Philosophy -- Ethics as Consumer Choice

What happens to ethics in an extremely consumerist society such as Neopia? It is not pretty or for the faint of heart. In Neopia or Neopets, the online community/game with over fifteen million members, ethics do not exist. Nearly every action you take with your pets or your fellow players is an aesthetic or consumer choice.

How can this be? Doesn't Neopia have rules?

It does but most of them are to prevent you from competing with the games and the constant commotion of buying selling wheeling and dealing. The rules claim to keep Neopia safe for all ages, yet a teen writing fan fiction outside the walls (and there is a good reason she has gone outside the walls as we'll see below.) does so at Neopets' suffrance. She creates a derivative work and can run afoul of copyright if Neopets feels like engaging in selective enforcement.

The ten year old who is lucky enough to be cleared to communicate with others wants to discuss the news of the day on the board is in violation of the Neorules and risks losing his/her account. He/she will be free to sign up again, but all pets, property, and neopoints are forfeit.

The adult or teen with a prayer request may also lose her account on Neopets if she voices her request on a public board or to a fellow player who turns out to be untrustworthy.

A role play with a heavy historical context is prohibited. I could not play a rabbi running away from a village that had been destroyed by a pogrom unless I totally suppressed the back story. Historical stories in a religious setting are off limits.

I could not discuss sex differences and sex ratios of my pets on neomail, due to automatic censorship that was heavy handed. Pets are animals. They have a sex not a gender.

Nearly all prohibited talk with the exception of pornography and scamming, centers on the most interesting and enticing topics of conversation: politics, religion, romance, health, and even science. A conversation about one of these topics with teens' naturally salty language thrown in would be enough of a draw to compete with the games and shops that form the backbone of Neopia. Fortunately, as players become richer (or at least this is my experience) they become less and less inclined to challenge the Neorules because they need to protect their property.

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But isn't Neopia a fantasy world? Neopia doesn't need ethics?

Let's start by saying that the money is real. Neopoints, Neopia's currency is a scrip that can buy all manner of goods and services, everything from training and painting to a dung cream sandwich. Neopoints are real because the labor used to earn them is real. The labor involves playing games or restocking a store. And the labor is real work. Playing several games three times a day is work. It is not the same as playing for fun. Watching the main stores restock and then buying goods to sell at a profit to other players and then advertising your store to get others inside or advertising your trades and auctions is all hard work. And what people do with money and how others relate to people earning money is the beginning of a whole bunch of ethical issues.

But wait, I thoght you just took care of your pet on Neopets. I mean you have to take care of your pet?

No you don't. Lesson one of Neopian ethics, you may not be able to have a serious and interesting conversation, but you can spend your neopoints any way you please! Despite what I said after two weeks of membership and several frustrating months of membership back in 1999, it costs nothing to feed Neopets. There is one free omelette and one free jelly (Jello mold) every day. That is five servings of food, enough to keep even my four pet family fed. If not a bag of semolina or a jar of pickled olives or the winnings from Tombola if I am lucky finishes the meal. All this costs 10NP or less.

And yes, if you want to keep your pets happy you need a toy (just one cheap toy) and a grooming tool (again a cheap one is fine) to occasionally groom and play with the pets, but there are no penalties for having unhappy pets. You can go about your business with starving pets. And yes, it will say that your pets are dying, but they never die. Likewise, no diseases they get kill them. You can just drag along. The only thing you can not do with hungry (or starving or dying) pets is make them fight in the Battledome but if you are interested in Battledome you are usually feeding your pets and training them. Finally, there is no penalty for having a level one pet for months on end or having a grundo who stays dimwitted or some other species with only average intelligence. In fact, it is cheaper to neglect a pet than to put it in the pound which costs 250NP. It is very possible for a disgruntled Neopian t be too poor to give up a pet he/she no longer wants or can't care for.

And Neopia encourages poor treatment of pets. Wealthy players acquire the lab ray by amassing all the pieces f the Secret Laboratory Map. The lab ray not only paints pets random colors, it alters statistics and characteristics in a random way. Pets can gain and loose intelligence, health, level. They can change sex and species. Laboratory ray owners publish their lab logs and announce the daily changes. The pet that gets the daily zaps until he/she turns in to some highly valued combination of color, sex, and species is called the "lab rat."

Less wealthy players can buy morphing potions and change one pet to whatever color and species it specifies on the bottle. I transformed my white grundo, Shanti, into a strawberry tuskaninny. She is one of Neopia's rarest creatures but I obviously did not fully respect Shanti's character. I like Shanti the way she is but I imagine her as quite unhappy. I believe a virtual pet is a piece of yourself.

