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The history of Neopets includes more Scientology, gambling, and internet-changing innovation that you probably realized.

Throwback is a series from Mental Floss where we take a deep dive into some of the most fascinating stories behind the toys, trends, and events you might remember from your childhood. This episode is all Neopets, the surprisingly influential Web 2.0 staple.

You might think of Neopets as nothing more than an  Internet-based Tamagotchi—a ‘90s-era web page that allowed users to care for pixelated penguins and  dragons.

But what if I told you that it trained a generation of 13-year-olds to become skilled  computer coders? Or that it broke new ground in social networking before MySpace, and even  before Facebook was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse?

That these digital creatures taught an  entire generation of kids to be computer-savvy and even got them well-versed in the stock market? And  that part of its success was due to Scientology? Well, that’s what I’m telling you, and yes,  I can explain.

It’s the story of Neopets, featuring a cameo by Xenu, and it’s  next on this installment of Throwback. Welcome to the show where we take a look back  at some of the most influential pop culture stories and events you may remember from your  childhood. I’m Erin McCarthy, and in this case, I’m not too sure people even realize just how  influential our subject for this video really was.

Neopets was the Trojan horse of early websites,  a sneaky and seemingly simplistic interactive pet simulation that wound up becoming  something much, much bigger. It was like Tamagotchi meets Wall Street. But to  understand how Neopets made such an impact, we need to first take a look back at the primitive  wasteland that was the internet of 1999.

By the end of the 1990s, personal computers  were in roughly 50 percent of households and people were getting accustomed to the idea  of the internet as a valuable resource. Yahoo was the premiere search engine; Google  was still in beta testing. Enterprising users were building their own websites on Geocities  or pouring their hearts out on LiveJournal, probably while listening to “All Star”  by Smash Mouth and wearing a Gap hoodie.

There were only about 8 million  teenagers using the internet at the time, but despite that relatively low number, Adam  Powell and Donna Williams thought they were being underserved by the internet’s paltry  interactive offerings. Their focus was on building a platform for university students that  might net them some income from banner ads. Adam was a capable programmer who was designing  ads for his father’s hot water bottle business.

Donna had studied sculpture and graphic  design. Adam took note of Pokémon, that trading card and video game sensation, and  had an idea. Why not do something similar on the web?

The result was Neopets, a virtual pet utopia  where visitors could build different cyber pets, customizing their gender, color, and  breed. Options ranged from your average house cat to mythical creatures like dragons. Like Tamagotchi, the popular handheld game that had recently come out, users had to care for their  digital dependents by feeding them and playing with them.

Unlike Tamagotchi, Neopets wouldn’t  drop dead from neglect. Plus, these hybrid animals—with names like Nimmo, JubJub, Korbat, and  Grarrl were colorful and well-rendered compared to the digital handheld pets. Adam and Donna hoped  that people would keep returning to the Neopets site to care for their quirky animals and get  exposed to some advertising while doing it.

But this wasn’t just an in-browser  version of Tamagotchi. Adam and Donna built an infrastructure around the pets that  made everything feel more real. Users were dubbed Neopians.

The characters could take up  residence in the Flash-animated world of Neopia, living in different areas that were divided  up like amusement park locations with names like Mystery Island and Terror Mountain. The game even had its own newspaper, The Neopian Times, that had everything from  cartoons to editorials about the Neopia economy. Yes—an economy.

There were no free rides in  Neopia. If you owned a Neopet, you had to play games to earn credits, known as Neopoints. The games resembled staples like solitaire, Minesweeper, Tetris, and even Whac-a-Mole.

Neopoints could be redeemed for food, pet costumes, toys, and tiny pet homes. You could even buy pets for your Neopets, which were called petpets, and  pets for those pets, which were petpetpets. Some may have found it disgustingly  cute, but if you’re into digital pet ownership, cute is right where Adam and Donna wanted to be.

Once they built up an impressive stash of digital currency, users could humble-brag about  their virtual wealth with other users. They could also join guilds, which is what Neopets  called sub-groups for fans of different television shows, movies, books, and music. Logging in didn’t  mean you had to talk about your pets.

You could also talk about Dawson’s Creek, or how much you  loved Jar-Jar Binks in Star

Wars: Episode One. Neopets took off quickly. Neopets only offered  nine pets when it launched in November, 1999, but it took off quickly: soon, more than  500 people a day were signing up. That was pretty good for 1999.

Then traffic started to  double every week. Adam and Donna saw potential for Neopets to grow, but they were more content  creators than business people. They needed someone to take Neopets to the next level.

What they got was—Scientology. The early success of Neopets caught the  attention of Doug Dohring, the founder of the Dohring Company, a market research firm. Dohring and his partners bought the site, freeing up Adam and Donna to focus on the creative side  while Dohring concentrated on a business model.

