"If Only": Neopets' Nostalgic Economy
A lot of us have grown up since we started playing Neopets as kids. We've become more analytical and curious about what an economy is, what distinguishes a real one from a virtual one, and what the law of supply and demand means in a Neopian context.1 This is all super encouraging to see! I thought I'd add to the conversation by thinking a little more deeply about the concept of demand.
Demand, when you get right down to it, is not a law at all.2 It's not a fixed law in the sense that things fall toward—not away from—the ground, one plus one always equals two, and Dragona's diet necessarily includes socks. Rather, demand is rooted in desire; and desire, like any emotion, is difficult to quantify. The main idea I want to express in this article is that demand comes from desire, and especially with regard to the Neopian economy, it comes from nostalgic desire.
Nostalgia is the desire for something that is past, gone, irretrievable, lost. There are many types of desire, but if my observations are correct, nostalgia is the biggest desire driving the Neopian economies.3 I'll discuss some examples in a bit.
The most recent event that drove Neopia into a frenzy was, of course, Charity Corner, which lasted through the month of December. Players could turn in virtual toys r99 and under, for items with a similar rarity. The phenomenon of a Maraquan Shieldmaiden Plushie rising in value from 1 NP to 40,000 NP over the course of the event may have seemed shocking, but if you think about the desire behind demand, you'll understand why the price rose so dramatically.
The emotional reason for that increased demand is: "If only I had stocked up on those r90+ toys!" Multiply this sentiment a hundred times, a thousand times, and you get the numbers going up, up, up.
I'll write some more expressions, and perhaps you'll recognize the phenomenon I'm referencing in each case:
"If only I had created a Royalgirl Draik before the conversion on April 26, 2007!"
"If only I had purchased a Bakery Display Case from the NC Mall between July 6 and August 1, 2011!"
"If only I had been able to purchase a Coltzan Stamp when it was released on January 29, 2003!"
"If only I had read those books to my pet before they were retired!"
"If only I had participated in that plot and earned those prizes!"
If only, if only. In each of these cases, a past opportunity is lost, and there is no way to travel back in time. The only way to get an Unconverted Royalgirl Draik now, or a Bakery Display Case, or whatever the desired object may be, is to trade for it. To put in far more time and perhaps money than the desired object had ever warranted in the past, and convince somebody who has it to part with it, in exchange for things that are achievable now.
The most dramatic example is a trade of a Battledome (BD) pet for an Unconverted (UC) pet. Players purchase Lab Ray, Training, and Faerie Quest Fortune Cookies from the NC Mall in order to rapidly increase the stats of the BD pet they intend to trade. At the same time they work ceaselessly at earning NP in order to be able to afford all those codestones for training. It is a struggle against time. Every passing hour, every passing day is an opportunity that must not be lost. The young pet must be zapped four times a day, put on courses with as little time in between as possible, and relentlessly fed, and trained, and trained some more, in order to be on par with BD pets that began their training five years ago. And then maybe the owner of an old UC pet will trade. Maybe. But in the meantime, every day that you don't train is a step behind your competitors, who are also in search of that UC pet that can never be created again.
It is all one huge race against time, to make up for an opportunity that is past and gone.
When I realized the nostalgic nature of Neopian desire, the concept of demand suddenly became a lot less mysterious to me. For every steep rise in price, the phrase "If only" is key.
It seems to me that the best way out of the trap of "If only," is to look forward. To stop agonizing over what is lost. You cannot escape the law of gravity or the beating of your heart, but you can transcend demand because demand is not a law. Demand comes from desire, especially from nostalgic desire.
What if, instead of saying "If only," you said "Maybe"?
Maybe there will be a future item released that is just as pretty as the Bakery Display Case. Maybe there will be a new stamp avatar, for those pages of your album that aren't complete yet.
And in terms of speculation: Maybe there are items, available now for cheap, that will increase in value later. Opportunities don't exist only in the past. They exist in the future too.
1. If you're curious about the real-world origins of these concepts, check out Adam Smith's classic book The Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776. Most universities and public libraries should have it.
2. I'm basing my thinking here on a much more recent book, The Social Life of Things (1986), by a real-world scholar named Arjun Appadurai.
3a. There are two Neopian economies, based on two distinct currencies: Neopoints, earned in-game, and Neocash, purchased with real money. Players may not exchange NP for NC or vice versa. However, the two economies do affect each other indirectly, because NP and NC items routinely mingle in closets, safety deposit boxes, and galleries. If there is an NC item that a player wants but cannot afford, s/he can look for a functionally similar NP item. The opposite is also true for players who have money to spare, but not much time to devote to earning NP.
3b. Another way in which NP and NC intersect is via pet-trading, which can be thought of as Neopia's third economy. Any NC items that a pet is wearing will not move with the pet, but Battledome stats and paint brush colours do move with the pet, and these can be achieved with the help of fortune cookies from the NC Mall.