In a privately run reconstruction of the defunct children’s game Club Penguin, players gathered their penguins in a semi-circle around a “casting couch,” where their leader, 24-year-old Prior Bumble, sat, receiving virtual oral sex from one after another, while prop cameras pointed at the action.
It wasn’t the first time they had acted out this scene.
According to a former member of Prior Bumble’s “army,” the Recon Federation of Club Penguin (RFCP), one of these casting couch parties ended when, after taking their turn, a player asked Prior if he knew they were 12 years old.
Prior immediately logged off.
After midnight July 19, a female member of RFCP I’ll call Rose asked Prior in a private message who he’d be seeing tonight in the “stuff room,” an area of one member’s in-game igloo devoted to cybersex.
“Guess we’ll see lol,” he said. “Sometimes, I have a feeling you’d like it to be you.”
“wtf,” the girl responded. She was 12 years old.
When screenshots of that interaction were leaked to Club Penguin Armies (CPA), a league which tracks the performance of more than a dozen armies, RFCP received a one-week suspension from the league.
“It took the actions of RFCP for me to realize that I am in charge of a community of children,” said DMT, the 16-year-old administrator who announced the suspensions. “As the gatherer of them all, it’s my job to protect them from things like that.”
That incident, however, was only the tip of the iceberg that had earned RFCP a reputation among the CPA community as reckless at best and predatory at worst.
No longer a monolith under the thumb of Disney, which shut the game down in 2017, the Club Penguin of 2020 is a patchwork of customized recreations largely maintained and moderated by young hobbyists, where nostalgic adults mix with children playing the game for the first time. The players set their own rules and hold themselves accountable.
The reanimated veneer of playful cartoon penguins, an appropriated skin designed for a children’s game that no longer exists, disguises an almost “Lord of the Flies”-esque abyss of authority. Eye candy that once drew in over 200 million players, mainly children, is stretched now over a hollow core with no adults in the room who answer to anyone but themselves.
In the case of RFCP, this free-for-all was the incubation chamber for what former members have described as a cult.
Equal parts chatroom and arcade, Club Penguin is one of the most recognizable online games for adolescents of the late 2000s. Battles between the armies, a sub-community over a decade in the making, are a contest of which army is larger and more coordinated in wearing uniforms, arranging their penguins in formations, and spamming battle cries.
After three 10-minute rounds of these displays, a judge declares a winner and the penguins disappear from the screen one by one as players log out and return to their army’s chat rooms.
“Have you experienced the loss of a family member?”
For many RFCP members, chatting in the army’s Discord server is like coming home to a family, or as a 12-year-old member once clarified to a newly initiated soldier, a “weird family.”
“We are all very much involved in each other’s personal lives,” a member named Sha told me. “We all have strong relationships/friendships with one another. We all love RFCP with all of our hearts. It’s more than an army to us, it’s the thing that brought us together.”
Sha, an 18-year-old girl who made frequent sexual advances to Prior, described him as a “best friend” who helped her break free of an abusive relationship. Whenever she’s depressed or anxious, she said, he can guide her into a calm-enough state to deal with whatever’s troubling her.
Prior Bumble, a self-described authoritarian who has claimed to be a certified crisis counselor, is a patriarchal presence for many of his soldiers. Though they’re required to address him by “sir,” “commander,” or “chief,” he also accepts the unofficial nickname “papa Prior.”
No RFCP members interviewed for this story reported living with parents who were married to each other. Three, one as young as 12, told me they saw Prior Bumble as a father figure.
One of them, a transgendered 16-year-old, said they formed a bond with Prior over the deaths of their father and Prior’s brother, both of drug overdoses.
“I distinctly remember having to see my dad on his casket,” they said, “and it killed me to see it.”
Another, a 17-year-old bisexual boy from Alabama, said his mother died of an overdose and his father is incarcerated. For a time, he was kicked out of his grandparents’ house for his sexuality. Though he was a member of another army at the time, Prior checked on him nearly every day.
Prior once inquired into a CPA administrator’s personal life and “tried to give me advice when I shared even the smallest problem,” they said, and in the course of reporting this story, he followed up on an off-hand comment I made about my Thanksgiving not being quite the same as previous years.
“Have you experienced the loss of a family member?” he asked.
By acting as a listening ear, Prior Bumble cultivates an emotional reliance on him in otherwise alienated, lonely or isolated young people, which sources said make up a sizable chunk of the modern army community. RFCP members interviewed for this story, two of whom reported struggling with multiple personalities, almost unanimously said Prior had helped them through emotional and mental health challenges.