Dohring happened to be a member  of the Church of Scientology, the controversial religious organization. It undoubtedly had an influence on Neopets. Eventually, four of the six members of Neopets’  executive team were Scientologists.

Dohring used what Scientology calls Org Board, a business model  that splits key focus areas like communications, production, and public relations into different  umbrellas. And yes, this is what most businesses do, but the Org Board version was said to  have been adapted from one used by a galactic civilization for 80 trillion years. The finer details of Org Board are a closely-guarded secret.

But Dohring made use  of some of its practices, including asking potential employees which straight line on a page  seemed, quote, “friendlier.” Dohring even voiced a desire to post Scientology literature  on the site, an idea that Adam and Donna, who are not members of the church, shut that down. They didn’t want Neopets to be denominational. There was another aspect to Neopets that caused  some controversy.

Neopets helped pioneer something called immersive advertising, a phrase they  later trademarked. Instead of a banner ad, like Adam and Donna had pursued, players in the  game would be subjected to in-world advertising. A Neopet might encounter a breakfast cereal  character like the Trix rabbit, or places might be modeled after an advertising sponsor like Cartoon  Network or McDonald’s.

Gotta brush? They could grab some digital Crest toothpaste. If a pet was  thirsty, their owner could buy a Capri Sun for it.

And according to a Harvard Business School paper,  during one campaign children commented things like   “When I saw Capri Sun on the site I had my mom go  buy some so I could drink it with my pet.” Pretty soon Lego, Frito-Lay, and Disney were popping up  on the site. It was an early example of internet product placement, and many users probably had no  idea they were in the middle of an advertisement. Consumer advocates like Ralph Nader argued  that it was sneaky to market products to kids in the middle of a game without some  kind of disclosure.

And, to be fair, having kids earn Neopoints by watching commercials  for Lucky Charms is kind of off-putting. Some parents were also displeased to learn  that kids could earn—or lose—Neopoints by playing casino games like roulette or blackjack. In response, the site mandated players of those games had to be 13 or older.

You know, the  average age of your typical casino visitor. Whatever the merits or ethics of  advertising or child gambling, Neopets was quickly becoming about  something much more than toothpaste. Something Adam and Donna hadn’t anticipated.

It was turning into a learning experience. By 2005, Neopets was poised for another big  breakthrough. It had registered an astounding 25 million users worldwide and was garnering over  2.2 billion page views monthly.

That’s almost as much as The New York Times gets today. Users spent  an average of six hours and 15 minutes on the site every month. Entertainment giant Viacom, which  owned CBS and Nickelodeon, purchased the site from Adam, Donna, and Doug Dohring for $160 million.

But while Viacom technically owned the virtual community, its real caretakers were the users  themselves. And in order to really contribute to this community, you had to have some skills beyond  just figuring out how to access the internet. A user’s Neopets page was like a profile page  that was viewable by others.

Users didn’t have to settle for the standard template, though. With  some basic HTML skills, they could customize it. Having a more distinctive landing page gave users  incentive to learn some basic coding skills they might not otherwise have been motivated to  discover.

Some players would even offer to build out web pages for other users in exchange  for Neopoints. They were Neopian contractors. The other edutainment aspect to Neopets was  in its digital currency.

The site had NEODAQ, a take-off of the NASDAQ stock market that  updated the economy of Neopia in almost real time. Users could even invest their Neopoints in fake  companies inside of the game and then watch as their fortunes grew or were wiped out by a sudden  market shift. If you thought Balthazar’s Faerie Bottling Inc would rise in value, you could take  a chance and maybe experience something usually reserved only for adults—total financial ruin.

One player, Neelou Etesami, told The

Ringer:   “As a fifth-grader, I had set up extensive  spreadsheets in Excel to track Neodaq stock market prices daily so that I could  pick up on stock patterns, and buy low, sell high. … I ended up becoming a neomillionaire  fairly quickly this way, and my friends saw me as some sort of neopoint baron.” In fifth grade I was dissecting owl pellets, so ... The more items a virtual store sold, the better its stock price would get. Some Neopets  users figured this out and then collaborated on buying items to drive stock prices up. Young  adults would be trading stock tips in the same forums where kids would be role-playing  their favorite animal characters in a forest.

Neopets wasn’t above introducing some artificial  market fluctuations to keep things interesting, either. When Enron collapsed, Neopets  thought it would be fun to bankrupt a few similar digital companies in the game. Remember, this was the early 2000s, and Tamagotchi didn’t allow for much more  than cleaning up digital pet droppings.

Neopets imparting coding skills and stock  market savvy was extremely cutting edge. Eighty percent of Neopets users were under  18. About 40 percent were under 13.

