Isolated Penguin has an Existential Life Crisis

Penguin, Depressed… is a YouTube video with 7.7 million views showing a penguin isolating himself from his colony and embarking on a 5 000 kilometer journey to the mountains, towards his imminent death. 

The video is an excerpt from Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World, shot in and around McMurdo Station, an American research center located on the southern tip of Antarctica’s Ross Island (Cooke). Many scenes from the documentary depict a raw and matter-of-fact sense of solitude experienced by humans and animals alike living in this isolated part of earth. That being said, there is still a sense of togetherness on Ross Island, as this solitude is shared. 

As Cooke writes in his article, 

“Interviewed in a greenhouse, ‘amongst unripe tomatoes’, an unsurprisingly articulate linguist explains that those who are not tied down tend to fall to the bottom of the planet. ‘We’re all at loose ends,’ he says, ‘and here we are together.”

Commentary on a scene from Encounters at the End of the World

There are parallels here with another icy world, one perhaps boundless of space and time… It lives on the internet and bears a legacy full of ups and downs. Shall I give you another clue? 

No. I think you already know. 

The virtual world and online game Club Penguin originally shut down in 2017. However, that hasn’t stopped devoted fans from creating private servers to continue gameplay. While the servers have certainly become more niche, especially after a legal crack-down in 2022, the world of Club Penguin still exists. 

Knowing that, I now wanted to embark on my own Antarctic mission to see if the Ross Island of the Internet was anything close to what it had been in its glory days. And that is how I landed on Club Penguin Legacy, as a twenty-one year-old adult curious if I had missed out on one, if not the most iconic virtual world of a child growing up between 2005 and 2012. 

330 million penguins 

…That’s how many accounts were created throughout Club Penguin history. Lance Priebe launched Experimental Penguins in 2000 with the simple idea of creating a game in which penguins could throw snowballs at one another (Club Penguin Wiki).

In 2005, Club Penguin, an advanced version of that original idea, was beta-tested. Two years later, Club Penguin was purchased by Disney for $350.93 million (Walmsley, 2007).

The huge investment from Disney allowed Club Penguin to boost the capacity of its servers, welcoming more and more penguins, and improving the quality of the game infrastructure in and of itself.

But there’s always a dark side to being owned by a multi-billion dollar corporate.

By 2016, trends in the online game industry were changing, and money was flowing elswhere. Disney started heavily investing in mobile games and moving away from web games. In 2017, Club Penguin in its original, online gameplay form was shut down to make room for what Disney called a “new and improved” version as a mobile app (Iz. Fans were outraged, and by the time the mobile game Club Penguin Island had dropped, most people were just trolling around. Ultimately, Club Penguin Island was discontinued in 2018 (Izzzyizzz, 2022).

So, that calls for the end of the Club Penguin story… right?

Nope. Far from it. Club Penguin was destined to survive this blow.

Post-shutdown, some of Club Penguin’s most devoted fans started creating private servers replicating the web gameplay we all knew and loved using code from the original Club Penguin.

You might be thinking, what about copyright law? Well, Disney didn’t seem to care all too much about that until some of the most popular private servers, notably Club Penguin Rewritten, started causing a ruckus for allowing the use of inappropriate language and displaying instances of predatory behaviour towards younger users perpetrated by the platform’s admins (Izzzyizzz, 2022).

This led to a huge crackdown on any and all Club Penguin Private servers, most of them being shut down by Disney in 2022, including Club Penguin Rewritten and Club Penguin Original, another big server (Izzzyizzz, 2022).

Lucky for me, there is still one man standing: the private server Club Penguin Legacy has seemed to avoid any major controversy so far and is available for gameplay for the moment (December 2023).

The Club Penguin Landscape Today 

It’s clear from the jump that Club Penguin is a game designed for kids: no minigame within the Club Penguin virtual world incites violence, and using the chat function to express blasphemy or share personal information will get you banned from the platform. For many users, this created a sort of safe haven on Club Penguin. But there’s always a loophole, as we saw in the case of Club Penguin Rewritten. 

