Video Games

The Fandom Disney Can’t Kill

Even as the corporation snuffs out Club Penguin copycats, users are still finding ways to get their fix.

A bright turquoise cartoon penguin peers out from a small, bar-covered hole in a wooden door.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus and Club Penguin Wiki.

I’m 27 years old, but I still felt a thrill, as though I was doing something clandestine and forbidden by inputting my own email address into the “parent’s email” box to sign up for an account. Downloading the link to the game’s app conjured flashbacks to the many times I accidentally downloaded malware as a young, unsavvy Internet preteen. But I was determined to do whatever it took to be a cartoon penguin again.

Disney ended its online role-playing game Club Penguin in 2017, to the dismay of longtime players and nostalgic fans. Though the company launched a new alternative, the mobile game Club Penguin Island, it wasn’t the same, and it too was shut down in just under two years. But players found they could still get their fix on various unofficial, copycat servers that cloned the game. One of these was Club Penguin Rewritten: With the same features as Club Penguin—many of them free, as opposed to being limited to the paid membership of the original—it became incredibly popular. At one point during the pandemic, Rewritten’s representatives said they had 30,000 new people joining every day.

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Then, in April 2022, the servers abruptly went offline. When accessing Club Penguin Rewritten today, people are instead met with a message that states: “This site has been taken over by Operation Creative, Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU).” Three people were reportedly arrested “following a complaint under copyright law.”

But even after the recent police action against Rewritten, other private servers are still operating. One of the most popular is New Club Penguin, which saw an influx of new users after Rewritten closed. On Twitter, the team behind New Club Penguin stated that they would not be closing—in fact, they announced they were adding more servers to accommodate more players.

When I joined New Club Penguin to investigate, I found things much the same as they were in my hazy recollections of playing the original Club Penguin on my first laptop when I was 11. I had vague memories of all the places my penguin avatar frequented: the pizza shop, the sled races, the puffle adoption center. I texted my sister, whom I played with at the time, to find out what her memories were of the game. “The dojo,” she replied. “Secret missions. The mine game. The ice fishing.” All of them I could find and revisit in New Club Penguin. I adopted a puffle and named it after her.

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A round, furry, blue cartoon creature with big eyes. A clipboard next to it says "Are you ready to adopt your new puffle? 400 coins."
Adopting a puffle in New Club Penguin. Screenshot by Jay Castello
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That sense of nostalgia fuelled a lot of players now using Club Penguin copycats. “I used to play [Club Penguin] loads when I was young, from the age of seven, and dipped in and out for a good while,” said one player, Jacob, who asked to be identified only by first name. Then he returned to private servers, specifically Rewritten, during lockdown, to keep him occupied while watching movies or hanging out with friends.

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The same nostalgia drives the people who run the servers, too. Charles, an administrator on New Club Penguin, not only keeps the server running, but also pays some of its expenses. “Our in-game ads do not contribute enough to pay the monthly server fee, so I lend the team an extra hand to keep the game up and running for the community to enjoy,” he said.

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A cartoon town square featuring a café, a dance club, and clothes shop. Snow covered trees and mountains are in the distance. Four cartoon penguins stand in the square: one wears a hard hat, one wears bunny ears, another wears a long blue wig, and the fourth wears wings.
In town in New Club Penguin. Screenshot by Jay Castello
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New Club Penguin launched in the summer of 2020, after a wave of Digital Millennium Copyright Act notices that closed many other private Club Penguin servers. Among them was the very popular Club Penguin Online; a BBC investigation found a lack of moderation led to racist content and child safety concerns on the server.

At that time, Disney issued a statement: “Child safety is a top priority for the Walt Disney Company and we are appalled by the allegations of criminal activity and abhorrent behaviour on this unauthorised website that is illegally using the Club Penguin brand and characters for its own purposes. We continue to enforce our rights against this, and other, unauthorised uses of the Club Penguin game.”

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Unlike Club Penguin OnlineNew Club Penguin and Club Penguin Rewritten both have staff moderators and chat filtering software, just like the original Club Penguin did. That’s one reason why the end of Rewritten came as much as a surprise to New Club Penguin’s team as to everyone else. “The news hit me like a giant shockwave,” said Charles. “One moment the Town was thriving, the next, the game crashed in just the blink of an eye. Reading about their closure was devastating, especially since they put a lot of effort into this project and effort into building their own community.”

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New Club Penguin’s owner Jonas declined to discuss whether New Club Penguin had ever been contacted by Disney, and it’s not clear whether Disney will choose to issue more DMCAs or even instigate more police involvement. New Club Penguin greets new users with a pop-up disclaimer conspicuously announcing itself as a fan site and asking users to acknowledge that it is unaffiliated with Disney.

It’s notable that while private Club Penguin servers do feature imagery, ideas, and code from the original game, Disney itself isn’t making use of them at the moment. “They still don’t understand that controlling IP at the expense of the community will devalue it, not preserve it,” tweeted Lane Merrifield, one of Club Penguin’s original creators, who sold the game to Disney in 2007.

Jacob summed it up even more succinctly: “I mean, it’s just shit, isn’t it?”

For more on the battle over Club Penguin, listen to this recent episode of ICYMI.

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