"I'm Unicorn_farts and welcome to your official Habbo Intelligence Agency Training Session!"
I was in a strange room filled with black couches, ebony walls and various elevators trapped behind glass gates. It would have felt like a bank or government building were it not for the ice-cream stand and Easter memorabilia, which included a giant rabbit plush and some egg-shaped statues with human-sized chicks inside.
Many spaces in Habbo, a virtual world created by Finnish developer Sulake, feel like this one. The platform is loosely modeled after a hotel, but its user-designed chat rooms span a broad set of themes. Jungles, high schools and coffee shops -- they're all in here.
As I glanced around my Easter-themed classroom and speculated on its architect, Unicorn_farts ran through a long and surprisingly thorough script. "Now, let's take a look at some basic rules of HIA," she said. "One, show respect to everyone, regardless of rank, gender, orientation or beliefs. Two, do not ask or hint for a promotion, pay, room rights or badge admins. Three, do not sit on the floor, use all caps or effects, flood, spam, or dance while in the HIA HQ."
Roughly thirty minutes ago, I had been scrolling through the Habbo hotel directory, looking for a way to earn some in-game currency and upgrade my avatar's shabby clothes. I soon stumbled upon the Habbo Intelligence Agency (HIA), which had "★ DAILY PAYING JOB ★" written in its room title. Intrigued and desperate, I entered the central lobby, walked up to one of the eight pre-check booths and asked for a job. The receptionist said sure, provided I change into a tomato-red uniform and add some special information, including a custom HIA "badge," to my Habbo profile page.
A few moments later, I was magically transported to a tightly-controlled corner of the room filled with travelators and waist-high barriers. My avatar was stuck there, rocking back and forth, until a security guard returned to his post and yanked a lever. I was then whisked to a different part of the room, staffed by Unicorn_farts, and told to step into a hotel elevator pressed against the wall. Confused and slightly disoriented, I obliged. The contraption was a portal to the Easter-themed wonderland that would serve as my private classroom. Clearly, the agency didn't want anyone eavesdropping on these sessions.
I was, to be frank, shocked to find this small but highly organized role-playing community on Habbo. The hotel opened in 2001, before Facebook, Twitter and other social networks had taken over the internet. The pixel art visuals and user-customized rooms were attractive to people who had never played a video game online or spoken to strangers on message boards. Habbo's reputation was decimated, though, in 2012 after British broadcaster Channel 4 News discovered that many users were being asked to perform sexual acts over text -- a practice commonly known as cybering -- and, more worryingly, outside the game over webcam.
"There was a problem," Lawrawrrr, general manager of Habbo fansite Habbox, said. "I think that Channel 4 report was important, and it flagged a serious issue. "
Seven years later, I assumed the platform had shut down or been left in a semi-abandoned state. Few platforms could recover from such a damning expose, I thought, or compete with modern games and websites. But I was wrong. Somehow, against all the odds, Habbo is still in business. Like Second Life and Neopets, the site has outlived Google+, Vine, Club Penguin and a host of other web-enabled social platforms.
"It's not normal for a game to last this long."
Habbo's community has slowly dwindled over the years, though. Sulake doesn't share user numbers, but you can ballpark the platform's size through its built-in hotel navigator. The number of "popular" rooms with more than 25 people, for instance, rarely rises above six or seven. At its peak, Habbo had 12 sites serving specific regions, such as Russia, Denmark, Japan and the UK; today, there are nine, with a single destination aimed at English-language speakers.
"Habbo is a really old game," Sarah Green, a community manager for the English version of Habbo, said. "It's 18 years old now, so of course there's going to be some attrition." The hotel must have enough users -- enough who are willing to pay for premium clothes and in-game perks, anyway -- to make it worthwhile for Sulake. "It's not normal for a game to last this long," Green added. "But the community size, we're really happy with it. We're really happy with how everything is at the moment."
Sulake says Habbo still has "a really healthy flow" of new users. Many are former players who feel bored or nostalgic about an arguably simpler time on the web. In October 2015, DeAndre Cortez Way, best known by his rap persona Soulja Boy, returned to Habbo after a long hiatus. "add me on https://www.habbo.com/profile/souljaboysbeezy ... and join my room i'm online now @Habbo my fav chat game," he tweeted. The shock announcement triggered a small wave of sign-ups from people who wanted to virtually hang out with the star.
"I think he spent a whole week in Habbo playing, meeting people and telling his fans to meet him in Habbo," Green said.