Although it was originally intended for ages 6 to 14 (Club Penguin Wiki), Club Penguin never imposed an official age restriction on its users, which started causing some issues when people found workarounds to cursing or inciting violence through the chat: for example, they could separate the word into two parts and send them as separate chats, a function which still exists today on Club Penguin Legacy. 

For those of us who grew up utterly devoted to our penguin avatar, we were playing Club Penguin as kids anywhere between 2005 and 2016, so, when fans started creating private servers after Club Penguin’s shutdown in 2017, those who continued playing stuck around for nostalgic purposes more than anything else. This leaves the current landscape on Club Penguin to be more or less dominated by the seniors of the meme, troll and vine generation: it’s very clear that this is the case as soon as one starts chatting with other penguins. The tone, sense of humor, and abbreviations used are characteristic to that particular generation of the Internet that I grew up exposed to.  

As far as that goes, I felt quite connected to my fellow penguins on a generational basis, and the first time I went online, I actually had quite the nice chat with one penguin about the nostalgic value Club Penguin has to him. We also talked about music for a bit, the penguin shared that he liked Hozier and his favorite song by him was Cherry Wine… not too shabby for my first Club Penguin convo. 

Exploring Solo

Unfortunately, the rest of my time visiting the 2023 world of Club Penguin did not go as smoothly, and was largely characterized by time spent alone, exploring different functions of the game. 

If you haven’t played any version of Club Penguin before, I’ve summarized the most important functions and elements in the graphic below to help you understand what a classic gameplay experience might look like: 

So, here’s the problem… Most players are located in North America

Playing Club Penguin Legacy in the Central European time zone feels like going to an amusement park with no one there. Of course, you can have fun on your own, but that’s going to severely limit your motivation to engage with the platform. 

It is rather unconventional to join a party when it has already ended. I guess you can still dance, but with whom? Is dancing alone as fun? 

In this sense, it is a strong reminder that what makes any kind of space come alive, whether it be virtual or not, is the community that exists within it, not the space in and of itself. Finding ourselves alone in a space pushes us to question our place and purpose in it, as we no longer exist relative to our fellow community members, rather relative to… the vast emptiness we are surrounded by? This calls for a redefinition of the self. 

When I would hop on Club Penguin during the day here in Paris where there was virtually no one on the server with me, I started questioning the purpose of the existence of my penguin. 

In other words, my penguin was having an existential life crisis– I felt like I had become the digital version of Herzog’s nihilist penguin. I figured I should remain true to his very isolated experience on the server, and express my thoughts through his avatar. This was when I started asking existential questions through the chat function. 

Asking Other Penguins Existential Life Questions

This idea popped into my head while utterly uninspired by the mundane landscape of a desolate virtual world such as that of Club Penguin Legacy during the daytime hours of Paris. First, I tried to ask my questions in the afternoon, but there were very few penguins active on the server– a reality I had already established but still wanted to test just in case. Those few penguins who were present did not respond to my existential questions, which made me feel even more isolated than I already was. I took it very personally because I was imagining myself asking that same existential question to someone in person and how strange it would be to not get a response. Let’s say you look someone in the eye and ask them, do you believe in life after death? Now, imagine they just look at you and say nothing. 

The anonymity a penguin avatar has is perhaps even easier to get away with than an avatar resembling a human, simply because we are more likely to associate ourselves with a human avatar than with that of a penguin. Case in point: when I asked a fellow penguin if it believed in life after death, it just stood there bobbing up and down and said nothing. Beware, I’m going to use a Gen-Z term in 3,2,1… – it felt very NPC (for those reading who don’t know this term, NPC is an acronym used in the gaming community that stands for non-player character, meaning that the character was created by the game and is not controlled by a human but rather by an algorithm dictating its actions. This can result in strange, robot-like behavior). 

I came to posit multiple theories on why I wasn’t getting a response: the first was the ease of ignoring a fellow penguin simply because doing so had no repercussions.

If you don’t want to talk to anyone, you don’t have to. 

Sometimes when I asked my questions, the penguin(s) around me would leave the area I was in and move to another area on the map (fair enough, I also don’t know how I would react if someone hurled an existential question at me while playing Club Penguin). 

