There's a Facebook page where you can go back and seemingly watch the implosion of an entire town in real time. It kicked off with a dispatch from the local paper.
"It's almost December 31st, when we say farewell to Millsberry," the article began. "Everyone is buzzing about it, so I thought, what a perfect time to catch up with the residents and reminisce about life in this most remarkable town."
In the comments, there was talk of protest. If enough residents petitioned the powers that be, perhaps Millsberry wouldn't have to dissolve? Slowly, those calls gave way to bittersweet quotes encapsulating feelings of great loss ("Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened") and shared personal remembrances.
On the last day of December, the countdowns started in earnest.
"11 Hours. 1 Minute. 56 Seconds," someone posted. Every few hours, the clock would be updated until the final pronouncement: "Millsberry officially closed at 1:47:14 on January 1st, 2011."
The intersection of loss and our virtual lives is a thorny, occasionally poignant and often awkward thing. There's been more than one story, for instance, of someone hacking the Facebook account of a deceased user; friends and family were subsequently messaged as if they were being contacted by a ghost from beyond the grave. People now specify in their wills whom they want to clean out their email accounts, Zoom allows users to virtually attend both business meetings and funerals, while online memorial books are commonplace.
Quickly, that was what the Millsberry town Facebook page became. "Millsberry closing was as if my best friend died," one group member wrote. "It's a loss you can't express in words."
But through it all, they (nor any members of the page) weren't grieving the loss of a person — or even a physical place. They were mourning the loss of a cereal-themed advergame created by General Mills. To date, some have never stopped petitioning for its return.
In 2004, General Mills launched Millsberry, one of the first child-geared online games of its kind. Players were given a virtual "Buddy," a grainy, low-res avatar that could be personalized; they were the user's window into the titular town, which was packed with in-game billboards and grocery store aisles advertising cereals like Corn Chex and Frosted Cheerios. One could test their luck while playing Cinnamon Toast Crunch Swirl, or their skills on the Reese's Puffs Cereal Snowboard Slalom.
Alongside non-playable characters like Mayor Wright, DJ Too Ray and journalist Audrey Smith-Wei, players were able to decorate their houses, play games at the arcade, compete in special seasonal events, connect with other real-life users and keep up with the news through the "Millsberry Gazette."
The marketing within the game wasn't particularly subtle, however "advergames," or games designed specifically to sell a product, were still relatively new. The day-to-day nature of Millsberry, which revolved around a series of achievable mini-quests and routine activities, has been replicated again and again, perhaps most notably through Club Penguin, the popular multiplayer online kid's game set in a winter wonderland that was founded in 2005.
Like Millsberry, Club Penguin specifically catered to children between the ages of six and 14. Club Penguin remained online for 12 years, during which time it gained 200 million registered user accounts, according to Variety. While numbers regarding the audience size of Millsberry are a little fuzzier, news articles about online gaming at the time provide valuable context. As The New York Times reported, Nickelodeon had 25 million unique visitors visit its online gaming catalog in February 2008, while Electronic Arts and Disney both had more than 12 million visitors a piece.
Kid-focused online games were a booming business, and Millsberry continued to stand out. But then, in 2010, the "Millsberry Gazette" announced that all the town's citizens would be "graduating." Since "everyone in town [had] done so well, exceeding all expectations from game scores to raising money at Grow Good Farm," their work was done.
Consumers live in a world in which food brands are continuously trying to contort themselves — through bizarre collaborations, spicy social media posts and "shock marketing" — into a shape that will both attract and maintain increasingly fickle attention.
"I never wanted to graduate from Millsberry," a commenter wrote on the game's Facebook page. "I wanted to keep playing it because it never got old to me."
That statement in itself is notable, considering consumers live in a world in which food brands are continuously trying to contort themselves — through bizarre collaborations, spicy social media posts and "shock marketing" — into a shape that will both attract and maintain increasingly fickle attention. Many of those attempts have landed weird or fallen flat. (Think, for instance, of the 1995 commercial Ringo Starr did for Pizza Hut, despite the fact that the Beatles drummer had infamously never eaten pizza due to allergies.) So, how did an early 2000s international cereal conglomerate cultivate such fervent fandom?