That meant a lot of kids were getting acclimated to  weathering stock market storms in the hopes of becoming neomillionaires. Neopets had something  no social network really had before—an economy. And this could sometimes translate into actual  money.

A player named Claire Hummel applied for a real job with Neopets doing digital art. She  was hired and spent seven summers working for the company. What Neopets didn’t know was that  Hummel applied when she was just 14 years old, a fairly precocious age to be getting  hired by a big tech company.

Hey, if a kid is old enough to gamble on Neopets  blackjack, she’s old enough to earn a paycheck. Immersive advertising aside, Neopets was  one of the safer online hubs of its era. And it also tried to maximize its  profits in a variety of ways.

Early on, Doug Dohring proclaimed Neopets could  be something like Marvel or Disney, with a rich mythology that could be transported into other  venues. A planned feature film never materialized, but there were plenty of other ways for Neopets  to infiltrate impressionable young minds. In 2006, General Mills introduced Neopets  Islandberry Crunch, a fruity cereal that resembled Trix and was based on an object from the  game.

The box featured a species known as Kougra, a blue-haired tiger kind of thing. Inside  was a prize—a Neopets trading card. Speaking of trading cards—Neopets got their own  tabletop card game in 2003 courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, the company behind

Magic:  The Gathering. The Neopets were pitted in contests involving strength, agility, magic, and  intelligence. The series didn’t really catch on, though, and was discontinued in  2006. Which probably explains why the cards were free in cereal boxes.

You could also pick up Neopets: The Official Magazine, a bimonthly publication. The first issue  in 2003 featured a pretty salacious-looking fairy on the cover. Inside were games and product  checklists to keep track of your virtual Neopets merchandise.

It ran through 2008. In 2008, Jakks Pacific released a line of plush Neopets toys. You could get them  exclusively at Target, but no one got into a Beanie Babies-style melee over them.

While all these ancillary products were fun, none of them made much of an impact. Neopets  really lived online, where users could experience a fully immersive world. The concept seemed poised  to become a permanent fixture on the internet.

Yet you’re probably not caring for a  four-legged creature named Poogle currently. So what happened? By 2011, Neopets had reached a staggering 1 trillion cumulative page views.

But  as the internet grew, visitors had more and more places to interact. The customization of Neopets  became less and less of a novelty when compared to a Facebook profile. And that cool virtual  economy?

It also had some not-so-cool virtual inflation that made in-game items too expensive  for a lot of players. With so much traffic, there was simply too much virtual cash floating around. Neopets was sold in 2014 to an educational company named JumpStart.

But the conversion was a little  bumpy, and the site developed some defects and suffered a data breach affecting 70 million  users. By 2016, some described the site as a kind of ghost town. The pets were abandoned, with users  visiting the site less and less often.

Pretty soon, only a few thousand people were coming on  a regular basis to take care of their animals. When JumpStart was acquired by a  company named NetDragon in 2017, Neopets started to show some signs of life. New administrators began updating the site’s blogs and creating events for players to  get involved with.

That led to a surge of interest in people who had forgotten they  even had a Neopets account. In a lot of cases, their digital pets were still there, waiting for  them—alive and kicking and really, really hungry. At last count, more than 283 million Neopets  populate the site, and it has around 100,000 daily active users.

While a far cry from their  heyday, Neopets are nowhere near extinct. So why did Neopets thrive? On one level, it  had that Tamagotchi appeal—taking care of a digital pet was addictive.

But Neopets had  a lot more going on. Community members got lessons in coding and finance without even  really realizing it—at least, not until they discovered they had been building skills that  led them into programming or money management. Neopets may be the only computer game that hid its  edutainment value almost completely.

This wasn’t The Oregon Trail, and you didn’t have to play  it in computer class at school. Neopets built some very grown-up ideas into a very simplistic  interface. Remember 14-year-old digital artist Claire Hummel?

She ended up working for Xbox,  and is now with the video game company Valve. It was also a training ground for the internet  of today. Communities with specific interests?

Neopets had it. Digital currency? They  did it.

Trolls, memes, fan art? It was all there. Neopets helped acclimate people  to having virtual identities that coexisted with real life.

Vox associate identities editor Allegra  Frank once wrote that Neopets helped her with some disruptive social anxiety. She could bond with  classmates over their Neopets and carry their friendships to and from the digital community. Now Neopets are taking a page from the internet of today, offering NFTs, or non-fungible  tokens, as a way of reviving interest.

Will it work? Who knows! But either  way, the Neopets legacy as a pioneering site that offered way more than  virtual cats is already secured.

I’m Erin McCarthy. Thanks for  watching. If you had a Neopet, leave a description in the comments.

And maybe  log back in to feed it. We’ll see you next time.