Consumer Education -- Wanting vs. Needing

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As I write this, games on Neopets have just returned to normal. I breathe a big sigh of relief. Cash in the form of Neopoints flows again. All is right with the world. I will be able to buy loss leaders for my shop. The games on Neopets were out for three days and reading the posts about the outage was englightening. Without games, most players don't get paid, without getting paid there is no NP to have fun and..... Well, all this raises a question, how many NP does it take to keep a pet happy, healthy, thriving and growing on Neopets? The answer is you do not need very much. What you want, however, may be another story.

What your pet needs... Pets need to be fed every day or so. It is good to have some toys to amuse them and a brush or comb to groom them with. Pets do not seem to be particular about what kind of toy or brush you have so go to the Shop Wiz and type in red short hair brush or green long hair brush or blue brush or whatever and set the prices low enough so that you get back an inexpensive grooming tool. I find inexpensive toys by chance. The seasonal football is a good starter. So too are kazoos. You can reuse your toys and grooming tool again and again. If you have a grarrl or a skeith, just make sure you don't accidentally feed these to your pet.

Food can be had for free if you have fewer than 2000NP combined or just one pet. There is one free omelette a day on the Tyrannian Plateau and the Soup Faery serves for those with fewer than 2000NP. If you have more than one pet and a bit of capital, food is still very cheap. Some items sell for almost nothing. Run these through the Shop Wiz. Run the Shop Wiz more than once so you get prices below 20NP and for some items as low as 1NP.

baked beans (requires a search for identical phrase)
musho peas
semolina (This is the flour from which one makes pasta)
prune juice
tin of olives
dried apricots
dried prunes
neoflakes cake
seaweed pie
asparagus yoghurt
finger crispies
salmon fishwich
sphinx links (requires a search for identical phroase

Of course it is nice for pets to advance by level and gain intelligence. The Shrine of Coltzan offers occasional level raises, and raises in other statistics. If you want to build your pet's intelligence (and if you start out with a grundo, this feels important), you will need to buy books for and read books to your pet. The best place for books is on the primary market in the three official book stores, but you need a fast connection and patience. One or two books a day are going to be all you can get, and you'll be paying between 500-1000NP per book. It takes between threee and four books to raise your pet's intelligence. There is, however, no time limit and you can do this slowly. Playing a game well or playing it several times will yield the 1000NP needed to buy a book.

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And if your pet gets sick, a trip to the Healing Springs in fearyland will heal him or her for free. On Neopets, you do not have to pay rent or build a Neohome. Neopets will gladly house you and your entire menagerie for free. There is no phone bill, electric bill, or taxes. Once you feed your pets, groom them, play with them, and read to them occasionally, you have a happy healthy pet that is slowly but steadily gaining in intelligence and level. Your pets are doing well so why shouldn't you be satisfied?

Well shouldn't you be satisfied???? If you are like most of us, you are not satisfied simply taking care of your needs. You want an awful lot of stuff. You want petpets, a paintbrush so you can give your pet a nonstandard color, a Neohome with twenty rooms, all the pieces in the treasure map etc... And if I ask you why you want all this stuff, you will tell me that it is cool. It is the stuff to have. Pushed a bit farther you will tell me that everyone has to work for something and this is a goal. I have two expensive petpets. I wanted expensive petpets because I wanted all of Neopia to know that I had wealth. I wanted status.

On a more subtle level you may be feeding your pet candies, slushies, fresh fruits and vegetables, or even health food. My personal favorites are the mega carrot muffin and the dried grapefruit slices. I also like the tree shaped crackers and cheese. It just feels so nice not to have your pet eating something grubby. You may buy your pet a toy that tickles your fancy. I just spent 800NP and two plushies on a basketball and 300NP the other day for a bicyccle. I felt that such toys were more appropriate for a Neofamily that contains a grarrl and a grundo. Neopets is a consumer paradise with plenty of choice. I alas, seem susceptible to being nickel and dimed as the expression goes. I bet you or some of your friends on Neopets are too.