The story of Millsberry starts — and ends — with the sugar-coating of child marketing.
"Sitting and watching Dora DVDs is quite different from playing Dora in a game," Michael Cai, a director of broadband and gaming at Parks Associates, told The New York Times in 2008. "It's definitely more engaging, and the brand affiliation is stronger in an interactive setting."
This idea that engaging with specific products as an active participant (such as while playing a video game) as opposed to a passive audience (such as while watching a commercial) increases buyer interest and brand loyalty has always been the promise of advergames, a term coined by Anthony Giallourakis in 1999. The first widely-recognized advergame was Tapper, a popular bar arcade game released by Anheuser-Busch, which prominently featured the company's logos and products during gameplay.
Quickly, however, the genre exploded with kid-focused content. Seventy-three percent of the food product companies surveyed in a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation report had established dedicated sections of their websites with advergames targeted at children, many of which offered multiple advergames.
Millsberry was, predictably, very cereal-focused. Classic mascots like Lucky the Leprechaun and Chip the Wolf were woven throughout gameplay, as were promotions for new, real-world General Mills products. The July 22, 2010 issue of the "Millsberry Gazette" ran an article recapping how everyone in town had been acting strange. An investigation found that it was simply "because of the latest craze in town — these wacky new Double Dare Fruit Roll-Ups fruit-flavored snacks!"
The act of physically eating cereal made it into gameplay, as well. Players were in charge of monitoring the health of their aforementioned virtual Buddies, which meant helping them eat "healthy" meals (i.e. big bowls of branded cereal) within the game.
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Advergame marketing works specifically because of this level of repetition. As Juliet Schor wrote in her 2004 book "Born to Buy," these advertising strategies convince kids that products are necessary to their social survival. Ads affect not only what they want to buy, but also who they think they are and how they feel about themselves. Want to be like your Millsberry Buddy, who has exciting, independent adventures and connects with kids from all around the globe? Grab a spoon, because you need to eat like them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the proliferation of advergames for children, including Millsberry, stoked some controversy.
In the article "The Mixed Health Messages of Millsberry: A Critical Study of Online Child-Targeted Food Advergaming," which was originally published in 2011 in the journal Health Communication, author Deborah M. Thomson wrote that "Millsberry.com sends players contradictory messages about health by simultaneously promoting nutritional wellness and consumption of high-sugar cereals, essentially conflating the two."
She continued, "Caloric moderation is contradicted by digital advergames that operate on a logic of maximal consumption, by narratives of branded spokescharacters' endless appetites for cereal, and by giveaways of 'free' boxes of virtual cereal that can be eaten by the Buddy in a single bite."
As The New York Times reported in 2011, 17 major corporations — including General Mills, McDonald's, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Burger King — made a voluntary pledge to reduce the marketing of their least nutritious brands to children. Following increased public pressure, they updated the pledge in 2009 to include marketing via games and mobile devices.
"It is our sincere hope that the ideals of our little town will live on in the communities that Millsberry fans will move on to and will create going forward — wherever that may be."
A year later, General Mills announced that it would be shuttering the Millsberry project.
In a November 2010 message to the game's fans, the Millsberry team wrote: "To those who wonder whether every option was considered, We can truly say 'yes.' We analyzed every alternative. We considered every option."
"This decision was very difficult, because we very much wanted Millsberry to continue," they wrote. "Millsberry meant so much to so many — we know — and it definitely means a lot to us. We are very proud of Millsberry's legacy, and we share your sadness in seeing it come to an end. It is our sincere hope that the ideals of our little town will live on in the communities that Millsberry fans will move on to and will create going forward — wherever that may be."
There's a moment when memories morph into something both more distant and poignant, and when that moment hits, Reddit's r/nostalgia is there. The subreddit, which has more than 1 million members, is packed with posts about things that make users nostalgic, ranging from "Hotmail in early 1997 before Microsoft's acquisition" to "the poo-chi robot dog."
Every few months, someone inevitably posts about Millsberry.
