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Neopets, an online game popular in the 2000s, is having a resurgence

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Pets, pirates, fairies and a magic money tree. Those are the sorts of things that populate the virtual magical world of Neopets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KURTZLEBEN: It's a website where users create and care for their own digital pets, take them on adventures and engage on message boards with other users. Sound familiar? Well, back in the early 2000s, it was extremely popular. And, apparently, it's having a resurgence during the pandemic. A story in The New York Times about the longevity of the website caught our eye. And we reached out to some users to ask what has kept them there or brought them back after so long.

ALEX PISCATELLI: I found myself with literally all the time in the world because I couldn't hang out with friends. I couldn't do anything. And so I decided to get on Neopets.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Alex Piscatelli (ph), who used to play Neopets in elementary school. She's now 25 and lives in Boston. When the pandemic first started, she got furloughed from her job. So like she said, she had a lot of time to kill, and she was also struggling with a lot more anxiety.

PISCATELLI: If I felt myself having a panic attack or starting to feel really anxious, I would kind of just open my computer, log on and have Neopets there for me. And I knew it would be a comforting thing that can kind of calm me down.

KURTZLEBEN: Alex says that other forms of social media can be fraught. It's easy to feel judged on Instagram or to feel like you have to put on a persona. But on Neopets, there's no pressure to be anything other than how you are.

PISCATELLI: The internet feels like such a place where you can kind of get lost in negativity. But Neopets is kind of the opposite of that for me.

KURTZLEBEN: Dana Hill (ph) is an artist from Seattle and, unlike Alex, never took a break from Neopets. She's been a regular since she was 17 and is now in her 30s.

DANA HILL: Neopets, to me, is a creative outlet of sorts.

KURTZLEBEN: She says the site gave her a chance to develop and sharpen her artistic skills, in part by rendering the pets themselves.

HILL: They're on two feet. They wear clothes. They have, you know, flat, almost humanlike faces with a short, little muzzle.

KURTZLEBEN: Dana thinks a large part of the site's appeal is the sense of nostalgia and safety people get from it. It's a refuge from the stressors of the real world.

HILL: I think Neopets as a whole is just a place where people can go, where things will always be familiar, and the world will always be sort of the same vibe that it always has been. And nostalgia is a pretty powerful thing.

KURTZLEBEN: She says it's been nice to see more people drifting back to the site over the past few years.

HILL: People would show up, and I would see usernames that I hadn't seen in, you know, a decade or more. And they'd be like, hey. I just got my account back, and I'm back. What's new?

KURTZLEBEN: Neopets says that the number of daily users jumped around 30% at the start of the pandemic and has since tapered off, but remains about 5 to 10% percent higher than pre-pandemic times. Alex is one of those people who stuck around. She has a new job and doesn't go on every day anymore. But when she's having a rough time, she logs in.

PISCATELLI: Sometimes, I really crave when things were more simple, when I was younger, when I didn't have to worry so much about the day-to-day. When I'm on Neopets, I'm just me. And I'm just playing this game that I love.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Dana Hill and Alex Piscatelli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.