How Neopets made me a competitive gamer
I've had the mentality of a competitive gamer since I was 10 years old. I didn't realize that until much later, but it's true. I've considered myself a gamer for six years, but it's taken all those years to reflect on what it means to be one - and a competitive one at that.
I was more-or-less thrust into the world of competitive gaming when a friend and top player introduced me to the Super Smash Bros. franchise. Before that encounter, I had no idea it even existed. A little nuts, right? Usually, when competitive players explain how they got into the scene, it's because they had previous experience in the game. Then they discover that there are people far more skilled in local tournaments or on streaming services, and the competitive player is born.
But for me, someone who spent their time on the internet roleplaying in forums, watching anime, and researching topics for school projects, I was dropped in the middle of something completely unfamiliar, even to fellow gamers. The only connection I had with other competitive gamers was that I, too, was a complete nerd who liked electronics. I was confused but comfortable as I soaked up the electricity of local tournaments and passionate players. The challenges that came with learning the game were challenges I found easy to understand and face. Many people thought I was a longtime gamer who was just joining another franchise. It was odd because I didn't really think I played games at all. But it turns out I had gotten some prior experience as a competitive gamer, because I was basically a Pokémon elite on Neopets.
Being a Neopet fanatic
Neopets is a virtual pet website that launched in 1999, complete with ever-expanding games to earn money, pet and home customization, a large marketplace and 'traditional' shopping centers, forums and guilds, and loads of real merchandise found in local stores. As it turns out, virtual pet websites sometimes boom in popularity. But, I had no idea about the popularity of the game I was playing. My first childhood experience of getting in trouble for gaming. The cuplrit wasn't my Gameboy, but this thing, the Neopets Deluxe Portable Pocket Player:
It's not that I disliked my Gameboy. At the time, feeding my Neopets and keeping them alive was a higher priority. With Pokémon Yellow, I had to follow a story I was too young to understand, while this device was similar but easier to use and more immediate in the consequences. My Pokemon could come back if I visited a Doctor, but my Neopets only had me as their mother.
A lot of people reading this will be familiar with Neopets because of its popularity "back in the day." I've even met people who still play it now. To put it in perspective, Neopets did everything an arcade does, but better. In arcades, people play games for money, prizes, or tickets and can have high scores; the better your performance, the better the payout. It's all temporary and has no overlying system of importance. But Neopets is a virtual world in which money can lead to even greater things (you know, like our world). People use money to change their pets' appearance, buy them food, update their clothing, travel, and build and fill their homes. Personally, I loved building rooms made out of say...Jell-O or chocolate. It was a little wild in those times.
But I didn't know this was gaming. I didn't know that those 5 hour sessions of trying to beat my highest score in a game was gaming. I didn't know navigating the marketplace for the best deals and selling high-valued items or calculating what gives me the highest payout in the shortest time wasn't casual. My motivations nowadays still surround beating my highest score or a "better" opponent, but my thought process and motivation for "taking the game seriously" was more innocent. I wanted the brightest, happiest Neopets possible. In fact, I had so much money and love to give, I adopted sickly Neopets from the "Pound." I healed them and made them happy, then returned them. I knew that some people solved their problems of having a sick Neopet by abandoning them. To correct it, I had the adorable but naive mission of saving them all. It was a terrible and heartbreaking system in hindsight.
Kacheek species, my first and only "created" Neopet.
Bori species, my first "adopted" Neopet and only one I permanently kept.
Quitting Neopets, Getting Addicted to Gaming
I never wanted to quit Neopets. I just outgrew it and found a new passion in the forum-based community website Gaia Online. It was a lot less stressful not having to log in daily to feed a virtual pet. The transition was easy. People were older, I could have conversations, and all my money went towards customizing my avatar's appearance instead of working to mold a happy and healthy pet. It was a coming-of-age online experience, if I'm honest with myself. I learned a lot about the world and my own interests with the constant interaction. At that point, I was happy to still have a tight handle on the marketplace and play games for money since that was something I was very good at from experience.
Despite the long hours of playing minigames, calculating the best payout, and learning which marketplace items to sell or hold onto, I never once considered myself a gamer. I still played games on my PlayStation 2 and Gameboy Advance, but I thought that's what everyone my age did and didn't see it any different than playing dodgeball or bike riding.
But one day it all changed. I started seeing myself as odd after I started playing Ragnarok Online and other MMORPGs I dipped my toes in. It wasn't that I was playing the games, it was that I couldn't stop. It was (and still is) an on-going joke that World of Warcraft players lose their soul to the game and become their avatar, but it was a phenomenon that I became familiar with. Sometimes I was up late on the computer completing homework in a panic or forgetting it. Other times I found myself making excuses to keep playing, losing track of time, or getting into arguments with my parents over it. It had become a part of me. And like Neopets and Gaia Online, it was an easy transition. Instead of minigames, I became comfortable in dungeons for the same goal I always had - make money to buy things.
Bakonawa from RO. It was fun joining parties to fight bosses. You know, using the internet like all the other little children.