"I LOVED THIS GAME. Prob would still play today at 27 if I could access my old account," someone wrote under a screenshot of the game. Another added a string of vivid details about the gameplay: "Yes I remember they had a library. AND you actually have to wait for someone else to return their books to read them LMAO. And also how food would expire. And also how the long orange hair cant be bought from the salon, so I made a new account just to have that hair."
It may feel easy to cynically dismiss the nostalgia these former players feel for Millsberry as the natural consequence of a well-executed marketing exercise, however many in the community push back against that narrative.
Earlier this year, TikTok user @quesobesos posted a video in which the phrases "It was just a computer game, it was shut down 12 years ago," and "You played it when you were 7 and it was all an ad for General Mills" float above her head. ABBA's "Angeleyes" blares as screenshots from "Millsberry" slide by in Powerpoint presentation fashion. The camera lingers on a still image of the Trix Rabbit caught mid-hop as this stanza builds:
Sometimes when I'm lonely, I sit and think about him
And it hurts to remember all the good times
When I thought I could never live without him
And I wonder, does it have to be the same
Almost all the virtual ephemera surrounding Millsberry and its discontinuation — from YouTube videos of grainy gameplay to a Facebook page in which every in-game newspaper dispatch was logged — alludes to the small-town conceit of the game. The in-game writing helped emphasize this, including the following description of a Millsberry neighborhood called Golden Valley.
"Old family farms dot the landscape and fields of corn, beans, and other produce can be seen from every road," it said. "Rolling green forests (which turn red and gold in the fall) and farmsteads are all around. The homes all look like models for paintings: beautiful and quaint. It's here that Millsberry's 'small town' atmosphere remains."
This lacquer of wholesomeness is not unlike cereal marketing at its core; companies have spent decades convincing kids (or really, their parents) that marshmallows are a breakfast food by positioning them on a sunlit kitchen table augmented by fresh-squeezed orange juice and a triangle of whole wheat toast. Millsberry — played on boxy PCs in computer rooms and school libraries across the country — was the video game analogue.
"Millsberry has always been a place where kids feel that they belong — a place where kids can connect with other kids, their virtual buddies, play games and most of all – have fun," Millsberry developers wrote in a goodbye letter posted on the site.
And even if that wholesomeness was largely a facade, the comfort it imparted was intoxicating in retrospect. As one former player wrote in the r/nostalgia subreddit, "I was heartbroken when this was taken away from us… We need it back! I loved it so so much!"
There have been multiple attempts to resurrect Millsberry in the dozen years since its closure. These include numerous change.org petitions and message board posts urgently pushing for players to call General Mills and see if the decision could be reversed.
"Hey everyone I spoke with a representative from General Mills," one such posting reads. "It only took me about 3 minutes to get through. I asked [why Millsberry was closing] and he told me the main reason was because participation and play level had greatly decreased…Finally, he said it would be great if I can tell/get other players to call in, so come on. Let's flood those phone lines!"
Twitter is still littered with tweets asking General Mills to reconsider. "@GeneralMills, I will start buying your cereal again if you bring Millsberry back," one user wrote in February. In October, another user added: "I'm a software dev and I'll work for free. Please bring back Millsberry. The people will pay good money."
Bringing back Millsberry would be a decision with some precedent. Interest in and nostalgia for early 2000s games, including Club Penguin, surged during the pandemic, resulting in a number of unofficial servers on which people could play recreations of the game. However, one particularly popular server, Club Penguin Rewritten, was issued a cease and desist notice from Disney, who now owns the brand.
Additionally, General Mills is eying the intersection of gaming and its products again, albeit with a lighter hand than with Millsberry. In October, for instance, the company announced the launch of "Magic Gems, a free mobile web-based AR game [that] celebrates the nationwide return of the limited-edition Lucky Charms Magic Gems cereal which quickly sold out on shelves earlier this summer."
The company hasn't officially indicated whether it plans to revive Millsberry or not, but requests for a revival continue to come in from would-be players. (Salon Food reached out to General Mills; as of publication, the company hadn't responded to a request for comment.)
As this article was being written, another popped up via Twitter: "@GeneralMills, I would give anything for the Millsberry game back."
For now, memories of the town are just that — memories that exist frozen in time. Only occasionally, in a graveyard of grainy screenshots or at the bottom of a bowl of cereal, their full potency is found.