Earlier this April, a pitiless culling of penguins suddenly took place. The victims were not chinstrap penguins, nor adorable Adélies, but a species possibly even more endangered in the wild: Club Penguin players. Inhabitants of the ice-capped cartoon world of Club Penguin Rewritten, the largest unofficial offshoot of the antarctic open-world game, were banished to digital hell when the City of London Police raided the website for copyright infringement and arrested three people in connection to the site. While the three suspects were later released, the Club Penguin Rewritten website remained under control of the police’s intellectual property enforcement unit, drawing the curtains on a fan-made game whose users reportedly numbered in the millions.
The dramatic, unceremonious conclusion to Club Penguin Rewritten is just the latest in the strange saga of Club Penguin, a once-popular massively multiplayer online game that, despite being long abandoned by its corporate overlord Disney, somehow just won’t die. A virtual world where players — typically between the ages of 6 and 14 — embodied penguins in a browser-based cartoon chatroom, Club Penguin originally launched in 2005 and was acquired by Disney in 2007 for $350 million. The game was envisioned as an online space for children that was actually safe to use — a goal that was accomplished, in part, by encouraging users to rat out their peers for inappropriate behavior. At its peak, hundreds of millions of players from over 200 countries were waddling around this frosty digital playground, spending their time ice fishing, sled racing, fitting their penguins with stylish accessories, or leafing through its virtual weekly newspaper, The Penguin Times.
Over the years, though, as much of Club Penguin’s user base grew up and more sophisticated games began to take its place, interest dwindled and the pay-for-play membership revenues it depended on — which allowed players to purchase in-game Puffle pets or snazzy outfits — declined. In 2017, Disney officially pulled the plug, bringing players to tears as they gathered to exchange heartfelt goodbyes before the icy tundra speckled into eternal darkness. Little more than a year later, Disney also discontinued Club Penguin Island, the much-derided successor released in the wake of the original game’s shuttering.
But like an avian Rasputin, Club Penguin has proved difficult to kill. Following the official version’s closure, its remaining community has led a nomadic existence, flocking from clone to clone in the universe of Club Penguin “private servers” that have sprung up over the years. There was New Club Penguin, Air Penguin, Club Herbert, Club Reggie, and Club Penguin Brasil. There was even Grand Theft Penguin, an attempted synthesis of the wholesome edutainment game with the blood-spattered criminal underworld of Grand Theft Auto. All together, there have been nearly 80 Club Penguin private servers seeking to replicate some element of the original experience.
But, one by one, the fan-made games started getting shut down, as the copycats struggled with moderation — or worse. Competing versions battled to try to gain the most users; in service of that mission, admins of some of the games waged enthusiastic, internecine penguin warfare, splitting into factions and launching attacks on each other with the aim of freezing out their rivals. On one notable offshoot, Club Penguin Online, those skirmishes were replete with hacking, blackmail, doxxing, and swatting. As if that weren’t unsavory enough, a 2020 BBC investigation found rampant racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and predators who were soliciting sexual content from minors on the private server. In the fallout of the revelations — during which Disney moved aggressively to shut down Club Penguin Online — one admin, a U.K. man, was arrested on “suspicion of possessing child abuse images.”
Other clones were forced offline seemingly because Disney just didn’t like that unauthorized parties, even less seedy ones, were using their intellectual property — a common issue with the famously litigious Mouse. Among those, Club Penguin Rewritten was by far the most popular and enduring. Created in 2017, the popular remake had already undergone its own share of scandals prior to getting shut down in April, including a 2018 coup where a hated admin ruling with an iron flipper was overthrown, followed by a 2019 data breach that exposed account details of 4 million players. The recent spate of arrests in connection to the game is probably the final nail in the coffin for Club Penguin Rewritten, which had already survived one closure in 2020. Players and volunteers speculate that the game’s main crime was profiting off Disney’s IP, as the site had started running ads in 2020. (The developers, as well as Disney, were unavailable for comment.)
