The week of January 17, 2016

Growing up Habbo: My so-called life in the first social network for teens

By Erica Lenti

The room is filled with expensive furniture: a dozen green sofas, multicolored water fountains, space-age doors. As I enter, my feet graze through grassy patches on the ground, an orange toque bopping on my head with each step I take. This is my domain, a refuge from bullies and schoolwork and unrequited crushes. I settle in on the couch and within minutes, the doorbell rings: It’s my friends, a small party that yields a Cheers-like welcome—everybody knows my name. A butler serves us drinks, and we chat into the wee hours of the night.

It’s 2006. I’m 12 years old. I’m rich and famous, and the unexpected popularity is, in my mind, spellbinding. But none of it is real—it’s all just pixels, the furniture and friends and admiration confined within the virtual walls of Habbo Hotel.

In the real world, I am slumped at my desk—no fancy butlers or sofas in sight—hiding away from my classmates and the neighborhood kids who hurl insults at me. I play Habbo, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) where kids can congregate, build rooms, and chat, ritualistically each night.

Created by Finnish developer Sulake in 2000, Habbo sits at the intersection of Second Life and Club Penguin, providing a getaway for the youth of the Internet in the early years of the millennium. The gist of the game: Users, armed with tiny characters who bounce between “hotel rooms” they design and furnish, interact with other players in a tiny Internet gathering place. As of 2012, more than 270 million users have checked into the Hotel. Sulake would not provide updated numbers, perhaps evidence that the game is past its prime.

I joined Habbo in 2004, when the game first launched in my native Canada. On a dial-up Internet connection, I would sit for half an hour at my computer, watching the Hotel load—the gray box would fill millimeter by millimeter, crawling like a caterpillar across my screen, and each time, I held my breath in fear that someone would call my landline and disconnect me. Then at last, the familiar yellow-and-orange building, lined with pine trees, would bounce up on my screen. The game’s familiar motto—“Where else?”—rang true each time I entered my password and transformed into my 8-bit avatar, Junkie87. There was nowhere I’d rather be.

I was infatuated by the technology: Here, I could inject an avatar with all of my favorite traits and run amok with little consequence. I chatted with who I wanted and ignored the rest. Occasionally, a boy with a spiky-haired character would flirt with me (“asl lol,” he’d write). There was no need to play nice; I’d leave the room, a vanishing act. This selectiveness prevailed: Players were not shuffled together, forced into friendship like kids seated next to each other in class. Rather, we chose each other, tweens from coast to coast congregating on the premise of shared interest. My Habbo friends list had just 100 slots, reserved for the few players I wanted near-instant access to chat with, people with similar beliefs. This curated list dictated how I experienced the game—not unlike a user on Twitter today, handpicking accounts to follow that purvey similar worldviews .

A game developed solely to build community—arguably, the original social network—Habbo made it easy for me to find these like-minded friends of my own. Though we were unlikely to meet in the flesh, we formed a community that we believed was impenetrable by real-world conventions that exhausted us. Together, we formed our group of misfits, behind screens across the planet, toasting bot-served bubbly to the virtual hotel we called home.

“I feel like we are on top of the world. I feel so cool with you guys.”

• • •

It’s a weekday afternoon, and kids are out splashing in public pools and wreaking havoc on Toronto’s streets. But I am in my usual spot: the dark basement of my family’s suburban bungalow, shoulders slouched and eyes glued to the computer screen. On these days, when I have nowhere to be but online, I am disheveled—my hair is matted, and I’m almost always in pajama pants.

On Habbo, my friends are dancing in Club Mammoth, a room complete with a black crystal disco ball and a DJ booth. The blue dance floor is filled with tiny characters, shifting from clique to clique, conversation to conversation. It’s like an online bar scene, an odd place to be considering most of us have yet to hit puberty. The closest my friends and I have ever gotten to this kind of environment is a school dance, and we all agree those are lame.

“Dance with me,” one friend prods. I oblige and click the square that moves my avatar to the dance floor. Another click of my mouse sends Junkie87 into spastic motion, twisting her arms and legs in a way my weak body—likely frail from sitting in front of a screen for hours—could never move. My avatar is sleek, fast-moving, animated: the opposite of the real me. My friends move me online while I stay stagnant in my chair.

“I feel like we are on top of the world,” I respond. “I feel so cool with you guys.”

As a tween, nothing matters more than being cool. At 12, I assume the Internet is my only last-ditch avenue through which to attain popularity. I fail to connect with my peers in real life: I am a misfit at school, a straight-A dork with few acquaintances. My prepubescent awkwardness disappears behind Junkie87’s dance moves and knowledge of memes.

My Habbo friends are in the same boat: Colin lives in a small town hours north of Toronto, with eight streets and one high school. Christina’s friends tease her for going through an “emo phase.” Katelyn is an easy target for bullies: overweight with crooked teeth and an over-the-top obsession with High School Musical. Habbo provides an escape for us.

Often, we chat on MSN Messenger while playing the game; we’ve mastered computer multitasking. We occasionally exchange photos of ourselves to each other, satiating the curiosity of who is behind the screen. But these small glimpses into our real lives are of little importance: Habbo is the glue that keeps us together.