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Why does this happen to us? Some people will say that wanting is natural. You of course want more and better posessionis, prettier ones, ones that bring you status etc... This is true, but these are not the only things you want. Put another way, you, like your pets have needs. Most of these needs are for intangible but important things:

Community -- interacting freely with others
Spirituality -- yes, this includes religion. It is a part of life.
Creativity and self expression
Self as part in the larger world that matters.
Education in the broadest sense of the word.

There are probably a few I left out. If you are on Neopets a lot, chances are unfortunately very good taht you are trying to meet your needs by fulfilling wants for things.

How does this happen? Neopets encourages conspicuous consumption. Look at any owner's (as in pet owner) userlookup. Unless they have done a lot of work with html and some serious writing, you will see mainly how much they have and what they have bought. You will see whether their pets are painted and whether they have built a Neohome. You can visit their store and judge from its size and the merchandise for sale whether the owner has a lot of NP or at one time had it and has now lost it. The most active players on Neopets are also the wealthiest and those who consume the most. You arre likely to see a lot of wealthy owners and it is easy to believe that is the norm.

Getting and spending is what people talk about! There are reasons for this (see below), but a trip through the Shop Ads board should be enough to convince a newbie that everyone wants that expensive item, the paintbrush, the map fragment, fancy swords for the battle dome. You name it.

The most enticing activities with the biggest rewards cost NP! It costs one hundred NP to spin the Wheel of Monotony and 500NP to spin the Wheel of Knowledge. Quests can cost thousands of NP.

The Neopets Team encourages a frenzy of consumption. Just look at the front of the Neopets' site. The latest news does not feature tips on getting along on less, how to write a great Neopian Adventure, fun things to do on the role playing board etc.... Instead, it advertises the latest petpet (available for an inflated price) and all her associated merchandise, the newest section of Neopia to open with more places to spend Neopoints, and the latest game to make Neopoints to spend on all those fun goods and activities. There are even avatars you can obtain (badges of conspicuous consumption) simply for buying one thousand useless items or a certain amount of dung.

Being poor is ugly! No your pet won't starve or even stay sick very long, but Neopets has designed itself to make poverty ugly. In addition to the wholesome foods available for only a few NP, there are burnt and half eaten foods, gross foods (Often this is an arbitrary designation), useless torn up items, and dung. If you want to write a Neopian Adventure, you will find yourself getting a plain page with words instead of the brightly colored decorated part of the rest of the site. This is a free activity but one that is tucked off in an obscure corner of the site. It is also highly restricted.

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Neopets DOES NOT reward cooperation With the exception of exchanging goods between Neofriends and the Trading Post, Neopets has few outlets for cooperative endeavors. On traditional Mu**'s (multiplayer role playing games to which Neopets is related) players must form into parties of three or four to obtain experience points. They must work together or not advance. On Neopets all gaming is solitary as is getting, spending, or consuming. Even your pets can not share food except for omelettes and who wants the leavings off someone else's plate. Remember about poverty being ugly.

The Neorules and the Neopets site itself are set up to purposely prevent you from filling your five intangible needs. Now there is a standard justification for the rules at Neopets and that is that the site must be child safe and that in today's litigious climate anything else would leave the Neopets Team open to a lawsuit. This justification would certainly be the sole reason behind the Neorules if none of what is in the above paragraphs were true, but against the backdrop of the rest of the site and also given Neopets' structure, something else is also going on. Let's take a look.

Neopets does not give users adequate space for personal expression/creativity. Petpages at Neopets are measured in characters (about 1800 or so is the maximum) and adventure posts are a bit smaller. The boards have a maximum post length of 400 characters. The public boards are also ephemeral. A post left there vanishes within five minutes as it is buried beneath an avalanche of other posts. Writing on the public boards is like writing in sand. Writing on a web page at Neopets is like writing in a cramped space.

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Then of course we have the censorship. It is not just pornography that Neopets keeps out, but health education, romance, history, politics, and religion, as well as a host of other useful subjects. And these subjects are what you need to fill your five intangible needs.