Ask many of them and they’ll say it’s because Prior Bumble is deeply, genuinely empathetic.
“He cares about us as individuals, a skill that very few other army leaders have demonstrated,” an RFCP lieutenant said. “He’s just a nice person. Not perfect necessarily, but still one of the best leaders I’ve ever met.”
Prior said he’s “humbled” to have played a paternal role in some of his soldiers’ lives, complete with the occasional storytime, where his soldiers gather around him while he types the text of childrens’ books into the in-game chat and sends the illustrations to their Discord chat room.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, he read them “Turkey Trouble” by Wendi Silvano.
“Being someone who can be trusted to help you if you’re down, to be a cheerleader during your time in the game, to offer things they’ve been through to empower and strengthen you, those are great things,” he said. “I love my soldiers with all my heart.”
Some RFCP members are as apt to praise his clemency as they are his compassion. A letter released by RFCP in defense of Prior painted him as a leader beset by betrayal who nonetheless always has room in his heart for a second chance.
One member, known as Phoebe, said Prior Bumble was “the most forgiving person I’ve met in a while.” When Phoebe and another member, RomanPrince, both 18-year-old girls who engaged Prior in cybersex, were spotted in a group chat where disparaging remarks were made against him, he allowed them to atone by sending him pictures of their favorite flowers.
Recently, it seems Prior’s reservoir of forgiveness ran dry in response to repeated leaks. Anyone caught leaking information from RFCP or joining Discord chats with specific traitors would be permanently banned.
“It won’t matter to me what mental breakdown you were having, who manipulated/lied to you, if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “In this community, which mercilessly hates the strong (me), if you are not actively defending me, you are hurting me. Act like soldiers. Defend your commander.”
Kailey, an RFCP member who was romantically involved with Prior in the fall of 2019, grew wary of his inflating ego and sphere of influence and left the army, releasing an open letter detailing her feelings.
The letter, released on CPA’s website, accused RFCP of cult-like worship of Prior. Though she left the army, she continued to communicate with Prior, who complained of a ruined reputation and a “shredded” heart and, Kailey later said, played on “anxiety about abandonment and loneliness” she had described in Discord a little over a week beforehand.
“For the first time in my life, I truly felt needed and like people wanted me around,” she’d written. “This game taught me that I didn’t need to be a lone wolf and that I am deserving of love and friendship.”
“Don’t do this to us,” Prior said when she left. “Send me your favorite flower. We can make it go away. Come home.”
“I can’t go back to RFCP though. It wasn’t healthy for me,” she said.
“We loved you,” he said. “We can fix anything together.”
After Prior promised to protect her from the abuse of his loyalists and to let her retain her rank of General, Kailey was persuaded to pen an apology discrediting her first open letter, claiming she wrote it in a state of emotional turmoil, and rejoined the army.
Kailey’s return to RFCP immediately sparked a roaring debate on the validity of her accusations and her right to be welcomed back into the fold. Some saw truth in her letter, and others saw her claims as the calculated mischaracterizations of a traitor. Sha was particularly adamant that Kailey was a liar who had done personal harm to her.
“Sha, whatever problems you have with her should be handled over direct message and not held here in the general chat,” an RFCP member told Sha while she railed against Kailey.
“I want her to see it,” she replied. “She should see how she’s hurt me. The fact that she can come back and act like nothing happens disgusts me.”
A week of negotiations and a vote by her old friends and new members she’d never met determined that Kailey would be demoted for a probation period of unspecified length. Less than a month later, though, when Prior castigated her for questioning his diplomacy with another army, she left for a final time and wrote a second, longer open letter complete with screenshots revealing some of the psychological machinery at play in Prior’s domain.
For Prior Bumble, a veteran of the original Club Penguin army community, returning to the game in June 2019 was a coping mechanism against the pain and guilt associated with his older brother’s overdose death.
“The psychology could not be clearer,” he said in a private chat leaked by Kailey. “Prior is my personal power … Being powerless brings back my PTSD. Prior didn’t save my brother. I wasn’t Prior then. I didn’t act like Prior that night.”
Despite Kailey’s insistence that she was in love with “the person behind that screen” and not the digital persona that called itself Prior Bumble, Prior asserted there was no such person, at least not one that he wished to recognize. The persona was all.
His self-worth, the chats show, was linked to RFCP’s prestige.
“If I could buy wins I’d pay $50 a battle. No shit,” he said. “$100 for some.”
“Invest your money in real life things,” Kailey said. “You’re lucky that you could spend that. $100 is like groceries for a week.”
“This is a real life thing,” he said.
