A Generation Z’s Poptropica Addiction
Tall tomatoes, serotonin hits, and 3 a.m. ramen
Laura M.’s alter-ego is named Tall Tomato. Tall Tomato’s hair changes from bright blue to pink to purple depending on her mood. She wears expensive clothes but is always barefoot, and she spends her time saving people’s lives without asking anything in return.
Laura has grown to identify with Tall Tomato so closely that if someone called out the name in public, she would respond.
Tall Tomato is Laura’s character in Poptropica, an online world launched in Sept. 2007 — the same year the first iPhone was released — as a platform for children ages 6–15 to solve a series of quest-oriented tasks. The world, largely created by Jeff Kinney of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, is filled with vivid 2D animation and colorful characters. It offers 57 levels of “islands” for players to complete, with “medallions” displayed on the player’s profile as certificates for completion. At its peak, Poptropica had more than 500 million registered users, according to Wikipedia.
Most of those users have long since forgotten about a game that seems like a dinosaur in today’s world of realistic online gaming. But Laura, now a 20-year-old college sophomore, remembers.
Laura, like most, played the game as a child and then forgot about it. But two months ago, she remembered it and created a new account out of curiosity to remind herself why she enjoyed the game so much as a child.
Big mistake. Twenty-six days and over 100 hours later, she had completed all 57 islands.
Every weekday, Laura would work and go to class. Every night, her roommate would find her playing Poptropica in bed, screaming the f-word at the screen out of frustration. On Friday and Saturday nights, she would go out to campus parties and stumble back to her room around 3 a.m., where she’d fix herself a cup of ramen and pull up Poptropica on her laptop. Sometimes friends would join her, but usually they would just play next to each other in silence.
“There’s no way children can be completing some of those islands,” said Laura. “I mean I’m dumb, but I’m not an idiot. There are a lot of tactical moves you have to make … that are not at all something that any sane or rational person would come up with.”
Laura admitted that drinking before playing probably didn’t help but insists that she would’ve found it hard anyway. In moments of desperation, she looked up cheat hints online because losing wasn’t an option.
“You have to win!” Laura said. “You have to win. You can’t not win. Half-assing it doesn’t get you all 57 medallions, does it?”
Laura half-asses nothing. Some categorize their lives into phases based on location or age or work or friends. Laura’s life can be sorted into her past obsessions. Before middle school, she would describe her obsession as “pretentious asshole,” where she actively disliked anything that her peers liked. In middle school, she became addicted to “Criminal Minds” and then “The Mentalist” on TV. In high school, she became a layout editor for the school newspaper and started spending everyday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. working on it. Once she starts getting involved in something, she uses all of her emotional and physical energy for it — even if it’s a children’s computer game.
“I think it’s fun for children because it’s like, ‘Ooh, jumping and finding stuff!’” she said. “I mean I don’t know. I’m not a child, but I assume that’s what’s fun. [But for me] it gives me something to do. If it’s mindless, it also distracts you from the nightmare that is your life.”
Instead of writing essays or doing laundry, Laura would be shooting Zeus out of the sky to keep him from taking over, fighting through a zombie outbreak, stabbing viruses with a flaming weapon from within a character’s body, or climbing up a mountain in a ninja costume. Then she would quickly finish her work in a couple of hours and continue.
“Who cares if I drop out?” Laura joked. “That’s fine. I can play Poptropica from home.”
When a Poptropica player completes the first 50 islands, they are given the option to pay a little over $3 a month in order to gain access to seven members-only islands and more clothing options.
So Laura forked it over. She is still a member today, as she waits for the site to come out with more material.
“Fun fact: getting those medallions is a direct shot of serotonin into your brain,” Laura said, laughing. “I can’t believe you’ve never played Poptropica. How are you getting serotonin?”
She paused, and her roommate’s muffled voice shouted, “REGULARLY!” from across the room.
“That’s so stupid,” Laura responded. “You haven’t felt real happiness until a Poptropican gives you a medallion for saving their livelihoods.”