In the era of online classrooms and shelter-at-home orders, University of Arizona students are having to adjust to having nearly no in-person interaction with their friends and peers.
For one group of Wildcats, the best way they’ve found to spend time together has been playing in the online multiplayer world of Club Penguin Rewritten.
Club Penguin was an incredibly popular online social game in the early 2000s in which players created a cartoon penguin avatar. It was free to play and offered an entire map of online social interaction, individual and multiplayer mini games to earn coins and plenty of places to spend those coins. It was first made available to the public in 2005 by what is now known as Disney Canada Inc. and quickly amassed 30 million players in just two years. By 2013, the site had more than 200 million users.
The original game was taken down in early 2017, but fans brought an earlier build of the game back back to life soon after, calling it Club Penguin Rewritten. This version of the game has experienced a resurgence during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with another private server version called Club Penguin Online, the user number of which has since surged to 6 million.
Danielle Javier, a freshman nursing student at the UA, hadn’t played Club Penguin since she was a kid. But when she and her group of friends found themselves separated and isolated, it seemed like it was time to visit the site's archived state.
“One of our friends logged on after the longest time and posted it to her Snapchat story,” Javier said. “The rest of us were like, ‘What if we all hopped on Club Penguin to hangout?’”
Javier’s friend group — around 10 of whom have started playing Club Penguin Rewritten while social distancing — was spending time together almost every day before the shelter-at-home orders were issued around the nation.
Kyle Dong, a UA senior and Javier’s friend, said that social isolation has been one of the hardest parts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You never really realize how much you’re used to [human interaction],” he said, “or how much you need it. When you’re stuck inside, it changes the whole aspect of being human.”
According to commentary from Chris Segrin, the head of the UA Department of Communication, social isolation leads to loneliness, which fuels stress and, in turn, can degrade mental health.
Javier noted the negative impacts social distancing has had on her mental health.
“Being with friends helps me keep out of my bad thoughts,” she said. “It’s really hard being by myself and not being with them because I get energy from other people.”
During this time, Segrin suggests making adjustments in communication behaviors by using communication technologies and checking in on your social network. Luckily for Javier, Dong and their friends, Club Penguin Rewritten helps with achieving all of these.
After making their accounts, customizing their penguin avatars — Dong stressed that his is purple — and creating a private Zoom room, the friend group started scheduling Club Penguin Rewritten hangouts. They use Zoom while they’re on the platform so that they can chat while they play mini games.
Besides giving users the ability to customize a penguin and the penguin’s igloo home, the site features a variety of games, chat rooms and even a dance club.
“We usually go sled racing,” Javier said. “You can do a four-person sled race. We’re all on Zoom while we’re playing and we can hear each other. It’s really funny to hear [their] frustration.”
The group tries to treat their online hangouts like any in-person get-together, which includes taking pictures to post on social media.
“We try to have fun and make a group photo on an iceberg when there’s not that many penguins on there,” Dong said. “We try to line up as a group and take a group picture to post on Instagram and Snapchat just to show that we’re interacting and because we want to get others involved as well.”
The group meets once or twice a week, with many of the friends playing many hours per session and late into the night.
“We usually play on nights that you’d be doing something with your friends like going to the movies or going bowling,” Dong said. “Because of social distancing, we hang out this way instead.”
According to Javier, she and her friends aren’t the only students who have started using Club Penguin Rewritten. While on different servers and chatting with different users, she’s run into other UA students as well as many students from Oregon, Idaho and other states.
“I think the majority of people who are playing Club Penguin [Rewritten] are college students,” Javier said. “I think a lot of people who are playing it used to play it as kids.”
Although the group is having fun connecting as virtual penguins, they’re all eager to be able to hang out in real life again.
When asked what were the first things she wanted to do when the pandemic is over, Javier discussed a recipe she and her friends are excited to make together. Similarly, Dong said that the first thing he’ll be doing is grabbing something to eat with friends — to "just go to a restaurant, eat and catch up.”
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