Disney has ordered the closure of unauthorised clones of its Club Penguin online game after a report found that it was being used as a platform to send explicit messages to children.
The fan-run Club Penguin Online, which was launched in 2005, surged in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic with one million new players logging on during lockdown.
The site is a copy of an official-Disney website that closed in 2017, where young players could visit other players’ igloos and play mini-games, but where moderators and content filters stopped inappropriate messages being shared.
However, an investigation found racist, homophobic, and anti-semitic messages were common on the unofficial website. Content filters had been removed to allow slurs and personal information – such as Zoom, Instagram, and Discord accounts – to be shared.
Moderators had also stopped removing racist content, with one igloo “decorated to spell out the n-word”. Players were also involved in “penguin e-sex” by sending and receiving sexual messages.
“I’ve seen people advertise strip club igloos, I’ve seen people ask for pimps. There’s a lot of swearing on there and I’ve been asked a lot of crazy things. It’s really put me off going on these mature servers,” said one 14 year-old speaking to the BBC.
The online video game reportedly made approximately £9,000 per year through advertising, with many of its staff comprised of unpaid volunteers, according to one former worker. In order to reduce competition, one volunteer says they performed DDoS (distrubuted denial of service) attacks to shut down other websites by overloading their servers with traffic.
“I would find out and publish [users’] personal details, like addresses, what they looked like, their family’s information,” the volunteer said. “I carried out DDoS on other users, and I would threaten people. The stuff that I did was similar to what happened to me, which affected my whole family, but I do feel really bad about it now.”
Disney shuttered the online game, sending copyright notices to all private servers. In a statement, the company said: “Child safety is a top priority for the Walt Disney Company and we are appalled by the allegations of criminal activity and abhorrent behaviour on this unauthorised website that is illegally using the Club Penguin brand and characters for its own purposes.
”We continue to enforce our rights against this, and other, unauthorised uses of the Club Penguin game.“
In a statement on its Discord group, Club Penguin Online said that it would be shutting down at the end of the month.
“Due to recent events, we have decided that Club Penguin Online will be officially closing on 31 May, 2020. From the Club Penguin Online staff team, we want to thank each and every one of you for the memories over the past two years. It has been a pleasure to contribute to the success of Club Penguin Online and we wish you all the best in the future.”