Even less wealthy players can acquire a pet to gain an avatar, a small image to use on the boards. When they get the avatar, they take the freshly created pet and dump it in the pound (cost 250NP). Recently the pound was filled with lemmis, flightless birds like ostricthes, created for Lemmy Day to get the lemmy avatar. Neopets does not penalize players for this behavior besides charging them the 250NP abandonment fee.

And any player can quickly acquire more pets than he/she can support. Players are allowed five accounts of up to four pets each. They can, however, only play games of skill three times per day (for each game) and get the daily freebies on one account per day. If you have multiple accounts, it is a certainty that the pets on the subsidiary account will starve. I have four starving pets on an alternate account right now.

People only take care of their Neopets because they want to. They find a pet that is "delighted" pleasurable so they take the time and the money to feed, groom, and play with their pets. They name their pets with care, but they get no reward for this behavior. Likewise caring for your pet can cost next to nothing and their are no sanctions for caring for a pet. It is purely a choice about what feels good to you as a player.

I am not sure what the implications are of having a neopet that is so much just a plain piece of property or a means to an end. I don't think it is harmful for adults, but for children who need to learn that we care for smaller and weaker creatures, treating one's pet like chattel can not be good.

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So the purpose of Neopets is to buy and sell. I still don't see what is wrong with that?

If caring for your neoopet is a consumer/aesthetic decision, you don't have any responsibility toward your fellow players. Now there are guilds out there but by and large most of the ones I've been in do nothing. Others transfer and lab ray pets and then turn them over to other players who must make a show of deference via a petpage application. This means they take the pet page that belongs to one of their existing pets (Remember the part about pets being chattel) and make it in to a page for the pet they want to adopt.

The wealthy are free to demand deference of the less well off. The poor beg. The poor beg for very good reason. Many desirable items on Neopets are quite expensive due to high demand, limited supply, and price gouging/profiteering. Games of skill are limited to three plays per day. This takes time and discipline. Also expensive items, collectible items, items flaunted in galleries rather than consumed etc... show up routinely in Neopets' site news to whet young consumers' appetites. When they discover that most of what is advertised is out of reach, the vulnerable become prey to scams and rather whiney. A kid (any one not paying his/her own bills) with limited computer time is probably never going to paint his/her pet unless he/she has understanding parents.

On Neopets price gouging/profiteering is called restocking. You buy cheap and sell dear. The only problem is you sell to your fellow Neopians. In plain English, you rip them off. Of course no Neopian (except me) would say that. They would call it "restocking," a sweet little euphemism and then say "well every body's got to make a buck. Otherwise why stay in business?"

Well, Neopia does offer games of skill. These take money from Neopets itself rather than out of the pockets of fellow players. Of course Neopians never discuss (except here) where money comes from and what is an ethical way to earn it and when does a profit become a rip off and is there such thing as an honest profit. Choosing games of skill for moral and practical reasons is simply a consumer/aesthetic choice. Those who make their money by restocking are also making a choice. And maybe the Shopwiz, a database search engine that allows comparison shopping is a great equalizer but it takes a reasonably mature and disciplined player to kick the Shopwiz repeatedly until he/she gets a low enough price.

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But you can win 10,000NP on the Wheel of Excitement. It even says so on some outside help sites that talk about Neopets....Everyone has a chance to win

And they win at Dice-a-roo, playing the stock market, betting on poogle and turdle races and playing twenty-one, round table poker etc... If you believe any of this you forgot what is a basic rule of any well run gambling establishment: THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS!

So you think I would be happy in Australia where no one can gamble on Neopets because parents got upset to find that their children were gambling. Well, I think Neopets locked out the Australians from the games of chance because it did not want it getting in to the media how absolutely pernicious those games are. Oddly enough, I have a fairly sanguine attitude toward under age gambling. I learned to spin the dreidl when I was five years old and gambled happily for candy. Yes, the dreidl, the Channaukah top, is actually a gambling device. Where it lands tells whether you win, lose, raise, or pass. I also bought my first set of poker chips at age twelve. My parents taught my brother and me twenty-one/blackjack and two types of poker. We played dump 'em in the dish poker (You play just for chips no money or for pennies that at the end of the game are dumped back in the dish.) or penny poker, and later I played poker at the infamous Risley poker table and later at my landlord's poker games. I also enjoy going to the harness track especially on dollar night.

