I enjoy April 1 every year, curious to see what my friends and kids are going to pull and just as interested to see what funny things appear in the online world. Google had a good one this year with Gmail Motion, for example, and my 8th grader was all psyched about her trick: giving some boys Oreos with the filling replaced by toothpaste.
Sometimes, inevitably, an April Fool’s misfires and ends up coming across awkwardly or inane rather than witty or droll. That’s okay.
But nothing prepared me for the extraordinary insensitivity of the team at Neopets. A huge virtual world aimed at children, each member has one or more cute little virtual pets that they nurture and play with in the digital world. My kids aren’t participants (I don’t think kids need to be on computers, but that’s another topic) but I know from their pals that this kind of stuff can be a big deal for little kids.
So check out the Nickelodeon-owned company’s idea of a funny prank:
Yup. They unleashed a pandemic on the little animals, Scourgies, and even warned members that while there was a temporary cure at the Neopets hospital, “if a more permanent cure is not found, it may not bode well for your neopets.”
This is their idea of a funny joke? A veritable digital pandemic on children’s pets is a cute April Fool’s joke?
My take: this is an appalling, tasteless and highly inappropriate joke on their part and I am not surprised that the Neopets-themed discussion boards lit up with anxious discussions from younger members trying to figure out whether their much-loved digital pals were really in danger of dying from Scourge or not.
Having said that, I’d like to think that I’m not ridiculously politically correct. Heck, I laughed at the much-maligned GroupOn ads at the Superbowl, surely that means I’m not hypersensitive to this stuff!
Still, it wasn’t very long ago that we were told all sorts of dire predictions about Avian Flu (aka H1N1) and how it could unleash a pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth in the last century. Scary stuff, and doubly so because how random pandemics are: I could be fine but my children could die, or vice versa. Not a pleasant thought.
This issue came to my attention after receiving a very interesting note from a reader named Morgana, who works in the medical community and shared that while she knew a lot of older kids thought the Scourge was funny, she was upset about Neopets making a joke out of something quite serious.
Think about it. They could have had “lovesick blues” and the cure was simply for the Neopets owners to get a special treat for them at the store, or the pets could have had mohawkitis, where for an hour they had a mohawk, but a pandemic with no known cure?
Oh, and it doesn’t end with the Scourge. Apparently Neopets can also get something called the Neoblues, depression, and the only cure is to eat a “Tasty Pie”. Really, guys? Sweets as a simple cure for depression?
Sure it’s just a children’s site, but as the parent of three, I know all too well that the messages and stories they’re exposed to are exactly what they internalize and use as the basis for their own approach to dealing with their stresses, anxieties and problems. The cure for depression is food? Okay. Can I have another carton of ice cream, daddy?
Maybe I’m alone in my outrage over Scourge and Neoblues. What do you think, dear reader, is this stuff amusing and appropriate for a site aimed at younger children, or is it rather incredible that this is how they try to expand user interaction on the site?