While the kids around us age, start experimenting with makeup and marijuana, we stay online and craft the perfect avatar—nice hair, well dressed, and rich with the rarest of Habbo collectibles. In the flesh, we may be awkward, prepubescent, uncool, and broke, but no one has to know. We have sculpted our own Davids with pixels, shaped not in our likenesses, but in the likeness of those whom we think we want to be.

Habbo was no different from Facebook or Twitter or Myspace: It was a place to connect, to come into oneself, to grow online.

This is not novel. Today, teens shroud their insecurities with Instagram filters. RSVPs to Facebook events suggest a busy social life. An online identity is no more than a handcrafted portrait—just a hint of hyperbole here or there. A profile is not unlike an avatar. Habbo was no different from Facebook or Twitter or Myspace: It was a place to connect, to come into oneself, to grow online.

But Habbo diverges from traditional social networks in that its users rarely connect in real life. A false sense of personhood can be maintained. Our friendships thrive in this arena, where our real selves are shielded and our best traits are our only traits. We present as our avatars, no true identities thrust to the fore. For the most part, who we are remains a secret. We sometimes suggest meeting one day, but that seldom happens, even when we live in the same city. There is no interest in taking the community offline, for fear it might crumble if our real-life weaknesses are exposed.

Photoshop, filters, event invitations: They can only go so far before a peer—a classmate, a colleague, a relative—addresses the make-believe. Research supports this; save for catfishers, profiles on which we attach our real names and photos are more likely to be genuine. A place like Habbo, with pixelated avatars and silly usernames, is a breeding ground for falsities. Often, those photos exchanged over MSN were fakes, stolen from a popular Myspace account.

Perhaps it is what draws us, the losers and the loners, to the game. We find safety in the relative anonymity of the Hotel, and never fear our secrets—who we really are, what people really think of us—will be aired. Our carefully sculpted characters are rock solid. Nobody has to know otherwise.

• • •

The built-in messenger console makes it easy for us to congregate. Clicking a button beside a username will take us directly to that player’s room, a teleportation trick straight out of Star Trek. When school ends at 3:30pm, we pop up, transporting our avatars to meet one another.

Today, we wind up in Sheila’s casino, expecting to chat and gamble with our furniture all night until dinner (again, we are all far too young to have experienced any of this in real life). But something is awry; the room is bare. “I’ve been hacked,” Sheila explains. Someone has overtaken her account, stolen all of her virtual goods. In response, we flood the room with heart emojis in speech bubbles. A hacked account is as close to a broken heart as we can fathom.

As a group, we hop from room to room, shocked by their emptiness. We are all invested. We’ve all spent real-life money to purchase Habbo currency and use it to fill our hotel rooms with collectable furniture. Financially and socially, a hacking is a nightmare. As a preteen, it feels like the end of the world.

“It’s bad enough I have no friends in real life. Now, I’m going to be Habbo-poor and lose all of my friends on here.”

While my friends are consoling Sheila, I am making a mental tally of how much has been lost. The sofas, the fountains, the decorative plants: they are all rare, amounting to hundreds of dollars. The social ramifications hit me much later. This room was a hangout, always nearing capacity. I think about the screenshots I’ve exchanged with friends on MSN, taken here. The warmth, the community—they vanish in its emptiness. No one will want to spend time in this now-defunct casino, which taints even past memories.

Sheila, I presume, understands this wholly, and for the first time, she sheds her Habbo skin. She admits she has been crying over the loss. She confides in us her fears: “It’s bad enough I have no friends in real life,” she says. “Now, I’m going to be Habbo-poor and lose all of my friends on here.” Our biggest fear in real life is mimicked in the Hotel: Sheila is an outcast.

Then, the magic happens. The room slowly fills up with new furniture—those fountains, while expensive, replaced. Our own money, well spent, is invested back into our friend. Like kindergarteners sharing their favorite toys, we build Sheila back up. “Thank you” is all she can muster. This, we decide, is friendship.

• • •

Habbo without friendship is a decidedly strange place. Twelve years after my first foray into the Hotel, I log on to find that the online world with which I was once so intimate has changed. Hacked years ago, Junkie87’s account remains frozen in time; Rooms are empty, but their names remain. “Je t’aime,” one room name reads, an ode to the virtual hotel I loved.

That hotel is long gone. At 22, I don’t know how to navigate the game I played with such ease as a child. My console, which would have been filled with the names of Habbos to follow, suggests there’s no one to see, a goose egg next to the word “friends.” And when I enter a room filled with other users, I am not welcomed but ignored. I am one of thousands online. Without friends, I am invisible.

My Habbo friends are far away now. Colin lives in a bigger city, and he’s a successful photographer. Christina’s a designer. Katelyn grew up and out of her obsession with bad teen flicks and went to college. We now occasionally communicate through Facebook, our social network of choice, without pixelated avatars to hide behind. Here, our sense of community has faltered; we hardly get together anymore, not even in group chats.

For nostalgia’s sake, I scour through old hard drives for screenshots of Habbo circa the early 2000s. There are only a few, but in them, my character is wearing that signature orange toque, surrounded by other avatars. This tiny world, fit for the misfits. I have grown up and out of this identity—but she remains, a memory of the person I sought to be a dozen years past.

Illustration by J. Longo.