Return of a revolution: Sissyfight is back

Pioneering late '90s cult online game Sissyfight is aiming to relaunch, and creators Eric Zimmerman & Naomi Clark tell us about how the game changed a paradigm -- and helped launch a scene.
At the end of the 1990s, one of the earliest social multiplayer online games to hit the web was a game about little girls. Shockwave-based Sissyfight 2000, where schoolgirls took to the playground to fight with teasing and scratching, birthed a social community and became a cult hit, right up until its death in April 2009 after close to a decade. Now the game's creators, Eric Zimmerman, Ranjit Bhatnagar and Naomi Clark, are seeking Kickstarter backing to re-launch the project, re-coded and updated, including new community features and releasing it under an open source license. "Really, the point of what we're doing is less entrepreneurial and more curatorial," Zimmerman tells Gamasutra. "We want as many people to play it as possible, and we want it to live on." The game, commisioned by 1990s online magazine, was revolutionary in its time, requiring all players to take the role of a little girl (Zimmerman says the team was inspired by Henry Darger's outsider art) and fostering a unique community with a strong sense of identity, revolutionary alognside the rise of the PSone and the cementing of the male power fantasy as the dominant paradigm in commercial games. Sissyfight was New York development veteran Naomi Clark's first commercial design project. "I remember circling around the themes of doing a different kind of conflict, playing with gender in a weird way, having a perverse sense of humor and being a little bit twisted," Clark says. "Quake 3 was really big then, so there were all these heavy-duty combat games, Half-Life came out about then, too. We really wanted to do something different." sissyfight 2000.jpgMany people on the project didn't have a games background whatsoever, as was interested in online community and other types of content, without necessarily including game experience. "I sort of convinced the Word staff we had to do some kind of online game," Clark says. Zimmerman and Clark met through mutual friends, and Sissyfight would go on to be their first of multiple collaborations. Zimmerman brought physical games to the table, and Sissyfight would be influenced by card game Lunch Money and "prisoner's dilemma" games like Diplomacy, where the success of one's action depends on the choices made by other players. "We wanted to model social conflict, but we did it through social gameplay," Zimmerman suggests. "Sissyfight is really a social experience, about backstabbing people or convincing them to work with you." In part, the timing was down to it only just recently being possible from a legal point of view. "When Gamelab closed, it took us a while to shut down the company and take care of all the IP. All of that is now behind us, and Sissyfight was kind of floating there and nobody had picked it up. We really wanted to find a way to bring it back." "For me, it was very self-consciously an intervention into the culture of games, on a lot of levels," says Zimmerman. "Everyone is gendered female in the game, which contrasted with the kind of male gerund at the time where you 'pick your dude.' Especially at that time, women were either princesses to be rescued, or they were the kind of pin-up action hero used as eye candy for adolescent boys to look at as a puppet they're controlling. We created these little girls, and they don't fit into either of those two types."

Fight fight fight!

Sissyfight's customizable avatars, which went for a chunky, pixel-crafted retro aesthetic years before that look would become so popular as to seem nearly compulsory on the indie scene. The girls are "kind of cute, but kind of ugly, and you can also make them appear to be a more indeterminate gender, if you want. It's trying to provide, both visually and in terms of the culture around the game, a totally different kind of gender representation in a game." But the game, essentially about catty playground fighting, knocking down self-esteem and tattling, is far from a "goody two-shoes positive role model kind of thing," Zimmerman adds. "It has a dark sense of humor." Reflecting the turn of the millennium's limited understanding of games, outsiders often complained that Sissyfight was too violent, or bad for kids. "I would have to tell them that this game is about childhood, but it's not for children," Zimmerman points out. "We wanted to capture a a mixture of physical and emotional violence," Clark adds. "It's not about a bad-ass gun; you're flailing away with each other with your fingernails, you're having an immature, babyish fight. The thing we liked the most was imagining putting it out there to a mixed audience, to people who might be remembering that time in their lives, but also thinking about gamers, people who were playing a lot of online games, and in our universe everyone is an angry, mean-spirited, petty little girl." Re-coding Sissyfight in HTML5 will make it much more widely-accessible, playable on web or on a phone. "We think the format and scale is suitable for lots of different contexts of play," Clark explains. It's initially launching through Venus Patrol, as part of a creator-owned games arcade curated by Brandon Boyer and Bennett Foddy, but the IP, art, sound, and both the old and new code, including the new server and client codes, will be released openly to the public under a creative commons license or an MIT open source license as applicable. sissyfight.gif"I'm happy to have it alive, because it's kind of an important game in the history of indie games," suggests Zimmerman. "It was an experimental game, really before games were experimenting. People were trying to get more and more realistic, and the idea you did a game that was subconsciously primitive-looking was totally weird in 1999. In terms of today's indie games, Sissyfight anticipated." It was also an important spokesperson for the culture and era of the New York-based development scene, which has its own unique identity influenced by the dot-com boom, its proximity to high-end academic institutions, and its culture of driven artists and community-focused self-starters. "Companies like were not really financially self-sustainable, but were in the investment portfolios of larger companies," Zimmerman notes. "The net-art community was thriving then, and it was an interesting, different time." "It was kind of like you had to find a way to scam up some money from hopes and dreams," Clark agrees, "and figure out how to ride the wave of stock market optimism and convince people to give you money for weird projects. It wasn't super self-sustainable in the way we see the indie market having developed today. Here in New York, because we were existing way out on the fringe of the game industry, we went to GDC for the first time when we were actually shopping Sissyfight around to potential purchasers -- which actually included [Electronic Arts] at the time." "I think of Sissyfight as being part of that heritage," she reflects. "When I meet people from around New York who've been involved in digital art since that period of time, they know Sissyfight, and it's really gratifying to me."

The birth of Gamelab

Sissyfight, through its collaborative process and the culture of its success, also played a major role in the shaping of the nuanced, thriving independent game creation scene in New York City. It gave birth to Zimmerman's influential Gamelab studio, with two out of three of its founders coming together on the project. And Gamelab, in its turn, was a major node for New York's dev culture. Five founders of Come Out & Play were Gamelab staff -- the public play festival began as the thesis project of Greg Trefry while he was an intern at the studio. The Institute of Play, headed by Katie Salen, also spun out of GameLab, where Salen worked after collaborating with Zimmerman on the 2003 book Rules of Play. Area/code founder Frank Lantz, Games for Change founder Suzanne Seggerman, Large Animal founder Wade Tinney and many more either worked at Gamelab or collaborated with its designers before going on to do their own projects in New York City. After working together at GameLab, "Frank and I taught at NYU's ITP for about 15 years before the NYU Game Center started," Zimmerman highlights. "This teaching helped sew the seeds for for ITP grads that did things like Babycastles and even FourSquare (I had Dennis Crowley in an ITP thesis class where he made FourSquare)." "Sissyfight was an important moment in this whole history," he adds. "A big motivation for me in doing this is just that I know there are a bunch of players out there who really miss the game, and I feel a certain amount of duty to try to get it back online for those people who had friends on Sissyfight, who met their spouses there," Clark says One such couple are doing all the new avatar art rewards for the Kickstarter, even. "That human side, as cheesy as that might sound, is why I want to make sure this gets funded, so we can give it back to the people that really deserve it."

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