The funeral march of the penguins

An obituary for children’s online flash games

Screenshot via Club Penguin

On November 14, a virtual anti-Trump rally was held on Club Penguin. Just two months later, the Disney-owned online gaming platform announced it was shutting down for good.

Coincidence? Probably.

However, the closure of this virtual world heralds the end of an era. Like most of my generation, I grew up with desktop computers, cereal box CD downloads and online gaming platforms such as Club Penguin, Neopets, Habbo Hotel and RuneScape, among others. For many people, the interactions in these flash-based games were an important tool in our social development.

Before everyone had Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, we had online games and MSN. Interacting with other kids around the world in a largely-unsupervised online space was something the generations before and after us never experienced on the same level. Now that most parents have finally figured out how to navigate most social networks and children as young as six have multi-platform social media presences, the Internet is less of a vast, mysterious space than it was during my youth.

Club Penguin has been a frontrunner in the kid-oriented, virtual world-based gaming scene since the early 2000s, boasting over 200 million users in 2013. The relative anonymity permitted all sorts of online debauchery.

At the time we thought it was hilarious to sit opposite someone in the pizza place and put up the heart speech bubble until they sent one back. Although online and in shorthand text lingo, these interactions were good practice for real life social situations. We were free to experiment with complex emotions with strangers in a safe, non-real space we could log out of at any time.

With sophisticated online platforms like Facebook or Twitter, where your primary audience is your peers — or even Tumblr where it’s slightly more common to interact with strangers — most users end up crafting a much more nuanced self-portrayal than possible on a basic online flash game.

Today’s kids have most of their accounts connected to each other and linked to their full names. This is a far cry from the seemingly random strings of numbers, dashes, and boy band lyrics that made up usernames in places like Neopets, Club Penguin or Habbo Hotel.

Regardless of the long-term ramifications, I’m not alone in my nostalgia for the death of Club Penguin. Upon the announcement of the site’s shutdown, social media broadcasted the sound of millions of millennial hearts breaking around the world. Last Wednesday was the last day users could log on to the virtual Antarctic town, and the servers were packed with thousands of people who wouldn’t waddle gently into that good night. 

I logged into my childhood account one last time for the final goodbye. As we gathered in the square to send our farewells and wishes of “waddle on”, we watched the clock count down the final seconds of what was once a behemoth among social networks and virtual worlds.

Just before midnight, I noticed that my friends list had a green light. Three people on my friends list were online — and then none of us were. A message was displayed in the characteristic orange-on-blue I’d become so familiar with: “The connection has been lost. Thank you for playing Club Penguin. Waddle on!”

It’s sad to see the ship of flash based children’s MMOs sink, but Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.

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