Health education includes discussion of sex and mental health topics. Given the age of most Neopians, they can read about these things in books available in libraries and find that info on the web. Put another way, if it effects you, you are not too old for it. Learning about one's body and mind is education, and what you learn is valuable beyond the walls of Neopets. Health education may be gross and frightening to some, but if it were off in its own corner as it is in many places on the net, its value as a nuiscence would shrink to nil. Of course teen girls talking about their changing bodies aren't going to be so interested in buying the latest paintbrush or playing games to get that codestone.

Someone who did not know much about traditional religion on the net suggested that the prohibition on religious discussion at Neopets is to keep out cults. I suspect that the prohibition is supposed to stop battles between Wiccans and Christians. Proselytizing is a high nusicence value, but proselytizing and argument are only a small part of religious discussion. On the conservative side of the web (and I mean socially conservative fora and ladies groups) religion is a wheel greaser and community builder and spiritually satisfying. Prayer requests, Bible (or other Holy book) study, inspirational stories are all standard fare. Of course those who enjoy this kind of thing are going to be busy with religious discussion and not out getting and spending.

History and politics (It's hard to get politics or religion out of history) are the stuff from which current events and gritty fiction and realistic literate role playing are made. Current events is a subject taught at school. Current events, history, and politics, are a way of placing oneself in the larger world. All of them are off limits at Neopets. Remember there is a war on, and if a bunch of Neopians are off discussing the current battles in Najaf and the recent failed recall election in Venezuela or pogroms in Europe several centuries ago, they are not out getting and spending. Is this getting familiar?

Flirting and romance among those who are interested in such things is harmless. Doing it where others are not interested has a nuiscence value that goes off the scale. Off in its own corner, it keeps those interested in such things utterly engrossed (You know the old sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll) and out of the marketplace. I don't think of it that way but for those who desire it, romance is also a community builder.

Prohibition of all outside links at Neopets deals a knife blow to education. Yes, there are some bad sites out there but there are so many good ones: html tutorials, current events sites, prayer boards, you name it.... Best of all much of the knowledge on these sites is useful outside the walls and in every day life.

In short, Neopets has pretty much assured that there is not much you can do or say if you are not out there getting and spending.

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So what can I do? What should I do? Clearly I am not going to tell you to quit Neopets. If you didn't like the site and hadn't made a huge investment of time and/or NP, you wouldn't be here and you would have quit already. If quitting is right for you, then go do it. If you choose to stay, you are going to have to keep in mind the difference between wanting and needing and all the influence that makes you keep wanting. Also be aware that you really do have to satisfy those five intangible needs, and the fanciest paintbrush, latest petpet, coolest battledome gadget etc... will not do it.

If you are comfortable making light banter about sports and entertainment (one of the few permitted topics) or doing certain kinds of role play that have no historical references in them, then try the public boards or the role play board. If you can write fiction without any historical reference or real world reference, also try the Neopian Adventure Generator. You are always free to work on your userlookup or your pet's pages. Getting graphics remotely loaded can be tricky. Neopets does not let you store any graphics on its site. There are also drawing lessons and coloring pages on Neopets. Try those.

For a lot of users, spending more time outside the walls is a good idea. Get a web site on a free provider and learn html. Web sites outside the wall are measured in kb not characters. Write your own Neopian fiction there. Because derivative works such as fan fiction can (if the copyright holder so chooses) run afoul of copyright law, you will need to change the world, species, place, and even object names but those who have experienced Neopia should still be able to recognize it. You will also be free of all of Neopia's censorship restrictions. You can also write essays about your Neopian experience. These by the way are covered by the fair use exemption to copyright.

Find web boards and pages that do discuss the subjects Neopets forbids. This holds for kids as well as adults. Kids who are old enough to have lasted through this essay, are also old enough to have those five intangible needs. The New York Times, and Utne Reader all have good quality web boards. There are tons of religiously oriented/spiritually focused groups you can join. For reproductive health and sexuality questions, Go Ask Alice is a super site.

Above all, learn to tame the consumer paradise of Neopia. That of course is the subject for another essay. Just remember to keep your needing and wanting in prospective. That is a start.

Eileen H. Kramer
August 16, 2004

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