April 14th, 2005
It's a Whole Neo World; Neopets.com is a Raging Success. But Some Find It Inappropriate and Even Scary
By Craig Rosen
Los Angeles Times
When Micah Shapiro finishes his homework and is allowed some recreation time on the computer, there’s nothing he’d rather do than visit his Kacheek, Grundo and two JubJubs.
“The first thing I do is check to see how hungry they are and see how many Neopoints I have,” says the 11-year-old from Northridge.
Once his pets are fed, he’s likely to play a few games and stay on the website for as long as his mom allows. “When I’m on,” he says, “I’m on for a couple of hours.”
Welcome to the world of Neopets.com, a highly addictive website where users and 48 species of virtual pets can visit 10 worlds—such as Faerieland and Mystery Island—shop, play hundreds of games, post messages and Neomail their fellow Neopians.
The site even has its own newspaper, the Neopian Times. Though the world of Neopia may be alien to many parents, their kids surely understand.
Founded in late 1999, Glendale-based Neopets has become one of the most popular youth-targeted websites and is one of the few Web entities that has successfully spun out merchandise, including trading cards and plushies (stuffed animals).
It even inked a cross-promotional deal with McDonald’s to include a small version of the Neopets plushies in Happy Meals, and recently announced a pact with Warner Bros. Pictures to develop and produce animated feature films based on the characters and virtual world of Neopets.
But Neopets’ success hasn’t come without controversy.
Some of the things that have made the site a successful business—its “stickiness” (how long users stay on the site), its use of what it calls “immersive advertising” (the site’s equivalent of film or TV product placement) and games that involve virtual gambling—have alarmed some parents, critics and even Neopets users.
“The computer and the Internet are not the greatest social interaction instruments,” says Ivor Weiner, an assistant professor at Cal State Northridge, who specializes in examining the effects of media on children.
Weiner, like some parents, worries that kids using Neopets excessively would be better off playing with their peers face to face, rather than spending time with virtual pets.
There are also those, including Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert consumer advocacy group, who find the site’s not-so-subliminal advertising offensive.
On Neopets, users and their pets can visit a virtual McDonald’s or a Disney Theatre and purchase virtual versions of real products with their Neopoints or play advertiser-sponsored games.
Neopets isn’t only for kids. In fact, according to the company’s research, 21% of its users are 18 or older.
Irene Potter, a 33-year-old teacher from Burbank, is among that group. Three years ago, she applied for a market research position with Neopets.
She visited the site, created an account and explored it in preparation for her interview. Although she didn’t get the job, she continues to regularly visit the site, even after making a career change to education.
“Neopets has games that are sort of mindless, innocuous, fun diversions,” she says.
Though Potter enjoys the site, she wonders if some of the virtual gambling games and Neomail functions are appropriate for children.
“The games can be really addictive,” she says.
When she received a Neomail from one user, asking her to be her Neofriend, she became a little uncomfortable.
“I just thought, if I was a little kid, without adult supervision, this could be a little scary or weird,” she says.
Neopets executives point out that users must be 13 or older to use the site’s Neomail or message boards unless they have written parental permission.
“In addition to that, we have several mechanisms in place just to make sure the site stays safe and family-friendly,” says Stephanie Yost Cameron, Neopets’ general counsel and executive vice president of business and legal affairs.
Those mechanisms include 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week monitoring of the site as well as proprietary filtering software that searches and weeds out potentially offensive language.
The site also encourages users to report inappropriate behavior.
A mother of three children, Cameron understands the concerns that some parents have about their children spending too much time in front of the computer, but she says Neopets offers a more interactive and educational experience than television.
“It’s a place where they have to think, they have to use their minds,” she says.
“They’re playing math games and drawing pictures, writing stories and learning to be a shopkeeper.”
Regarding advertising, Cameron says the site has far less than television “when you compare a kids’ half-hour TV show, which has eight to 10 minutes of advertising out of 30, versus millions of pages of content where far less than 1% has any advertising on it at all.”
Micah’s mother, Merrill Simon, doesn’t have any problem with the content or advertising on Neopets.
“I think it’s more innocent and less violent than ‘Yu-Gi-Oh!,’ “ she says, referring to the animated TV series and card game. “And the advertising I’ve seen on it is pretty low-key compared to other sites.”
Even Cal State Northridge’s Weiner, who has mild concerns about younger children being exposed to words such as “evil,” “cheat” and “destruction,” says that Neopets can be used in a positive manner and as a teaching tool or motivator.
“There are far worse things happening on television that kids are watching that concern me,” Weiner says. “If kids are really interested in them, then we as adults should turn it around on them and begin using these Neopets to teach them something.”
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