“It shouldn’t be,” she said. “Try to enjoy all of this, win or lose.”
“That is an illogical suggestion,” he said.
Kailey’s second open letter describes what she calls the “Prior trance” — a longing for his good graces which led, for example, to her apology, which she later annotated, highlighting lies produced under the “trance” in purple. The trance, she claimed, made sycophants of those who stayed and demons of those who left.
If there’s any truth to the “trance,” Prior says, it’s only the inevitable effect of his charisma.
“I’m a writer and I’m good with communicating,” he said. “I’m also super supportive and loving to my soldiers. Kailey thinks this makes people follow me blindly. Our constitution states you can leave any time though, like any army.”
While it’s true in theory that RFCP members can leave at any time, the army’s rules state that they must “extend the courtesy” of talking to Prior about it beforehand. While a screenshot provided by Prior seems to show him letting one member leave with little fuss, at least one other member had a very different experience.
In November, a 16-year-old former RFCP member I’ll call Vincent left to join friends in a rival army. He’d left once before to protect his mental health and was demoted on his return, leaving him feeling “like a figment of the past.” After some advice from Kailey, he decided it was best to leave for good.
Prior sent a message to check up on him, and before long he’d accused Vincent’s friends of “troop stealing,” an army taboo. Prior asked for screenshots of their private messages, threatening to report them to CPA.
“[Y]ou made a commitment to us,” Prior told him. “Loyalty is something valuable. It’s a virtue in every aspect of life.”
Vincent was not persuaded to reenlist, but when I spoke with him, a real-life high school friend of his had recently joined RFCP. His friend told me they felt a “special connection” to the army because it was the fourth army listed on CPA’s website, and four is their lucky number.
“God, it’s weird knowing I was once part of that and currently have a friend trapped in there,” Vincent said.
“They were always sexual and never really stopped”
There is no evidence that Prior has ever deliberately had cybersex with a minor. Screenshots of chat logs demonstrate he generally observed the minimum safeguard, the same method I used to source this story: asking the other person’s age and taking their word for it.
Nevertheless, the borderline conversation with a 12-year-old girl which earned RFCP its suspension from CPA was “one of the least damning pieces of evidence against [him],” DMT said. It was just one event in a web of questionable conduct.
In even the public channels of the RFCP Discord server, everything from flirty innuendo to outright obscenity was a matter of course.
“They were always sexual and never really stopped,” one former member said. “It was a continuous topic in the server.”
Anyone who joined their server at midnight Sept. 29 would have seen members discussing the possibility of an RFCP “orgy.” Sha volunteered her igloo for the event.
Referring to himself in the third person, Prior said such an orgy “would get bloody fighting over Prior.” The topic of an orgy had been brought up earlier in September, and re-emerged in October.
Prior was notorious for claiming to have masturbated inside Stonehenge in 2015. The story became an inside joke among his soldiers, and at least once RFCP used “HAVE YOU BEEN TO STONEHENGE?” as a battle cry. The topic surfaced late one night in September when a member named Lucky said it seemed Prior can “come anywhere he want.”
“I do,” Prior replied. “Even at Stonehenge.”
“Prior you can come in my igloo,” Sha, who told me she and two other members have a “crush” on Prior, said, adding an emoji licking its lips. “Let’s recreate Stonehenge together papa Prior.”
The sexual conversations and advances that occurred in the public rooms of the RFCP Discord were not always so overt. Often they were cloaked in a thin veil of euphemism, something like Sha begging Prior for “words.”
“I would die for some words rn,” Sha said in November. “Pls daddy we have been so good. Is asking for words all the time a naughty thing to do?”
What could be seen in RFCP’s public channels was seemingly the spill-over from what went on in-game and their NSFW Discord channel #rfcp-after-dark, known simply as Afterdark, where a clique of RFCP members often gave and sought sexual attention, the most frequent target and highly prized source of which was Prior himself.
Sha said RFCP’s sexual component was a holdover from when the group was a small circle of adults, a rough edge that was overlooked when a new crop of younger members joined.
“We all got close with each other and we needed to chill out when the younger kids got involved, but we didn’t,” she said.
Their erotic roleplay time and again flooded into spaces hardly distinct from those in which RFCP’s youngest members bonded with a found family. Children to whom Prior was a surrogate father saw him not only command the strict obedience of at least several dozen people, but indulge the sexual desires of barely legal subordinates.
In July, an unused channel in the Discord server called Silver Thirty was repurposed into a sort of kids’ room accessible only to Prior and members who identified themselves as minors. Whoever could access Silver Thirty would be restricted from accessing Afterdark.
