Why Poptropica Mattered
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
By Arian Tomar
Digital Image via Poptropica
Poptropica changed my life. If I’m being honest, I think it influenced many young people more than we acknowledge. Poptropica was a cute, simple, informative introduction to what the internet was capable of in the late 2000s. To me, Poptropica represents an internet full of stories, exploration, connection, and advertising, a microcosm of the essential parts of the internet. I owe my outlook on the internet and the world as a whole to a first impression made more than a decade ago, on a computer slower than my phone today.
From the moment seven-year-old me logged onto the website in 2010, the vibrant colors, funny looking characters, and simple layout of the website immediately captured my attention. The fans on my family desktop kicked to life as I loaded into the world of Poptropica. After I created a username and created my character, I was thrown into a map of islands, Poptropica’s biggest draw.
Nearly a decade later, much of that first impression is the same. When you log on, you’re immediately dropped into a hub world cluttered with advertising and bright colors. Here you can find shops to spend credits, get pets, and customize your character. The most important part of the hub is that it gives you access to the blimp that will take you to the numerous Poptropica islands. I’m glad to see that the Poptropica essentials have not changed much. That’s not to say that the game hasn’t changed at all, though. The hub world is entirely new, there are a wider variety of cosmetic options, you can get a pet, you get a customizable clubhouse, and you can add friends. All of these are welcome editions that modernize an older game.
For those who haven’t experienced Poptropica —and may not have their nostalgia glasses on as I do— it is an online point-and-click role-playing game created by Diary of a Wimpy Kid author, Jeff Kinney. The flagship experience of Poptropica is traveling to various themed islands to complete quests based on each island’s theme. For example, on Mythology Island, the player is asked to satisfy Zeus by battling monsters throughout various Herculean tasks. I consider Mythology Island to be one of the more educational islands, considering that the player will engage with Greek mythology; albeit it is a simplified version. Once an island is beaten through resolving the conflict, the player is awarded in-game credits that can be used to buy cosmetic items like costumes and special effects.
When I think back to how I first heard of Poptropica, I remember that one of my friends had recommended the game to me. From the moment I was first introduced to Poptropica, it served as a way to share experiences with my friends. Poptropica differed from other online games of the early and late 2000s because it was largely single-player. While you could interact with some other players, this engagement was not at the level of Club Penguin, for example. However, this was not a barrier, considering that Poptropica and Club Penguin occupied very different spaces and had different goals. Poptropica encouraged personal connection by providing players with one story that they could all share. I remember discussing difficult puzzles with my friends in elementary school. We would discuss the parts that made us laugh, our frustrations, and our in-game discoveries. In this way, Poptropica helped me socialize by providing a shared experience to discuss with others offline. Poptropica connected people in the real world by giving them something to experience in the online world.
Poptropica served as a way for us to become “more adventurous.” There’s just something to Poptropica that “makes you want to discover more.”
None of this would have been possible if Poptropica’s islands and stories were not worth sharing. There’s Cryptids Island, Steamworks Island, Wimpy Wonderland Island, Astro-Knights Island, Shark Tooth Island, Super Power Island, and so many more new places to explore. Each island’s carefully crafted story unfolded in an accessible, engaging, kid-friendly fashion. Of course, there were islands that were harder to complete but Poptropica’s accessible storytelling was always a constant.
Further addressing Poptropica's accessibility, one friend highlighted how the “different levels of difficulty” accommodate younger, new players and could support their growing skill level as they grew more comfortable with the game. This attention to difficulty, paired with approachable controls, and an open user interface made Poptropica a game that anyone at any age and ability could enjoy.
When I asked some of my friends about their experiences with Poptropica, it’s evident that this game was an important part of our lives. For one of my friends, Poptropica allowed them to “explore the world” and “utilize the fullest extent” of their imagination, all from “the little computer” at their local library. Additionally, another friend added that they “loved [Poptropica] because of how personal it felt.” Despite being one of millions of players, every island, every story, felt like it was our own. This really speaks to the depth of the worlds Poptropica let us explore, while meeting us wherever we were; whether that be the school computer lab, our family’s home computer, or the desktop at the library.
One of my favorite islands was Cryptids Island where a wealthy business owner offers a one million dollar reward for anyone who can prove the existence of cryptids — animals whose existence had never been proven. In the player’s search for cryptids, they will travel to five different locations to capture proof that the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, Chupacabra, Jersey Devil, and Bigfoot exist. Along the player’s journey, they’ll team up with a fortune hunter, learn about cryptids, and practice creative problem-solving skills to prove that cryptids exist. Along the way, the player will explore the various locations where these cryptids have been spotted. Despite the simplification for sake of accessibility, I found Poptropica’s depictions of Loch Ness, the Himalayas, Puerto Rico, New Jersey, and the Pacific Northwest of the United States to be engaging. Though the story isn’t groundbreaking, nor is it highly educational, Cryptids Island still sticks with me as an enjoyable way to explore the existence of cryptids.
Hiding secrets and twists in the farthest corners of the islands, Poptropica encouraged players to explore the world around them at every turn. The creative critical thinking and, at times, abstract problem solving required made deciphering every island an awesome puzzle. The platforming and puzzling tasks showed players a new way of engaging with their virtual environment. Poptropica let players explore their worlds while equipping them with a way of thinking that would better suit them to explore the internet and real-world around them.
Returning to my experience with Cryptids Island, I found myself fixated on proving the existence of cryptids in the real world. The simplified locations of cryptid sightings in the game slowly became flushed out and detailed as I took to the internet to explore if these creatures could really exist. I remember having a Wikipedia page open as I was playing through the island so that I could read more about the cultures that supported the existence of these cryptids. I would watch videos on their existence and attempt to look for them in the trees from a speeding car. Poptropica showed me and other players that there may be more to the stories of life than meets the eye, and in the best-case scenario, players took this to heart and began to look deeply at the physical world around them.
Poptropica also found a way to make the reality of free internet services palatable. From the get-go, third-party advertising — including Poptropica’s own internal advertising — proliferates the site. From sponsored islands — like Galactic Hot Dogs, Timmy Failure, Big Nate, and Wimpy Wonderland Island — to in-game advertisements from the likes of Kellogg’s and Disney, Poptropica makes the reality of advertising on the internet evident. However, compared to more predatory marketing practices targeted at children — like loot crates, pop-up ads, or frequent in-app purchase options — Poptropica’s advertisements seamlessly integrate into the world. The game will never force you to use credits or mandate having a membership but as a free site, Poptropica still has bills to pay. While I was never ultra-aware of the ads, being exposed to advertising at such a young age gave me an understanding that while the internet is easily accessible, it isn’t free. The price consumers pay for access to the endless wealth of information on the internet is paid through advertising. All I can hope is that more websites follow Poptropica’s approach and employ nonpredatory practices, integrating advertising in a palatable, kid-friendly fashion.
In short, Time said it best when it placed Poptropica on its list of “50 Websites That Make the Web Great.” Through its approachable storytelling, kid-friendly design, attention to detail, focus on exploration, ability to connect, and mindful advertising, Poptropica was a beautiful introduction to the World Wide Web.
Thank you, Poptropica for showing me, and millions of other kids around the world, what the internet can do for us. It is a tool to connect, to educate, and to help us engage with and explore the physical world around us.
Written by writer Arian Tomar