All these rather pleasant pass times are a far cry from the gambling on Neopets. To start with the gambling of my youth was a social experience. You needed other players, family and friends. Gambling on Neopets is solitary much like the one armed bandits one finds in casinos or the video poker one sometimes sees in highway rest stops. When gambling socially (and I realize that sme of this is because I am female and I played in a mixed group) the emphasis is on having fun rather than ripping off a sucker. I remember trying to play poker while stoned and being told by those who could have cleaned me out (I would not have cared I was so absolutely pleasantly dazed) to drop out of the game which I did. On Neopia, there is no one to tell an inexperienced gambler to stop chasing her losses.

In fact, the young and the vulnerable are encouraged to gamble. The daily freebies which are random are the first taste of a game of chance. The snowager also sometimes gives scratch cards that are like lottery cards. Well if you like that than there is more and you have to pay. The Wheel of Excitement gives out a special avatar advertising itself to any one who wins 10,000NP on that wheel. Of course you will probably spend way more than 10,000NP trying to get there. The Wheel of Exitement can also make a pet sick if it lands on the wrong segment. I made Shanti, who was then a white grundo, sick on the first day of her life. I stayed away from the Wheel of Excitement after that. Do I have to say that in real life it would be highly immoral to gamble with the health of your pet? Of course on Neopets, the decision not to risk my pets health for the chance to win 10,000NP is an aesthetic/consumer choice (I detest sick pets and know I'll lose more often than win, though I'll never get the jackpot.) rather than a moral one. Still what does the Wheel of Excitement teach children about games of chance and what is acceptible to wager?

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Are you saying Neopets is a bad place for children, due to the lack of ethics and all that materialism?

Actually, children and some teens, bring with them a whole host of money related issues. What happens to some of the youngest players on Neopets is a cautionary tale of what happens when people with little knowledge, no financial discipline, and a lot of disinformation and big consumer appetites are let loose with cash. Imagine if you will a child or adolescent blind folded and ear plugged but with a debit card sent in to the mall. He/she can find the ATM and the stores and little else. He/she can not talk to the sales help, kids who have been shopping all afternoon, or even helpful adults. Als the mall staff lie and hide information. Welcome to the world of a Neopian ten year old, and if you are ten years old and have stuck with me this far and say "this doesn't apply to me&qut; it may not, but it is true for some.

Due to COPPA many under thirteens are cut off from communicating with fellow players through lack of parental permission. This means that they receive no information on what objects do cost and can not use the boards to take partial refuge from the urge to get and spend. They can not join guilds, and worst of all the information they get about products comes from Neopets itself. Every few days, Neopia updates itself with a listing of new items and services. Most of these are too expensive for a beginning player. The rest are unobtainable. They are never in the stores or at least not when I shop there. Talking to fellow players helps the newbie get real information and prevent rip offs and avoid scams.

Also picture a ten year old with a debit card. She doesn't know thing one of how to take care of it. Even though married couples often have difficulty sharing a joint checking account, young Neopians routinely share their accounts with friends and family members. Imagine sharing your debit card with your friend. We all know why parents often do not (some do and some get burned) their teenagers take mom's credit card to the store. Beloved (and some are) pets end up in the pounds, funds end up exhausted, and sometimes whole accounts get frozen.

And how well can a young Neopian save for a distant goal such as a paint brush, morphing potion, or even a suite of furniture? Is a month of gaming sessions or a month and a half just too far in to the future?

Do ten year olds know how to window shop and use the database to plan purchases? Neopia will not give them any consumer education and if their parents have not given them permission to communicate with other players, other players can not help them either. They are probably the ones least likely to patronize outside help sites such as Nothing But Neopets.

It is often said by those on Nothing But Neopets forum (I'll attribute this quote when I can find out who says it.) that Neopets is not really a children's site. A large percentage of Neopians, however, are under age thirteen. Perhaps with good consumer education, education about gambling, not sharing accounts, and being able t communicate with other players, children can do well on Neopets and not lose their shirts. I wonder though if the moral climate of Neopets is good for them. The topic of children and Neopets requires an essay all its own.

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In short, outside of some very arbitarary rules that cut off interesting conversation and role play, Neopets is a world where the money is real and almost anything goes as far as spending and earning it is concerned. You can leave your pet to rot, gamble with its health, or change it randomly and then flaunt your wealth by announcing the change. It is all up to you? Neopia is a world without ethics or maybe where ethics are just one more consumer choice.

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Eileen H. Kramer
March 3, 2005