But I didn't consider myself a gamer. I considered myself a nerd and embarrassed at myself. When I wasn't embarrassed, I was playing games. It was my go-to activity and when people would ask me what I liked to do, it was always "use the internet." It was a common answer and no one ever questioned me. It wasn't that I didn't want people to know I played a game, it was that I didn't want them to know I used the computer so much. Playing MMORPGs wasn't gaming to me; I was simply using the internet. Eventually I curtailed my addiction, but it wasn't easy. The process is a common story for some.
Getting into the competitive scene
It's one thing to be thrust into the competitive scene, but it's another to accept it and own it. I bought Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl the first week, had my own Gamecube controller by the third week, and by the fifth week was searching out guides and challenging other players I talked to online. A year later, I was better than average and had a game library full of popular titles. Two years before, I had never even heard of most of them. Looking back, it's fascinating how one person can inadvertently change another's life. But if I had never gotten my parent's permission (hah, remember that?) to make a Neopets account, it never would have made sense to figure out options and adjust for "the best payout."
Soon I was playing other fighting games like BlazBlue and Marvel vs. Capcom, paying attention to gaming news, and talking to other gamers about their favorite genres and series. It was a brand new world that fascinated me and I wondered why I hadn't become a "gamer" sooner.
The friends I made in the Smash community became lifelong friends that carried over into other series and genres. We added each other across various social outlets from Facebook to Steam and knew each other on a firstname basis. Later, I joined League of Legends because of their suggestions, and never had a chance to play the game "casually." From Day 1 I was taught the basics, the tricks, and the matchups. With them I grew into a veteran eSports fanatic, watching some give up gaming to become fully invovled in their social life and career, watching others grow into internet stars or top players, and sometimes mourning when other friends passed away. There's a quote that says:
Life isn't about finding yourself.
Life is about creating yourself.
― George Bernard Shaw
As much truth as it holds, my life as a gamer was found first, then created. I stumbled across it one day, then took it and ran. I always knew I was a writer, I always knew I was an artist, but not this.
My competitive nature and friends almost made me lose myself at some point. My friends who played the same games casually became echos of the past. Some days I hated the very games I knew so well, and other days I couldn't understand why I wasn't having fun. Even now I struggle with the idea of taking games lightly because looking back, I never did. Looking back, I was the an impossibly competitive Neopets player.
Realizing I had been a gamer all along
There's no happy-ending with gaming online, it turns out. Used to pseudonyms with gendered titles, I didn't know I was marking myself for attention. Until I got into competitive gaming, I had no idea there even was a toxic culture that existed in certain spaces for women. I didn't know there was a need for women-safe spaces or women-only events. It's a miracle that I used the internet extensively yet was so sheltered. Looking back in my MMORPG days, I'd never had my status questioned based on my gender. If anything, people treated me nicely, and there were so many other women that I didn't even know there was a gender disparity.
What's that sound? Oh nothing, just my reality shattering
But I grew up and saw the dark side of the Internet by becoming more involved. It was an ugly truth that devastated me- had my whole life been a lie? People even said the behavior was common, and for the first time, I had to get familiar with blocking and muting features. The thing that astounded me the most was people using terms like "a man's game," or "manly" to describe their gaming. I had no idea that eSports wasn't a balanced playing field. Over time I've learned about all sorts of statistics about women in games - the genres they lean towards, gender-skewed marketing tactics, sexism, psychological studies about the sexes in gaming, what some gamers consider "real" games, and casual versus competitive gaming. The icing on the cake, it seems, is the whole Gamer Gate fiasco.
But nothing beats personal experience. In a way, I'm glad I never considered myself a "gamer" or involved myself at an earlier time. I wouldn't be here most likely if I did. I had time to fall in love so that no one could take the joy of gaming away from me. I see now that the largest part of the reason I never considered myself a gamer was ignorance, partly caused by the surrounding culture. People didn't introduce me to games because of their assumptions about me. Even though I had a Gameboy at a young age, I was rarely invited to link up cables and play together, as I saw others were. When my friend introduced me to competitive gaming, one of their tips was to just be nice and people would help me because I'm a girl.
But really they should've been nice to me because I was nice and played the Hamtaro games, right?
It would've been a nice sentiment if I didn't notice the same motivations for helping me across different games - the assumption that I had less skill, the expectation that I would be flirtatious and extremely thankful, or that helping me gave someone else some sort of bragging right.
But I digress.
The entire transition is a unique one to me, and because of my love of gaming, I will always be grateful to Neopets. Even when they implemented a literal virtual McDonalds restaurant. The experience has taught me that gaming has many different forms and outlets. It makes me wonder how many people don't consider themselves gamers because they don't play "real" games. Having played certain "casual" games out of curiosity, I can attest that games are a lot more intelligent, competitive, and accessible. With the rise of eSports and its legitimacy as a respected competitive outlet, it won't be long until even my Grandmother has the gall to call herself a gamer. With the occassional 6 hours a day playtime and the never-ending thirst for better opponents, I would consider her one now. Now if only she would stop inviting us on Facebook.
What's your gaming story? Did you ever participate in the Neopets phenomenon? Comment below if you'd like to share!