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How capitalism has ruined our once-beloved Poptropica

For many years, Poptropica was the go-to game for millions of children across the globe. But after years of selling out and sacrificing creativity for money, our beloved game of islands has sunken. – Photo by Pinterest

If you were a child who grew up in the 2000s, you have most likely heard of Poptropica

For me, the name brings up many emotions and sentiments of a more innocent time. A time where my only worry was how fast I could switch windows on my computer when my teacher passed by or when my friends and I would huddle by the computer station and scheme up the best ways we could get into each other’s chat rooms.

Poptropica makes me really miss those days. Even in my teen years, every once in a blue moon when I would miss that feeling of wholesomeness and unimpeachable blamelessness, I could come on to Poptropica and be a kid again for an hour.

For those of you who don't know, Poptropica is an online gaming platform that consists of a collection of interactive islands in which users must complete a series of tasks in order to complete the island and receive medallions.

Each island has a unique theme, plotline, tasks and mission for children to solve. With an educational approach in mind, many islands include adventures with historic figures, such as Thomas Edison, Zeus, Sacagawea , Marie Curie, Ben Franklin and more.

There’s something really exhilarating about the immersive experience you get while playing, and for the same reason people enjoy puzzles, there’s something oddly satisfying about being frustrated or “stuck” and then finally reaching that “aha!” moment.

And for children, I think that “aha!” moment is critical — it helps with self-soothing techniques and builds confidence and determination. Plus, it was also a great way to get out of practicing times tables.

Much of the website’s success can be contributed to the game's creator, Jeff Kinney, otherwise known as the mastermind behind the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series.

“I was mowing my lawn one day when the idea for Poptropica sprang up. It’s changed a lot from its initial conception, but the basic idea is still there. We publish every story we come up with that feels like it has merit," revealed Kinney in an interview with Words on a Limb.

The game begins with a customizable character, and a name generator generates a nonsensical name for your cute little character (growing up, mine was called "Fast Singer").

Then, you can take a hot air balloon to different islands, where the citizens of the island will approach you and ask you for help completing missions.

Some are very complex and have to be completed over time, while others are won rather simply. Regardless, each island features various minigames, along with an overarching storyline.

If you’re a longtime fan of Poptropica, you probably remember classics like Shark Tooth Island, Superpower Island and Spy Island.

After carefully exacting my research and reviewing all of the islands I had completed as a kid, I have come to the conclusion there is one island that is the most superior of them all: Mythology Island. It's the 12th island on Poptropica, and holy f***, it’s a classic.

I mean seriously, not only is it historically accurate (for the most part) but also going through the Labyrinth was one of the most exhilarating times of my young life. Then when you fight Zeus? And win? Mind-blowing. Seriously, absolute 10/10.

At one time, Poptropica was free to all members. It worked in connection with for a while but quickly outgrew that platform. And by 2012, the game had grown to have more than 500 million registered users, with 35 million in the 15-25 age group.

Versions of the game have appeared on multiple platforms, and over its lifetime, Poptropica has acquired 40+ islands, all with different themes and tasks, and the site has even created islands advertising for famous children’s books, such as "Big Nate" and "The Magic Treehouse."

Recently, I logged on to Poptropica for the first time in years, and I was appalled and outraged by what I saw.

The Poptropica I knew and loved was destroyed. Of the 40+ islands I had at one time completed, only 10 remain (apart from the home island). Aside from that, my computer was so slow I thought I had caught a virus. And suddenly you had to have a membership to have access to certain items? What the hell was going on?

Turns out in May 2015, it was announced that Family Education Network, which owned the gaming site, was sold by Pearson to the interactive-education venture capitalist Sandbox Partners.

Consequently, Poptropica creators deactivated many islands as they transitioned the technology of the game from outdated Flash to a new platform.

“The Sandbox team truly understands the informal learning space that kids want and how important it is to reach out to parents and teachers at the same time … They will support us with establishing Poptropica as a consumer storytelling brand for all media, languages, territories and delivery devices, for generations to come," said Kinney (more like, gave an excuse) in an interview with Publisher's Weekly.

The decline of classic childhood games in the interest of consumerism is no new phenomenon. Club Penguin, Webkinz, Neopets, Moshi Monsters and Toontown Online have been ruined by an elitist and capitalist agenda, and this a problem for several reasons.

For one, video games simulate reality for children. Ideally, they are spaces that create equal playing fields for all players. But when they cannot relate and partake in the same amount of fun as other kids around them, either because they can’t afford a membership or because their parents refuse to pay for one, this phenomenon subconsciously instills the idea of wealth inequity in children.

After all, these games teach kids the value of money, and when they create class separations between who can and cannot afford to pay up, it can make children feel excluded from their peers and help form the very beginnings of the child’s relationship with money and ideas of class. 

Capitalism isn't only exploitative to the people who create games for us but also stifles creativity with all the usual constraints of capital: money, time and intellectual property.

What we see happening here is major studios squeezing out their smaller competitors before they even have a chance to become the big fish. This creates a monopoly on games and on creativity, posing a much larger problem for the community of those who are employed in the business.

While big companies, such as Nintendo, can afford to develop intellectual property licenses, smaller companies must struggle to, for lack of a better term, cover their asses.

Moreover, this limits artists in the creative content they can produce because, ultimately, it has to cater to the mainstream in order to be profitable.

In the case of Poptropica, this larger corporation decided to increase interest by limiting availability to all islands and characters to the select few who would be willing to pay. But, like capitalism naturally does, it backfired, and now, Poptropica has less than half the islands, fewer subscribers and some very unhappy Generation Z-ers, such as myself, writing articles about them.

Although the Poptropica we knew as kids might be dead, the company continues to plan on releasing new islands. As for the future of Poptropica, who knows how long it will last? But until then, all we can do is remember fondly of the fun, escape-from-reality adventure land that it once was.

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