And yet, despite all the disaster and volatility attached to the remnants of Club Penguin, players keep holding on. There are still more than a dozen private servers online, while thousands of fans gather across various subreddits like r/ClubPenguin and a slew of Discord servers to reminisce and recount their exoduses at the hands of Disney. Why, more than five years after Club Penguin’s demise, are devotees still keeping the game alive? What explains its lasting appeal?
To try to understand, I registered a penguin on Club Penguin Legacy, one of the remaining private servers. My chosen avatar, a teal-colored penguin named “LEONTROTSKY,” flashed into existence in a snowy landscape, as a ski lift trundled restlessly in the background of the lifeless Ski Village. Seeking higher ground, I made my way to a mine shaft in a state of disuse, where I crashed a cart into the wall again and again. I wandered alone through deserted woodland, the ghost town of the island’s shopping plaza, and a barren cove, seeking someone — anyone — for some companionship. Finally, waddling into town, I stumbled across signs of life. Unfortunately, my attempts to proselytize the power of the working class via chat bubbles failed to interest my newfound acquaintances. Forlorn, I cut some lonely shapes in a desolate nightclub and then quit the server.
My foray into this world having shone little light on the mysteries of Club Penguin’s appeal, I turned to actual players to try to find out what they saw in the game.
“The community around the game was amazing. Everyone was so kind,” player “TruMineYT” said. “The community has always been a key part of Club Penguin — a big part of the game is talking to others.”
User “CyberSonic,” who has been playing Club Penguin since he was a kid in 2010, agreed, crediting the “positive, warm, and vibrant community” and the friends he’s able to make there, in addition to the actively updated content on Club Penguin Rewritten. But another big factor is nostalgia: being able to relive the familiar joy that the game brought him in his childhood, he said.
It’s a similar sentiment echoed by “Torres126,” a longtime player and Club Penguin blogger. For him and others, the game’s bootleg universe was a place of comfort and solace, especially in the days of the pandemic lockdowns, when the real world seemed to be so unforgiving, he said.
That Club Penguin carries such personal significance for players is understandable, considering the role that the game played in so many children’s and adolescents’ lives. It was an “incredibly important space for kids and for the broader digital culture,” Sara M. Grimes, a professor at the University of Toronto, told Gawker. “Kids used those games as spaces to play and create, but, most importantly, to connect with other kids and players, share thoughts and experiences, and experiment with identity and social skills.”
Sheffield University education professor Jackie Marsh, who researched children’s literary practices in the game, told Gawker that there were myriad benefits for these players: Club Penguin helped young people develop empathy, learn how to form bonds, and build literacy skills. “Club Penguin fostered a range of types of play for children, including imaginative and socio-dramatic play, in ways that mirrored such forms of play in offline life,” she said. Knowing that, it’s not surprising that the fan-made clones came about. “Club Penguin was so wildly popular that many players were desperate for it to continue,” she said.
Why, more than five years after Club Penguin’s demise, are devotees still keeping the game alive?
So what’s next in Club Penguin’s cycle of life and death and resurrection? Some displaced fans may move on to other private servers like New Club Penguin. Many are urging Disney to re-open the original game. Others want Disney to have nothing to do with it. “If you aren't going to do anything with an IP, give it to the original creators or find someone else who is willing to take control of it,” said TrueMineYT, while CyberSonic suggested that Disney just let the fans enjoy what the company is refusing to grant them.
Some loyalists, including Torres126, may feel a little jaded after so many years of turmoil; he doesn’t hold much hope that long-term players like him will ever be able to tend to their Puffles in peace again. “It’s quite likely that Rewritten was the last notable bastion of the game after the closure of Club Penguin Island in December 2018,” he said. “There are others, but it’s unlikely they’ll last long.”
But on the bright side, he believes there’s a “whole future to be created” by the players who grew up among these pixelated penguins, and that there may be new fan-made games — whether related to penguins or not — to fill the void left by the loss of the community.
“It may just be that the future of Club Penguin will be a greater admiration for its legacy, and recognition of the fact that it was an inspiration to so many,” he said.
And so it seems that Club Penguin — the relic, the legacy — will continue to live on, even long after the game and all its iterations have finally been laid to rest in their icy graves.
Tamlin Magee is a culture and technology writer based in London.