My second theory was tied to those penguins who did not leave the area I was in, but rather remained still and did not respond to my question: this case felt a little harder to crack. If an existential question makes you uncomfortable, it makes more sense to leave like the other penguins did rather than staying and saying nothing. This led me to start wondering whether or not the static, unresponsive penguins around me were actually NPCs. Like any intelligent human being, I turned to the shrine of all knowledge for an answer and looked this up on Reddit. 

According to several answers, it was likely these penguins were neither NPCs, nor were they antisocial… It turns out there are people out there who are active all day long on the Club Penguin server, leaving it on in the background at home, much like you would a TV show while you’re cooking or hanging up your laundry. These players are referred to as afk– “away from keyboard”. Others pointed out that they sometimes would hop on the Club Penguin server as spectators, just to see what was going on around them. One player said, “It just feels good watching people do their stuff, […] having conversations around you” (BusinessProfession13 on Reddit). 

But… then there were those who talked 

As I mentioned before, playing Club Penguin during the daytime here in Paris was rather unfruitful due to the lack of other players active on the server. Hence, to increase my chances of having cool existential conversations with my fellow penguins, I decided I was going to sacrifice some sleep and cater to the North American players by logging on after midnight my time. 

I had just come home from work and a day of school, so to be honest, I was beat. But SargePepper, my avatar (named after the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), was not, and so he ventured to different areas on the map, probing one penguin after another with his existential questions. 

Results are as follows: In one hour of gameplay, I received a grand total of two responses. I documented my experiment in this three-minute video below. If you’d like to dive into penguin-world for a short moment, give it a peek:

Maybe this is why Herzog’s deranged penguin left his colony: when no one properly engages with you even though they could, that is quite possibly worse than being completely isolated and alone and having literally no one to engage with.  It’s comparable to the horrid feeling of being lonely in a crowd (if you’ve ever experienced that).
If You’re Existentialist, You Can’t Sit With Us

At the end of the day, what I’ve come to find is that Club Penguin just isn’t really the place to get existential. I guess that makes sense… in its essence, it’s a game designed for children in which you become a penguin and can forget all your worries in the real world.

Asking my existential questions without getting any proper answers probably just deepened the existential crisis of my poor avatar SargePepper.

However, I would like to take a brief moment to go over the two responses I did get.  

Do you guys ever think about reincarnation? 

I asked this question in the dance club, and was surprised to get an answer from Story04, who responded “frequently”. I decided to continue the conversation and ask what he thought he would be reincarnated as, and he said, “probably a bat”. Story04 was also kind enough to ask me the same. I said, “a giraffe”. I waited to see if he would continue the conversation from there, but to no avail.

Do you believe in a higher power? 

This second question came to me while visiting another penguin’s strangely designed igloo. The background music there was sort of a blend between psychedelic and electronic music, and the architectural choices this penguin had made for its igloo were… interesting. All of this left me feeling very inspired, and connected to the other penguin visiting the igloo in a spiritual way. 

We indeed were connected, because he answered my question (as we have come to find out, this is an extremely rare event). 

“I believe in high power,” was the response I got. “Hahaha,” I commented, “Well said”. Unfortunately, that was as far as I got in that conversation. After our brief exchange, the penguin in question had left the igloo probably looking for said high power. 

I never thought I would say this, but I think there’s a clear parallel between the experience of asking existential questions on Club Penguin and double-texting on a dating app: in both cases, you will get ghosted. 

Who knew I would be granted such wisdom through my time spent as a penguin avatar. Thanks, SargePepper. 

Tasina Emma Westberg



Club Penguin Wiki, “History.” 

Cookie, Tim. “Werner Herzog’s nihilist penguin teach us about life?” Little White Lies.

Izzzyzzz, “The Rise and Fall of Club Penguin.” YouTube, Jan 25 2022. 

Walmsley, Andrew. “Kids’ virtual worlds are maturing nicely.” Oct 24, 2007.

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tasinawesrberg (6 décembre 2023). Isolated Penguin has an Existential Life Crisis. Comment voit-on la ville ? Consulté le 18 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

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