Cindi Geeze and Terry Wiley
Sissyfight is an uncomfortable lesson in gender representation, bullying, and social survival
Sissyfight 2000 is an online multiplayer game about schoolgirls bullying one another into submission; each scratch, each tattle, each tease diminishes your opponents' self-esteem, until they're reduced to withering crybabies. If you think that the game is a response to the games industry's discussions about sexism, gender representation, and violence, you're correct.
Or you would be, had you said that in the year 2000.
Scratching your way to the top
Eric Zimmerman has taught at MIT and created games shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art, and previously hosted the Game Design Challenge at GDC. Before all that, however, he made an online game called Sissyfight 2000. In it, players would take the role of pre-pubescent girls who teased, scratched, and tattled on each other in order to become queen of the playground.
“It was certainly meant as an intervention into the culture of games,” Zimmerman told the Report. “It was multiplayer that kind of took advantage of the best and the worst in online interactions, so it encourages mob mentality, trash-talking, ganging up on people, backstabbing them.”
The game is played with three to six players, each in control of their own “Sissyfighter”- an angry-looking, stylized schoolgirl. Each turn, a clock counts down while players choose whether to scratch, tease, tattle, grab, lick a lolly, or cower. The names for these combat maneuvers are silly, but the game feels very strategic in practice.
Scratching does straight damage, but is the least damaging ability. Teasing is twice as effective, but won't do anything if you're the only one teasing. Grabbing does no damage, but interrupts a target's actions. Tattling is the most powerful “attack,” but if two girls tattle at the same time, they get in trouble instead of the targets. Cowering protects against grabs and scratches, while licking a lolly regains health.
Each player chooses their action in secret, but while said actions are being picked, each Sissyfighter can speak with the others in order to try and gang up on a girl, coordinate attack and defense, or shift blame to someone else. This unique take on navigating social circles and childhood ruthlessness gained Sissyfight a significant following.
The game ran for nine years, before hosting difficulties forced the team to pull the plug. Now however, Zimmerman is resurrecting Sissyfight. Pending a successful Kickstarter campaign, the game will be one of the first on Independent Games Festival chairman Brandon Boyer's gaming culture website, Venus Patrol.
Curation, not profit
Sissyfight's Kickstarter isn't concerned with creating a profitable game. Zimmerman and Sissyfight's original producer and coder - Naomi Clark and Rhajit Bhatnagar, respectively – will be providing the game free of charge once the Kickstarter is funded. Anyone will be able to pick up the code, structured to work with HMTL 5, and do with it as they see fit.
“It's less of an entrepreneurial project and more of a curatorial project. We're raising the funds so that we can re-code the game from scratch in HTML 5 and make it native for today's browsers, but we're also releasing 100 percent of the game in a creative commons license,” Zimmerman told me. “There's no business model here. We're just going to use the funds to re-code and release the game, but the art, the sounds, the code, the client side of the server, all of it's going to be open to the public domain.”
Zimmerman and Clark believe the game is an important part of gaming history, and they adamantly defended it as a game ahead of its time. “In the late '90s – and it's still mostly true today, but it is starting to change – there were basically two kinds of non-male representations that you saw in games,” Zimmerman said. “One was princesses to be rescued - the Princess Toadstool paradigm, where the female is this obscure object of desire that you don't play, but represents the reward at the end of the mission. It's kind of a 'woman as a desired object' in this extreme, obvious way.”
“The other thing that you started to see was the Lara Croft model of the pin-up action hero in tight shorts that was kind of like a sexy puppet that you looked at. You actually played that person, but that was kind of equally problematic in different ways.” Zimmerman paused. “Sissyfight is neither of those things.”
Clark said she views the game as an “archeological ancestor” to today's discussions – it dissects gender roles, violence, representation of women, to name a few, though both Clark and Zimmerman admit the game does so in a “dangerous” way.
The dangerous sandbox
“When Mass Effect came out, Fox News was quick to claim that it was a game about having lesbian sex with aliens, right? But anyone who actually played the game and got into it knew that it was about much more than that,” Clark told the Report. “Similarly, when Sissyfight first came out, we definitely did get questions from people who hadn't really played the game, weren't part of the community, about 'What is this? Are you encouraging little kids to tease and humiliate each other? How can that possibly be good? Isn't this another form of video games encouraging bad behavior?'”
Clark said the team responded to such claims by asserting that the game wasn't intended for children, it was intended for adults to reflect back on childhood and the “horizontal” types of violence we commit, especially in insulated, social circles. You aren't supposed to feel good about being a bully in Sissyfight, you're supposed to think.
Those who do play the game in a more ruthless fashion often find themselves losing, Clark said. “The real champion Sissyfight players are the ones who are good collaborators. Since the game is all about shifting alliances and knowing who to be able to trust and being aware of what's going on in the other players' heads,” she told me. “The really good Sissyfight players were ones who knew how to build alliances and support each other in the face of this sort of hostile, cut-throat atmosphere.”
But what if the bullies were just being smart about who they picked on and when? It's nice to see two players work together to win, but it's one thing to say that those players are “friends,” and another to simply recognize them as allies who worked together – temporarily – to keep themselves from losing. That seemed much less noble, and I wondered if Zimmerman and Clark were sending a clear message with Sissyfight.
“I think a lot of the games coming out now that emphasize personal voices and are made in Twine and other similar game platforms are games where it's really about the author's voice, and the author's voice is very… Twine is one of the most tightly-controlled experiences you can have in a game or digital interaction form. Sissyfight is about the players. The game is what you make it, in a sense,” Zimmerman said. “As players play, they are navigating etiquette and they are navigating social structures, at least for the duration of the game.”
“It's much more playing with fire than something where there's a super-careful, curated point of view that's being presented. Sissyfight is a social sandbox, it's more like a social experiment. It's not something easily reduced to a simple message.”
A painful lesson
The press was recently invited to play an older version of Sissyfight as part of a preview for the Kickstarter campaign, which launches today. I played for just one game before I felt uncomfortable enough that I left – I was teased and bullied in school, and I abhor the idea of hurting someone else.
Humor that hurts isn't humor to me, and I was constantly fearful that, even though I was playing with professionals and Sissyfight community members who were vouched for, the in-game chat would devolve into hurtful words that would take me back to a time I'd frankly not revisit. (For the record, it never did, and Sissyfight's rules of conduct specifically prohibit attacking the player behind the avatar.)
Still, I wondered what would happen if the game met its Kickstarter goals and got into the hands of griefers and YouTube commenters.
“This is part of the magic of games – you're permitted to do things you're not in everyday life,” Zimmerman said. “When you play spin-the-bottle you can kiss a stranger; when you put on boxing gloves you can punch someone in the face, which is normally illegal outside the boxing ring; when you're playing Sissyfight, you can trash-talk, and backstab, and lie, and be deceitful, and that's part of the pleasure of the game.”
“That's part of what is wonderful about games. The ability to be transgressive, and take actions that are not appropriate; that's play.”
I've had several days to reflect on my time with Sissyfight and this interview. I've talked to Ben about it, as well as my friends – some of whom have been bullied, some who have not, and some who once were bullies – and everyone has reacted differently. I can't give a definitive word one way or the other about the game; I can see the lessons and the construction at work - and it's brilliant stuff - but there's no denying I was on the edge of my seat in that preview session, and not in a good way.
If nothing else, I will say Sissyfight has made rethink my priorities. I look forward to a round of Halo despite not owning or wanting to fire a gun in real life, but I don't want to bully anyone, be they real or virtual. What Sissyfight teaches you is an entirely separate matter.