the death of our childhood games
Club Penguin shut down on March 30th at the stroke of midnight PST. It was the end of an online game that, through its decade-long existence, was a defining part of growing up for generations of kids. Its death was a symbolic one as well, yet another reminder of the ephemerality of our childhood experiences. But we largely ignored these musings and instead made some memes about the website, most notably the ones involving how easy it is to get banned for saying naughty words.
As a game, Club Penguin was an anomaly. There wasn’t a whole lot to do, really—you could play minigames to get coins for clothing (if you bought membership). But the main draw of Club Penguin was the ability to interact with others, even if you could only do so with their cheesy preset messages. It wasn’t a game designed for prolonged playing sessions, but rather one you were intended to continuously revisit over a long period of time for brief spurts. With time came new content; for instance, a new edition of their newspaper was released every week, and a new pin (a wearable collectible) was occasionally hidden somewhere in the world for you to find. There were always fresh sitewide events to participate in, where you could often score free clothing and furniture.
Other childhood RPGs in this early era of the commercialized internet were similarly designed. Neopets was filled with fun, quick events that could only be done once a day, and new material was continuously being created every week. There were more overt barriers preventing kids from playing for long periods of time—for example, games could only be played three times before Neopoints (their currency) were no longer awarded—but the main roadblock was the simple lack of activities after a certain point. You were forced to wait until the next day, when everything would be unlocked for you to continue your progress.
Neopets was in the news these past few years for being purchased by Jumpstart, a company which proceeded to neglect the website. New glitches continuously cropped up, and beloved features were inexplicably removed. Then, on the day of a facility move, the notoriously restrictive chat filter was accidentally loosened, and months of pent-up frustration towards the Jumpstart team was suddenly unleashed in an explosion of shitposting. The ingame forum was soon filled with thread titles like “fu cking sjws again,” “hell is empty,” and “i cant believe i cant fu cking cuss on neopets.” New Neopets were bequeathed names like “dickdestroyer” and “WaffleSlut.” The festivities died soon enough and bans were handed out, but coupled with news that much of the original staff for Neopets had recently been laid off by Jumpstart, the episode rang like a final knell for those who grew up playing the game.
These examples are just two of many. Runescape underwent a massive overhaul some years back to the point of unrecognizability, as did Maplestory. Toontown Online was also shut down by Disney in 2013. The games that used to populate the Disney and Nickelodeon websites are gone—does anyone remember that Lilo and Stitch one where you had to stack sandwich ingredients?
One reason is the sheer increase in competition these days; mobile apps are portable, addictive games for little kids, and YouTube has many content creators that directly target children. Games like Minecraft and Roblox, where the users themselves can create different game types, offer nearly limitless entertainment. The business models of old, where content was unlocked through waiting and returning every day, are no longer effective in an age where so much possible entertainment is readily available. Rather symbolically, Club Penguin’s death gave way to Disney’s new mobile-only penguin-themed game, Club Penguin Island. Featuring disturbingly high-resolution penguins and promises of “non-stop action!”, it was a blatant bid by Disney to transfer the charms of Club Penguin to a more profitable medium.
Of course, our penchant for nostalgia doesn’t give a shit about business models. Despite the obvious flaws, we still mourned the deaths of our childhood games; we still have emotional ties to these games even if we haven’t touched them in years. Many people, including myself, remade a new account and waddled around in the days leading up to its deletion. There were fun events to celebrate the end, and the Club Penguin staff even added the ability to tip the iceberg, which had been an urban legend of sorts since the birth of the game. Flipping it over would reveal a dancefloor and a plaque that read as follows: “Together, we can build an island, create a community, change the world… and even tip an iceberg. Waddle on.”
Club Penguin, like many of these old childhood games, never felt like traditional games, really. They operated as communities and worlds, where the objective is never to defeat a final boss or get every achievement. The only goal was to explore, make friends, talk to people from all over the world. Waddle on—it’s a simple phrase, but a fitting one.