Same, But Different

on revisiting Habbo Hotel

Same, But Different

Look, I'm actually quite a forward-thinking person. Okay? I play new games, I read new books, and I actively pursue new experiences. I'm not going to sit here and say that all good music stopped in the early '00s because that happens to be when I was an adolescent (to be fair, nobody in their right mind would say that about the early '00s, but you know what I mean). I like new things! I do!

But the older I get, the more I cannot help but like old things. I feel comforted by them. The new world is scary and unnerving. Everything feels different. I spent the evening with my two best friends recently and came away with two thoughts, kind of opposite sides of the same coin:

  • The older we get and the more we change, the more we understand ourselves, which is good
  • The older we get and the more we change, the more everything else changes, which is scary

When do you stop wanting to be a grown-up, I wonder? I was watching Defunctland's video about kid cities yesterday and pondering something he said, about how children yearn to grow up while adults are desperate to revert back.

I see it in my kids. They're obsessed with the future. They're future junkies. They literally cannot get enough of the idea of the future. I'm the one occasionally trying to hold back the passage of time for them, to suspend the moment somehow, because I know that this present moment will one day be their past, and they'll miss it.

In the years 2001-2004, I spent a startlingly enormous amount of time on the internet. And because one of those online spaces I hung out in was resurrected this week, I decided to go back again. Just to see how it felt.

Habbo Hotel launched in August 2000. As a massively multiplayer online world with cute graphics, a simple sign-up process, and plentiful opportunities for shenanigans, it was essentially a beacon of light for me between the ages of 12-14. Those in-between years, they're tough, man. It is truly the liquidized smoosh stage of the metamorphosis into adulthood. You're hormonal, angry, confused, and, sometimes, you're a bit of a dick. You can't help it, because almost all tweenagers are, at some stage, dicks; it's just the natural order of things. And Habbo Hotel offered me the opportunity to exorcise that dickishness in a way that caused no long-term harm (or, crucially, got me into trouble). Who was going to tell me off if I purposefully stood in front of another player in the Ice Cafe Club and relentlessly danced at them while they begged me to move out of the way? My mum?

Habbo Hotel exploded in popularity when I was a teenager and just beginning to grow out of it, having exhausted all the mischief-making opportunities. The popularity of the game fluctuated over the following years, possibly not helped by the 2012 Channel 4 News report on pornographic and violent content people were sneaking into the game. And then, just this week, they relaunched Habbo Hotel as it was in 2003, which was roughly when I last played it, under the name of Habbo Hotel Origins.

We're back, baby! We're back to the golden era.

Unsurprisingly, I found that the name 'Megz' was already taken.

To be clear, I have nothing but happy memories of Habbo Hotel. I felt an immense rush of joy creating my boxy little avatar (who ended up looking more like Willow Rosenberg than me). I did, for a few minutes, forget all of my emotional woes, my to-do list, and my various ailments. Instead, I dived right back in, and it was literally as I left it, like picking up an old friendship after years apart with no trouble at all.

Thanks for having me, Carla, I'm sorry I chased your cat around the room for thirty seconds before abruptly leaving

For a few moments, it was a joy. The public rooms were exactly as I remembered them. I joined the end of a line of strangers and danced in front of a bar. Why not? Nobody knows me here.

And yet, my social awkwardness ended up kicking in. When you're young, I think, you're naturally more resilient when it comes to making new friends, because you have absolutely no option. Class changes, moving schools, moving with your family, all of it gives you a thick skin and a desperate need for human connection that completely overrides everything else. Online, as a teenager, I was able to throw myself into online spaces with no hesitation or embarrassment. And because every single adolescent is also desperate for belonging and friendship, you end up landing with a group of people that become yours, somehow.

Adulthood is much harder. I was thinking about this recently after my recent foray into networking events, but I am just not a networker. At all. I cannot insert myself into situations where I haven't specifically been invited. I get in my head. I feel weird. And it's the same with Habbo Hotel! My adultishness got in the way. I said a few awkward things, then dipped. Which is exactly how I am in real-life social events.

