Full disclosure, I hadn’t heard of Club Penguin until a week ago. The reason for this is that I’m old (my childhood computer games came on floppy disks), but not old enough (in New York years, anyway) to have a child old enough to play in Disney’s beloved virtual world, a massively multiplayer online game for kids populated by colorful penguin avatars and their fluffy pet “puffles.” When the game went live in 2005, I was in my mid-20s and already shacking up with the boyfriend who later became my husband; my clubbing days, both virtual and actual, were over.
And now I’m too late. Club Penguin, which launched in 2005, will shutter on March 29, ending an 11-year run that at its peak drew 200 million users to the site. While the traffic has reportedly been in decline over the past few years — the OG Club Penguin kids have mostly aged out (most of the site’s user are 8-13), and there’s growing competition from other social networking games, like the new LEGO Life — fans both young and old are reacting to the news with emotions that run the Kübler-Ross gamut.
Some have been reduced to shell-like human embodiments of the Loudly Crying Face emoji. James Charles, the beauty-obsessed 17-year-old Instagram star who was recently announced as the first male face of CoverGirl, tweeted, “my entire childhood is going down the drain wow I’m gonna cry RIP greendude50.” Others are lashing out, attempting speedruns or willfully disobeying chat rules in the hopes of getting booted (see the Banned From Club Penguin subreddit) in an act of you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit defiance. And of course, plenty are soaking up the last days, taking part in the community-wide “Waddle On” celebration that’s essentially a G-rated version of an end-of-days rager. (On February 1, users finally figured out how to tip the game’s central Iceberg.)
As an interloper more than three times the age of the average player, however, it was tough to ingratiate myself as a latecomer to the party.
“How do I dance?” I asked, standing at the periphery of a multi-colored disco floor where a few other penguins were shimmying.
“lol” one of them replied, without elaborating. Dejected, I went off in search of the free (virtual) t-shirt I had been promised upon signing up. The game, for the majority of users, mostly consists of wandering around meeting other penguins and interacting with simple play features (snowball fights, playgrounds, a pizza parlor where you can become a waiter) in the colorful cartoon strip-malls dotting the bright arctic landscape. An anti-Trump rally spontaneously broke out after the election, but usually the vibe, to borrow the millennial parlance, is mellow AF.
“The town of Club Penguin is kind of like if the North Pole was actually in Ohio or something,” said Gabby White, 23 (Penguin name: queengabby), who started playing in 2005, quit, and then recently took it up again (“ironically,” she claimed). “What’s interesting is the graphics and really everything about the game has stayed the same. When Disney bought it out a few years ago, I expected to see people walking around selling overpriced Mickey Mouse balloons or for the site to just be turned into a looped stream of Frozen, but miraculously, no.”
Pretty much every user I spoke to said that their Club Penguin love was fueled by nostalgia. “I am pretty sad about it shutting down because I have a lot of great childhood memories on it,” said a 15-year-old who goes by the Penguin name Ponypal57.
“It’s kind of become a cultural landmark,” added one of my Twitter followers, who goes by the evocative handle “Trash Mammal.” A woman named Anna Lewellyn (Penguin name: BigFlippers306) went so far as to write a tongue-in-cheek op-ed for the University of Rochester newspaper in which she called the site’s demise “a huge mistake… quite simply the worst thing to happen to anyone anywhere.”
Of course, nowadays every time a website dies, an app immediately takes its place, like a flatworm regenerating its head. And so on March 29, Club Penguin Island, a mobile game update, will arrive, promising “myths and legends” as well “fashions for your unique style,” which sounds more Kim Kardashian: Hollywood than South Pole, but who am I to judge? While penguin names and avatars cannot be carried over from the desktop version, the graphics appear largely unchanged. Whether or not fans flock to the new destination, however, remains to be seen.
“I think Club Penguin meant so much to people of my generation because it seemed like it was made for us,” said White. “It’s kind of a time capsule of our youth, so it is sad to see it go, but I guess that’s what happens when you grow up: Life does nothing but disappoint you.”