A rebooted Club Penguin is giving millennials their first dose of digital nostalgia

A generation weaned on computer games and social media, Club Penguin Rewritten provides space to reflect on a digital childhood.

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For millennial kids, computer games were an integral part, if not the most enjoyable part, of growing up. Among the Carmen Sandiegos, Sporcles, and Legend of Zeldas, was Club Penguin, a multiplayer online game where users chose cartoon penguin avatars, ones that hung out on ski slopes, went surfing, and could complete tasks and challenges for coins that helped buy them pets, clothes, and things to deck out their own personal igloos with. The space had a chatroom, a double-edged sword for most web platforms (with the risk of drawing in child predators), where users could converse, make friends, and arrange digital parties and games.

Founded in 2000, and designed for kids aged 6-14, the game’s popularity grew exponentially, and it was eventually acquired by Disney in 2007. By the following year, it had more than 30 million user accounts and was named by Nielsen as a top eight social networking platform in the United States. But just a few years later in 2015, that traffic began to wane, and by March 2017, Club Penguin shut down for good. Millennials and Gen-Zers alike mourned the loss of a beloved, iconic game.

However, waddling up just as Club Penguin was shuffling off was a new version of the game that, in reality, was exactly like the old one. This platform took the game a decade back in time, to the environment the original penguins knew and loved. There were fewer restrictions, classic features stripped out by Disney were restored, and a specific audience that loved the game during its late Noughties peak came flooding back. That new platform is the now increasingly popular Club Penguin Rewritten, a free, voluntary project run by fans of the original game.

Club Penguin Rewritten is a recreation of the beloved Disney game that has touched millions upon millions of childhoods around the globe,” the creators tell me, via Twitter, about Rewritten’s mission statement. “The purpose of our server is to create a safe but enjoyable experience for those that wish to experience nostalgia or to hang out and meet new friends across the globe. We try our best to make it as authentic as possible, to bring in new content with a bunch of twists here and there to keep everyone excited for what's to come on the island.”

The platform has four creators: Joe, Josh, Lewis, Tim, all students based in the UK. They created Club Penguin Rewritten as a side project in February 2017. They built it as volunteers, and offer it to users entirely for free. They are able sidestep copyright laws thanks to educational fair use laws in the United States. Despite the small founding team, the number of people behind the Rewritten operation has grown significantly since they launched. “We have our email support team, along with our moderation team that deal with support requests 24/7,” they tell me.

From what they say, they need it. Although all four owners have had previous experience working on side projects, none have dealt with something the size of Club Penguin Rewritten, whose servers can hold up to two million registered users at once. “It can get pretty crazy behind the scenes,” they say, “but it's definitely rewarding with the reactions that the community brings.”

The reaction, they explain to me, is one of heavy-duty nostalgia. Users are able to tread through the game, not in the shape it morphed into over the years, but as it was when they were kids playing it at home in their parents’ house. “From what we've seen personally, it's definitely more of a nostalgic factor for a lot of people that do play the game,” the creators say. “There's definitely a more mature audience now compared to before.”

Rather than being a space designed for all generations of Club Penguin player, it is a curated space to look as it did for those who were kids in the early 2000s – now all grown up. (The creators also assure me they were also drawing in new users who had never played the original Club Penguin, but who just stumbled upon the game on YouTube or Twitter.)

I speak to one user, Katie, who echoes the positive experience described by the creators. Katie is 19, lives in St Louis, Missouri, and played Club Penguin as a kid, from around age eight. “I remember sitting in my friend’s basement trying to make up passwords that our 8 year old selves would remember,” she says. She’s enjoyed using the Rewritten version, calling it “very nostalgic and calming”, and saying that there are actually some elements that make it better than the original, in particular, the fact that everyone is a “member” without having to pay.

Previously Club Penguin was sustained on paid memberships, which gave certain users special access that other users had to win coins (via in-app games) to even dream of getting. The absence of this is another plus. “There’s no competing between people for items you can get or games you can play or anything like that,” Katie says. She feels this creates a less hostile environment, often inseparable from online multiplayer games.

Another element that adds to the nostalgia-factor is what people are actually discussing on the new platform. “Kids on CPR are much more advanced in the way they talk, just because they’re probably all in their teens… They reference Vines and tweets in a way that younger kids wouldn’t know about,” she says.

This was something the creators have noticed too. “It's fun to see a lot of users just having a fun session by quoting Vine references, or other things that are trending on social media(s),” they tell me. “It's definitely just a LOT of Vine references. But hey, what's not to like about some Vine references?”

“They also talk a lot about Club Penguin trends that used to be really big such as [in game past-time] tipping the iceberg or the EPF missions [Elite Penguin Force was a video game released for Nintendo DS] that you can play through,” Katie notes.

Although the original Club Penguin officially shut its doors on 29 March 2017, the official franchise lives on in a new incarnation, Club Penguin Island – first released as an app, but now downloadable on Mac and PCs. Announced in November 2016, the app aimed to be a fresh way to keep the Club Penguin brand going, without having to revive the existing, dying original. However, fans of the original game aren’t too pleased. Polygon wrote about the disappointment of the new game, in an article headlined “No one’s feeling Club Penguin’s replacement”, noting user concerns over the new platform. “Club Penguin Island...loses much of what was endearing about the Flash-based original. There’s a heavy emphasis on story, with a mandatory tutorial walking players through some clunky controls and a much blander setting.”

For original Club Penguin users, though, the success or authenticity of Club Penguin Island doesn’t matter. In Club Penguin Rewritten they have found the old game they loved – and the community that’s grown up with it.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.