All that glitters is not golden, and the websites of our youth are no exception. Baz Macdonald explores the dark underside of not-so-pure browser-based games Neopets and Habbo Hotel.
It’s 2001 and your intermediate class are in the computer suite. You’re supposed to be researching how grass grows, or something like that, but looking around the room every screen is filled with the same thing – Neopets. A weird, wonderful website for kids, in which you earn in-game money to raise cute little monsters – basically, a single parent simulator for tweens. And we were loving it!
As the first generation growing up with the internet, we were freerange kids, going wherever and doing whatever we wanted online. Who was going to stop us? Parents and teachers had yet to cotton onto all the dangers of the web and we didn’t know better either.
And what none of us knew was that beneath the surface of some of these pastel and glitter coloured websites were some of the strangest incidents of the early days of the internet. And they may forever tarnish your fond childhood memories of games such as Neopets and Habbo Hotel.
By early 2000’s standards, Neopets was an online sensation, boasting 11 million active monthly users in 2004. It has had an undeniable impact on the generation now in their 20s and 30s – including notable figures like model and author Chrissy Teigen, who tweeted last month while on bed-rest for her pregnancy:
I miss neopets
— chrissy teigen (@chrissyteigen) April 19, 2018
To the creators of the website, just as important as the number of users they were bringing in was how much time they were spending on the site. This is referred to as the “stickiness” of a site, which is possibly the grossest internet terminology there is.
Neopets was the stickiest (ew, see?) website on the internet in 2001, with the average user spending two hours a week there. Three years later, the site was still ranking among the internet’s stickiest sites – somewhat disturbingly, just above Literotica.com.
This engagement was key to the site’s success – because, at the time, Neopets was essentially a marketing machine for 8 to 17-year-olds. Think back for a moment on some of the websites’ most beloved mini-games – which were your favourites? Were you a bigger fan of the Hot Wheels™ World Race or the Cinnamon Toast Crunch™ Umpire Strikes Out?
But it doesn’t end there. Playing these mini-games rewarded you with in-game money which you could spend on items for your pets – like McDonald’s Fries or Heinz Easy Squirt ketchup bottles.
Neopets was shaping us as consumers, but also as the staunch lil’ capitalists of tomorrow – because, not only could you buy and sell these items in a free-trade marketplace, but you could then invest that in-game revenue in virtual stocks of thirty Neopian companies. Neopet’s executive vice president in 2004, Rik Kinney, said this would teach kids “to manage money, develop budgets, understand responsibility, and experience real world economics” – you know, essential lessons for any eight-year-old.
But, while the site’s attempt to market to children was obvious, less apparent were Neopets’ associations with the cult of Scientology. A recent investigation found the site was not only temporarily run by a Scientologist, but also utilised the cult’s business practices.
This influence came from Neopets investor and CEO Doug Dohring, who was a Scientologist and staunch advocate of something called Organisation Board, a model trademarked by the cult’s founder L. Ron Hubbard, who claimed it was a business approach used by “an old Galactic civilization” that lasted 80 trillion years.
In an Reddit AMA, Neopets’ co-founder Donna Williams went into how Dohring slowly injected aspects of Scientology into the company’s culture.
“We were not aware of it at first as we were totally naive,” Williams wrote. “When we realised it was a bit of a shock. Somewhat awkward moment when you realise you started the biggest entertainment site visited by millions of children and teens, but the upper management you just signed the company over to are part of some weird religion that is banned in some countries.”
Someone claiming to be an artist at Neopets during this era wrote to Kotaku about how these business approaches quickly turned into the attempted indoctrination of the website’s staff: “The negative aspects of NeoPets all came from the side of Scientology-Oriented business structure/psyche. From the very get-go, any employee who applies for a job, will be faced with a couple of personality screening tests. I shit you not.”
According to Williams, six months after Dohring arrived she googled the new staff and found they were all Scientologists. Not long after, an unnamed woman was brought onto the team who wanted to integrate the cult’s philosophy into the website itself.
“At one time there was some talk about putting Scientology education on the site, but we killed that idea pretty sharpish. Adam [ED: the other co-founder] and I made sure that it never made its way onto anything site related. Religion and politics were two big no nos for us as far as site content went. Can’t say the discussions we had to keep it that way were [sic] much fun though!”
When Neopets players started to feel like they were too grown up for the site, often they upgraded to Habbo Hotel, a gamified social network in which you customise your avatar and hotel room and interact with other guests. Because they allow users to interact with strangers, social network games like Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin have caused concern for many.
One of the unsubstantiated claims is that these sites have been used by terrorist organisations to communicate with each other. But there has been no evidence this ever happened – unless you include the 2010 black comedy Four Lions in which the terrorists communicate through a Club Penguin parody, Puffin Party.
More substantial are the concerns that paedophiles could use these children-focused social media sites to coerce children into providing them with sexual content. A significant investigation into paedophiles’ presence on Habbo Hotel was conducted by the UK’s Channel 4 in 2012.
The most scandalous revelation from this investigation was the discovery of a recently convicted paedophile who had used the site to convince young girls to meet him in online chat and webcam rooms outside of the website in exchange for Habbo Hotel furniture. After convincing these girls to strip for him, he would then use that footage to blackmail them into committing even more explicit sexual acts on webcam.
He was convicted to seven years in prison for doing this to 80 victims, alll of whom he met through Habbo Hotel. Though this stands as the most abhorrent example of the website’s problematic culture, since its launch Habbo Hotel has been a breeding ground for some of the internet’s most despicable groups – including those who call themselves ‘griefers’.
In internet culture, a griefer is someone who goes out of their way to ruin the online experience of others for their own amusement. Habbo Hotel was the location of one of the internets first griefer raids in 2005. After unsubstantiated claims appeared on the website 4Chan that Habbo Hotel moderators had been banning players with darker-skinned avatars, a group calling themselves the Patriotic Nigras formed in response.
This group created an army of dark-skinned avatars with afros and wearing Armani suits. They surrounded the game’s virtual pool, telling players that “the pool was closed due to AIDS”. They then proceeded to form themselves into the shape of a swastika. The group have since dedicated themselves to griefing players in the life-simulator game Second Life.
These days, there is an understanding that the internet is full of horrible people – but it is still confronting to realise that even the websites that we enjoyed as kids were overrun with trolls, paedophiles and cults trying to brainwash us. Thankfully, I’m fairly sure I came through largely unaffected.
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