The idea, Prior told me, was that children would “stop trying to get into” Afterdark if they had a channel of their own.
Plenty NSFW messages weren’t actually contained to Afterdark, though, and sometimes Afterdark itself wasn’t even properly restricted; it was accessible to me for a period of time, and I only ever had default permissions. Besides, everyone knows that children are drawn to the forbidden — enterprising children made short work of the walls RFCP put up around its sexual element by simply lying about their age.
The Silver Thirty room quickly became a ghost town, deemed boring by those it was set up to protect, and the system separating children from adult content became only intermittently enforced. Less than a month after Silver Thirty was established, 12-year-old Rose told RFCP a friend saw Afterdark while borrowing her phone and warned her it wasn’t appropriate for someone her age.
“I freak[ed] out and scream[ed] ‘OH MY GOD I’M NOT ALLOWED IN THERE!!’” Rose said.
Nevertheless, it seems somehow she was.
Prior said the establishment of Silver Thirty in favor of simply suspending or banning people for adult content flowed from his famous clemency.
“RFCP is notoriously forgiving,” he said. “Maybe to a fault. We know that making a sexual joke in the public Discord doesn’t automatically make you a pedo. People make jokes and comments like that. It happens.”
Members constantly reframed the sex acts they described and virtually performed as just that: jokes. When members dressed their penguins in costumes and watched each other pretend to give Prior oral sex on a mock casting couch, it was “just funny,” Sha said. “We weren’t taking it seriously at all.”
Whatever their intent, they contributed to an ambient, nearly ceaseless sexual energy that permeated far beyond its supposed barriers and became one of the army’s defining characteristics.
“We’re a bunch of teenagers … combating internet warriors”
The positions of power in the modern Club Penguin community — the administrators of private servers and Discord chat rooms, the generals of armies — are predominantly teenagers and young adults. On top of the normal pressures of their age, they are grappling with what it means to responsibly lead a community still ostensibly targeted at children.
“We’re a bunch of teenagers tasked with the issue of combating internet warriors,” DMT said. “[I]t’s hard to grasp the reality of the situations I’m in. I don’t really think about it, I just act.”
After Club Penguin shut down, the community dispersed into a proliferation of private servers, each one a discrete recreation of the original game. CPA Central (CPAC), a blog once a hub for army reporting, shut itself down on the same day Club Penguin went offline, leaving behind several plaintive posts reflecting on the years spent waddling around and throwing snowballs, but the armies didn’t go down with it. In April, CPA was formed to provide a nerve center for the splintered community.
CPAC, though, had simply been a news site. Its neutrality and lack of authority was used as a model for CPA, but since Club Penguin itself had blinked out of existence, CPAC’s successor would have to do much more. CPA hosts its own private server dedicated to army activity, maintained by two 17-year-old programmers.
At first, DMT resisted the inflation of responsibilities that came with the center of gravity shifting toward the community, rather than the game.
“A lot of the toxicity in the community was allowed to happen because of myself,” he said. “I did not take things seriously. This was because I had always stuck to my virtues about CPA having as little power as possible.”
For his part, DMT isn’t sure whether the community is less safe than it was under Disney. The game was regulated by a billion-dollar corporation with a kid-friendly reputation to protect, but the armies were always self-governed in spaces adjacent to Disney’s oversight.
The shift from the Flash-based chat platform Xat, which suffered a major data breach in 2015, to the more modern and sophisticated Discord makes the community discourse more secure and easier to moderate. But at the same time, accusations of exploitation and abuse are not unheard of in the highest roles at today’s most popular private Club Penguin servers.
One of the largest, Club Penguin Rewritten, was hacked in July, exposing the data of over 4 million users and launching a back-and-forth on who was to blame for the vulnerability. Codey, an 18-year-old self-described security researcher formerly involved with Rewritten, said most servers are run “by children who use pre-made code” and have only a dim awareness of best security practices and internet privacy laws.
Following RFCP’s suspension from CPA, Prior announced he’d be collaborating with a developer to create an army league of his own, Club Penguin Warfare. Staffed largely by Prior and his most ardent followers — including Sha, whose role has evolved into something like an enforcer — CPW is a reflection of the community’s chaotic, shifting sands. The suspension seems to have only propelled Prior and his inner circle into positions of greater responsibility.
The vanishing of the original Club Penguin itself has opened a power vacuum with room for both good faith actors and opportunists with no intention of, or capacity for, administering responsibly and securely.
“The illusion of safety is much stronger than it’s ever been,” DMT said. “Take that for what you will.”
Disney has not yet responded to a request for comment on this story.