“It’s easier to imagine the end of [Poptropica.com] than the end of capitalism.” — Mark Fisher
I have dreamt of flying: up over the city and between the clouds, chasing a woman with spiky pink hair who flies beyond me, just out of reach. She is called Betty Jetty. I am an eight-year-old video game character named Shifty Hamburger. How did we get here?
Poptropica was a free browser-based game created by Jeff Kinney, the author of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” You played as a randomly generated six- to 15-year-old who traveled by blimp between a number of self-contained worlds (“islands”). By finding inventive uses for gathered objects, solving puzzles, and helping strangers with odd jobs, you completed each island’s plotline and racked up as many medallions (the reward for doing so) as possible. It was contradictory, dense, and deeply weird, and for most of my childhood — really, most of my life — I was obsessed.
This was a result of where I had landed in the uncanny valley of the internet, born too late to be a Tumblr girl and too early to be an iPad kid. What we had instead was this game where knowing the right sequence of people to talk to and services to exchange could land you on reality TV or the moon.
I could explain what this looked like to my elementary-school self in the form of a list: of the hegemonic cultural tropes the game dipped into to streamline exposition (pirate island, Wild West island, feudal Japan island), or the Poptropica-specific tropes that recurred across worlds (opaque incentives, plot-twist villains, lots of exploration), or the social phenomena that mediated them (huddling in hallways and after-school programs to determine who had solved what parts of which quest). But you have to see it for yourself.
The first time I kissed someone — sorry, God — it was a boy named Kyle with whom I co-owned a Poptropica account. My summers were spent squatting underneath my grandparents’ dining table, hidden by its draped plastic cover, dodging Betty Jetty’s energy attacks on the old PC my Ye Ye hadn’t yet convinced himself to get rid of. It was old enough that instead of a trackpad there was this nipply red circle in the center of the keyboard that you pressed your finger into to move the mouse around; and I was young enough to feel like I was the one flying.
In the real world, children have very little power. And for media interested in telling stories about children, this is a problem. How do you give a powerless character narrative agency? Some plots resolve this with luck (say, you stumble upon a ticket to a chocolate factory) or inheritance (say, you are the bastard son of a Greek god) or wishful thinking (say, you live in a world without capitalism). Video games might still allow you to participate in economies through an artificial restriction of latitude, as in the Pokémon franchise, where you can amass nearly limitless wealth and clout as long as they further your narrow goal of capturing weird little animals.
Instead, Poptropica ignores the question entirely. Your goals are as wide and varied as the narrative requires. While capitalism shapes the places you explore, it does not shape you. You might find a five-dollar bill stuck in a tree, exchange it for a sports drink at the general store, and give the drink to a thirsty gardener in return for his shears — but for narrative purposes, the bill could have been any other object of similar value, and other than in rare moments like these, you do not interact with money at all. The game is profoundly uninterested in explaining why your character can jump, barter, and wheedle their way into saving the world.
For me, as a kid, this was the coolest thing ever. Not only was this a world in which I could realize my long-held dreams of living in a walkable city, owning a laser sword, and being a girl, but this was a world in which doing so was normal, rather than subversive enough to require internal justification. To be conferred agency without first having obtained status, experience, or capital meant something that I did not yet have the words to express.
Still, I want to acknowledge that this is a ridiculous, indefensible panegyric for a game that does not deserve half as much; anyway, if children’s media cannot be art, and video games doubly cannot be art, then what is the point of this kind of analysis? I am obviously not suggesting that the people who made Poptropica did so with consciously political intent. I am only, as anyone ever is, trying to explain how something used to make me feel.
And what that feeling was. It followed me into high school, where every three to six months in social studies or my friends’ bedrooms, I would check back in on my old character, looking alongside her for something I couldn’t quite find. The feeling followed me into the beginning of the pandemic, where I would spend hours at once lying on the floor, clicking through forums and Flash games that I remembered from when I was younger, riding their diminishing waves of nostalgia. But eventually it stopped.
When Adobe discontinued Flash Player a couple years ago, Poptropica ported a few of the newer islands to a different software and deleted most of the old ones. (You can buy some of the deleted content for $20 on Steam.) I was replaying Mythology Island (2010), a favorite of many of my childhood friends and one of the few “classic islands” to have survived the transition from Flash. In that transition, I realized eventually, its edges had been sanded down to make the gameplay more linear. Challenging puzzles had been removed; instead of letting the player explore on their own terms, characters gave you important items and told you exactly where and when to use them.
This oversimplification — not just its fact, but the lack of acknowledgment that it had happened at all — was what drove me away. I thought about how you can buy something that should last forever and know it might last closer to two years, and that the thing you replace it with may have a life even shorter than that. Think of home appliances, or Apple devices, or clothing, which are built to stop working but are otherwise indistinguishable from older versions of themselves. Or think of a piece of media that you return to year after year for the faith it puts in your own agency, and which you discover, on one such occasion, has changed from a work of unwittingly radical fiction into something like a consumer product. What does that say about its continued existence? And what might it say about you?
In Super Power Island (2008), you are the vigilante tasked with apprehending six implausibly named criminals who have gained superpowers and broken out of prison. Some of them are obviously bad guys — like Copy Cat, who clones herself to rob a bank, or Sir Rebral, who levitates huge rocks and hurls them at civilians — but their ringleader, Betty Jetty, is not. Her file notes that she is wanted for “flying without a license,” and when you hunt her down, indeed, this is all that she is doing.
It took me a while to realize I was jealous: of Betty Jetty, for one thing, but also of the distance between her character and mine, of losing the chase scene and restarting it over and over in anticipation of a different result, of the idea that we might reach that spectacular future from this speculative present. One name for this is planned obsolescence; another is longing. For years, anyway, I didn’t remember what happened when you actually caught her. What had stayed with me was the moment of flight.
— Associate Magazine Editor Benjy Wall-Feng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @wallfeng.