world.
At the time, I wasn't particularly intrigued by this reality. However, in retrospect, it was rather formative for my childhood. Interacting with different kinds of people with different kinds of lifestyles opened my adolescent eyes to the possibility of such existences, ultimately helping me become a more accepting individual.
2. Invaluable computer skills
Technically, I wasn't allowed on message boards, where Neopians would gather to orchestrate illegal trades and talk game strategy (yeah, the forum was actually notoriously tame). However, being a kid on the internet, I started going there anyway. Thus began my first foray into basic HTML.
It was the early 2000s, so this time in my life happily aligned with the height of the internet's obsession with obnoxious animations. Message board users often utilized massive fonts, with double sparkly animated borders and over-saturated pinks and purples. Wanting to fit in, I figured out the basic HTML needed to craft my own, and in no time I was sparkling out there with the best of them. Before long, people started contacting me, requesting a custom font — and they were willing to pay me. "Am I a Neopian businesswoman now?" 11-year-old me wondered.
Sure enough, I was.
3. Patience is a virtue. But so is persistence.
Anyone who used the site at this time will remember the ever-elusive Poogle, a dog-like Neopet that the creators of the site "retired" to the ire of late-adopters everywhere, like myself. The only way to procure one was to stalk (read: refresh endlessly) the Neopian "pound" page and hope one of the magical pets was abandoned there — unless you plotted an illegal pet trade.
Poking around on the aforementioned forbidden forums, I eventually found a user who was willing to trade me a Poogle for some rare oddity I happened to have. I carefully set up the time, listing my item on the trading post, and then frantically refreshing at the pound. After all — I had been burned a handful of times before. But this guy was the real deal, and in the span of a few seconds, I had what I had coveted for so long.
Many times, it's better to be direct about what you want — even if you have to bend the rules ever so slightly to get it — than to wait around waiting for an internet miracle to happen.
The card game Bullshit, that is, though it masqueraded under some PG-friendly name on the site.
In case you're not familiar, here are the basic tenets of Bullshit: The entire deck is dealt, and the object is to then get rid of your cards first. During each turn, a player must discard at least one card face down on the discard pile in consecutive ascending order (i.e. the first player must discard aces, the second player twos, and so on) and call the rank of the card(s).
Because the cards are placed face-down, and it's highly unlikely each player will have the needed cards each turn, this is where the tomfoolery comes in. Players can strategically Bullshit their way through their turns ("I'm putting down four aces"), but if they're caught in a lie, they must pick up the entire discard pile.
While playing Bullshit against computerized opponents may seem to lose the inherent human element that comes with the game, it was actually more valuable that way. Playing this game with family and friends invites dynamics of the relationship between players to affect judgment calls, while playing online eliminated the option to make calls based on tricky visual cues and taught me to trust my instincts.
What did all of this internet deceit earn me? A decent poker face and a very satisfying digital trophy.
Children who enjoy spending time on the internet shouldn't be maligned for doing so. In fact, allowing kids freedom (within reason, of course) can open all kinds of digital doors which will lead to tangible skills.
For me, becoming entrenched in a digital community allowed me many experiences that I could have never had in real life, by virtue of being a 10-year-old in suburban Georgia. In navigating this other, bigger world, separate from my parents or even my friends, I learned to trust my ability to figure out something totally foreign all on my own.
Sure, I never did become a world-class web developer, but when I taught myself some coding in college, the language was already familiar to me from my Neopets days. I learned that taking the initiative to develop a new skill often proves lucrative, and sometimes working outside the limits of the system helps you achieve goals you might otherwise not have.
Plus, I'm still really good at Bullshit.