Neopets made its way into the public eye during the wild west of the world wide web. Like many other dot-com founders, co-creators Adam Powell and Donna Williams took a grassroots approach to creating the virtual pets website. Powell was working two jobs he hated when Neopets was just a twinkle in his eye, and, to his surprise, soon saw his creation grow more rapidly than he had ever expected. Just over 18 years later, Neopets is still lauded as one of the most important sites in the development of children’s entertainment in the online realm.
The site was (and still is) one of many portals that elicits nostalgia for people who grew up online in the early 2000s — a colorful safe haven where kids learned how to code, spell, and do math while taking care of adorable virtual pets. But underneath Neopia’s rainbow-streaked fictional world was an open secret: for at least five years, the company employed business practices directly connected to the Church of Scientology.
It may sound like an urban legend, and rumors surrounding the connection between Scientology and Neopets did indeed exist: Some have inferred that the popular Neopet Xweetok was named in the vein of Scientology-lore figure Xenu, but, as Powell told The Outline over Reddit, it’s not true. There were also unsubstantiated claims that employees were pressured to join Scientology, documented in a Kotaku article that was later removed. However, it’s verifiable that Neopets’s business practices were connected to Scientology.
Before selling the company to Viacom in 2005, Neopets’s then-CEO, investor, and Scientologist Doug Dohring utilized L. Ron Hubbard’s trademark business model, Org Board, while overseeing the company. According to the Church, the Org Board is an updated business “technology” used by society 80 trillion years ago and updated by Hubbard, and Neopets isn’t the only company that openly used or currently uses Org Board techniques; smaller businesses such as the fast food chain Mr. Jim’s Pizza, MGE, Inc., and Mission Renaissance have similarly employed the business model.
They hired this lady who wanted to bring Scientology onto the site. We fought that as hard as we could.
The information currently made public about Org Board is vague — introductory workshops are required to learn more about it. The business model contains seven divisions: Communications, Dissemination (sales/marketing), Treasury, Production, Qualifications (quality control), Public (public relations), and, most important to the system, Executive. The symbiotic divisions are arranged to create a “cycle of production” that parallels the church’s “cycle of action,” which Scientology.org describes as “revealing what underlies the continuous cycle of creation, survival and destruction—a cycle that seems inevitable in life, but which is only an apparency.” It is also made up of seven stages.
On the surface, these business divisions do not look too out-of-the-ordinary when applied to normal workplace environments—but according to Patricia Illingworth, who is a professor at Northeastern University and a Senior Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, the model is less ethical than it appears.
A department of the Communications division, Inspections and Reports, posed specific ethical qualms. Its employees inspect and essentially spy on other employees and share any and all “pertinent” information with executives. “The report’s section on ethics is really about a very primitive sense of justice, an eye for an eye, getting back at people who have in some sense harmed the organization,” Illingworth told The Outline. “If someone in or outside the organization has done something that undercuts the mission of the organization, which is basically making money, then the organization, in the name of ethics, is advised to retaliate against the person in order to ensure that they don’t do it.”
Neopets was started in 1999, and its founders didn't know Dohring subscribed to Scientology principles, at first. Dohring sung the praises of Org Board in an interview with WIRED, and gave a testimonial on how he successfully uses the system for Scientology website WISE, which was pulled within the last few months but archived here. In it, he said: “As a business executive I have enjoyed many successes thanks to my knowledge and use of L. Ron Hubbard’s administrative technology. Having used his technology in every business activity for nearly two decades now, Mr. Hubbard’s organizational concepts are always with me to the point where virtually every aspect of running my companies involves the use of his administrative technology.” When reached out to comment about the testimonial’s disappearance, neither WISE nor Dohring responded.
“Neopets’s business model [was] morally problematic,” Illingworth said of the company’s model, which changed when it was sold to Viacom. “The model suggests that employees be treated in ways very similar to those proposed by Scientology’s organizational model. Today, we think employees should be treated well, with respect, and not made to suffer harsh consequences when they act in ways that are not strictly in the interest of the company...The idea that an organization should fire employees for having views that are different from those of the organization is morally disconcerting even when we don’t share the views, or we are adamantly against them.”
Unlike Dohring, Neopet’s founders were obviously apprehensive about the teachings of Scientology being applied to the company and fought against it. In a Reddit AMA from 2014, co-creator Donna Williams (who declined an interview for this article) talked about Scientology’s role during the early days of Neopets.
“We were not aware of it at first as we were totally naive,” she wrote. “When we realised it was a bit of a shock. Somewhat awkward moment when you realise you started the biggest entertainment site visited by millions of children and teens, but the upper management you just signed the company over to are part of some weird religion that is banned in some countries…” When discussing the application of Org Board, she said, “It didnt [sic] really change anything that I noticed apart from some odd test that interviewees had to take consisting of questions like ‘which straight line seemed friendlier’ and stuff like that.”
But it seemed like Dohring wanted Scientology to play a larger role in the company, beyond Org Board’s application. “We found out about it about 6 months after we started working there and started googling all the employees and they were all Scientologists,” Powell, who left the company alongside Williams shortly after Viacom took over because of creative differences, explained. “It was weird, we just didn’t mention it until they hired this lady who wanted to bring Scientology onto the site. We fought that as hard as we could and they got rid of her.” Williams likewise stated in her AMA: “At one time there was some talk about putting Scientology education on the site, but we killed that idea pretty sharpish. Adam and I made sure that it never made its way onto anything site related. Religion and politics were two big no nos for us as far as site content went. Can't say the discussions we had to keep it that way were [sic] much fun though!”
Although it was often a fun work environment during the early days — they had frequent Vegas trips, gaming tournaments, and eating competitions — Scientology always loomed in the background. “A lot of employees were uncomfortable with the whole Scientology thing, especially since the test they gave to new employees had copyright L. Ron Hubbard at the bottom of each page, Powell said. “I think there was somewhat of a them vs. us feel to the office.”
Representatives for Viacom and Neopets, as well as other former employees for this article, did not reply to requests for comment on this article.
Neopets’s connections to Scientology may not seem as explicit as other American companies who have closely aligned themselves with religious beliefs. However, as Professor Illingworth argued, any form of religion used in the workplace is a “significant threat to democracy,” especially if used on an even larger level than a simple website like Neopets. “It would seem that society is far better off with a bright line rule that separates business and religion,” Illingworth explained, “than with the status quo and the unnecessary risks it entails.”
Updated at 04/18/18 12:21PM : A previous version of this article misspelled Illingworth’s name, the text has been updated.