ICED was the furniture collection every sophisticated 13-year-old longed for.

Seeking solace, I created my own room instead. I threw myself into the spirit of things and named it 'heyyyyyy <3' and then made the room description 'just like hey, lol ;p'. (Sorry.) And I browsed through the furniture catalogue with the dawning realisation that I would have to spend my own money here.

User-created rooms back in 2001 were essentially a preteen pissing contest where the winners were, inevitably, those whose parents had the most disposable income. I never got to create elaborate rooms in Habbo Hotel, because my parents were (understandably) baffled by my desire to spend money on something you cannot hold in your actual hands. I didn't have a card I could spend on things, like my mum. I had to painstakingly work to earn credits through other methods, which I can't remember now, but probably involved daily challenges or something. Now, I have options. My thought process was this:

Screw it! I'm the Mum now!

But then again we did spend £80 in Aldi this morning.

Ended up doing a kind of furtive shuffle over to my bag to get my purse without alerting my husband (who would not judge me, but would poke fun at me at least a little bit). I topped up what I thought was a reasonable amount for the game in the first place (around £4.50 ish). And I furnished my little room.

I spent many an hour as a hapless, unemployed tween browsing the Habbo Hotel furniture catalogue and imagining my room of dreams. Nothing really stood out to me this time, despite having a mind-boggling amount of credits to spend. It makes sense, I suppose. If I had the same tastes that I had when I was twelve, I would live in an entirely lilac house (inside and outside) and have children named Destiny Amethyst, Crystal Petal, and Haze.

The Hand of God delivered my doormat, which is nice, isn't it

Adopted a dog, which was the ultimate joy of having your own room in Habbo Hotel. Picked the breed Slobber Don because I enjoyed the pun, and decided (unimaginatively) to name the dog itself Slobber Don, only to be greeted with a judgy message from the Habbo Hotel overlords that said 'Sorry, that name is unacceptable to Hotel Management', which is an appalling case of double standards.

Grumpily named my dog 'fine' and placed all the furniture in my room.

And then I quit. Because like every MMO, Habbo Hotel is way more fun with friends.

I've been thinking about what felt different about the internet back then. Obviously, as an adult, everything feels different anyway. One thing I've realised about myself is that I tie a lot of worth into my output, as a human. If I don't complete a certain amount of tasks in a day, whether that be ironing the school uniform or finishing all my freelance work, what am I even here for? What is the point of me? Am I worth anything at all, without this stuff? And that's a worrying philosophical pondering for another time, but this attitude does impact the way I spend my time online. Everyone seems to be doing so many things, you know?

And you don't have to be online for very long to see that the dark side of the internet is now less of a side, and more of the entire structure. Unkindness and rage bait are two of the foundational pillars that keep the whole thing standing. Did it used to be this way? I don't think it did. In the '90s and early '00s, the internet felt more collaborative, funny, indie, and, I don't know, optimistic. Less corporate, maybe. Less cynical. And on somewhere as benign as BlueSky, I occasionally take a bit of psychic damage because someone has posted something awful.

I know I'm looking back with rose-tinted glasses, but I know I'm not wrong, either.

I came away from that Friday-night deep talk with my friends with the realisation that sometimes our communities and our spaces, online and off, shift and change whether we want them to or not. And, sometimes, even if they do stay largely the same, we change so much that those spaces don't feel the same anyway. It's okay to feel a bit sad about that really. It's okay to long for a time that used to be, and to sometimes enjoy a quick trip down memory lane.

What's not healthy is constantly complaining that things aren't good enough anymore. There's excitement and possibility in the new, and there will always be joy and collaboration and silliness to be found. I've made some amazing friends online over the past few years and that, alone, makes it worth it. Perhaps eventually the internet will break under the weight of fake images, fake answers, and fake lives, but for now, bits of it are still good. At least, that's what I tell myself.

Anyway, all that is to say I have room in my life for an MMO with my online friends, maybe. Any suggestions?