The Net's nastiest little game is a girl-vs.-girl showdown.


You might be surprised to hear this, but one of the masterminds behind the Web’s nastiest and most notorious new interactive game — Sissyfight 2000 — is a card-carrying academic brainiac. Eric Zimmerman, a freelance game designer out of Manhattan, is also an adjunct professor at the Parsons School of Design and New York University. The 30-year-old intellectual/geek has lectured at more than 30 universities about the aesthetics of video games, writes scholarly papers on the social theories of play and discusses his chosen field with a hybrid lyricism, mixing words like “transgressive” and “butt-ugly” in the same sentence. Which, at first, belies the fact that Zimmerman, along with the staff of, helped create the meanest, most popular little back-stabbing game on the Net.

Six little cartoon girls enter a pastel playground where playful music sets a nursery school tone. That’s where the niceties end. The goal of the game is to reduce the other little schoolgirls, in their little schoolgirl outfits, to whimpering sissies. Through a barrage of scratching, teasing, tattling and grabbing, players knock each other out of the game by chipping away at their opponents’ self-esteem. There are various defensive moves — cowering or licking your lollipop, for example — but mostly this is a game of pure childish cruelty and aggression. Entertainment Weekly, which gave the game an “A” grade, says, “Sissyfight brings forth a player’s nasty, repressed child like no other game — except maybe fifth-grade dodgeball and corporate retreats.”

To take the playground metaphor even further, the girls who go on to claim victory are the ones who succeed in creating a mob mentality by ganging up on their weaker or less clever sisters. As the game progresses, girls can talk to each other in little comic strip bubbles and, using various catty strategies, plot and connive to create powerful, esteem-destroying cliques that leave some poor girls on the outs.

And when things get real nasty, those bubbles often become filled not with offers to team up, but with astoundingly creative bursts of expletives and sexual and racial epithets. At times, in fact, the talk degenerates into a series of gross-outs worthy of, well, a group of kids who have gathered after class behind the portables. The smartest little schoolgirls are careful, though, not to go too far. In the game’s strategy hints, designers warn players not to do anything that might turn the others against them. “Try making a girl with the name Jar Jar Binks and see how quickly you get snuffed out,” they warn.

The game was developed in a yearlong process with the staff of one of the Web’s most ancient (er, it’s five years old) and most respected online magazines, New York’s The site is known for its ironic and smart essays and stories, but its savvy editor, Marisa Bowe, says that she had had a hankering to develop new ways to marry high and low art forms in an interactive setting, to make the most of the Web’s potential for transdisciplinary opportunities.

“I thought that if we could take the geekiest corner of entertainment — role-playing games — and make a crossover hit that would appeal to people who aren’t hardcore gamer geeks, then we would be onto something,” Bowe says. “It seemed like a good business idea that might turn out to be popular.”

That it has. It has been mentioned in EW, Wired and the Village Voice and become a selected link on the influential Shift. It has also attracted more than 25,000 registered users. At last count, it was bringing in a new registered user every minute. Its maddeningly addictive qualities account for much of the popularity — the world record so far for continuously playing Sissyfight is 16 hours, 58 minutes and 20 seconds.

The key to the game’s success, Zimmerman says, is that despite its retro-1980s Atari-style graphics, it succeeds in emotionally affecting players more deeply than games that realistically portray horrible acts of graphic dismemberment. “People have very emotional experiences playing Sissyfight,” Zimmerman said, talking from a cellular phone in San Francisco, where he was speaking at a gaming conference. “People have said to me, ‘I have never been so traumatized online. I entered a game and everybody realized I was the newbie. They jumped me — grabbing, scratching and teasing me out of the game in a couple of turns.’”

Not surprisingly, gets a lot of regular e-mail feedback from its new flock of grabbing and scratching virtual schoolgirls: “This game is awesome. It is the meanest game ever. It is so much meaner than Quake or any of the games where you actually try and kill each other.”

Another player effused, “It’s great therapy and helps me get revenge on all my childhood torturers. I’ve never laughed sooo much while being sooo mean!”

Zimmerman could not be more pleased. “For me that’s a real accomplishment,” he says. To the Brooklyn resident, who gets paid for lecturing at universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about the intricacies of gaming, “Every Sissyfight game is a miniature society with dramatic struggles for power. An aggressive player might emerge as a leader and direct the other players, but might later be branded as a bully and be destroyed by the mob. It’s emergent complexity in action.” And even though the graphics are low-fi, he says, the emotions the game spurs are high impact. “There are a lot of debates about so-called immersion in gaming,” Zimmerman says. “I take the stance that immersion is not about the richness of the graphics, but about the total relationship a player has with a game. Play engagement occurs not just visually, but on strategic, social and cultural levels as well.

“Sissyfight 2000 proves you don’t need technological extravaganzas of real-time 3-D graphics, reflection maps and shadowing to get completely emotionally engaged with a game.”

The game has, of course, also attracted
a certain amount of killjoy
finger wagging from the
protect-the-children contingent.
Zimmerman suffered a few sticks and
stones during an NPR interview, slung by
a listener who suggested that the
schoolgirls should be encouraged to
support each other’s self-esteem
instead of tearing it down. And
has received a smattering of e-mail
attacks like this one: “This is the
biggest waste of time and bandwidth ever
to have been devised to run on the
Internet. Why can’t you use your time
and ingenuity for a more productive
idea, losers.”

Aside from the hostility that this user
expresses (which might be better vented
if he played more Sissyfight), he brings
up a point all video game designers have
heard before — that their work
encourages violent behavior. Not
surprisingly, Zimmerman disagrees.

“The human psyche does not work on a
monkey-see, monkey-do basis,” Zimmerman
says. “Sissyfight is radically
metaphorical, voluntarily entered into
and satisfyingly transgressive. The
idea that play should be ‘good for you’
and turn you into a better citizen of
the state is something that I want to

The game’s addictiveness has made it a
hot topic of discussion on other places
besides On the popular bulletin boards, for
example, there are endless entries about
Sissyfight from users who use such game
names as Anna Bortion, Pussyhoney,
Bjgirl69 (who has been outed as a guy),
BullDyke and Vaginosis. A team of
players who enter games and summarily
destroy their competition has taken to
calling themselves “The Pigtail Squad.”
One player had this to say: “I am
supposed to study all night for my
midterm this afternoon; instead all I
did was play Sissyfight 2000 till 3
a.m.” And then, in another entry: “I
decided to get up early to cram. What am
I doing now? Playing Sissyfight 2000.”

To Zimmerman, success has come to
Sissyfight because of a carefully
designed gaming recipe that blends the
worst kind of humiliating hostility with
a lighthearted childhood innocence.

“Sissyfight kind of encourages cruelty
and that’s why it makes the social space
so highly charged,” Zimmerman says. “At
the same time I would say that it’s
aggressively playful too, in the music
played and the very stylized nature of
the girl characters. Those elements cut
across the cruelty of the game in
interesting ways.”

Of course, Sissyfight, more than any
other fantasy video game, is not really
a fantasy at all but based squarely on
the very real brutality and unfairness
of childhood. As such, for many, it taps
into wounds that haven’t been opened
since the days of “Gilligan’s Island”
reruns. And in the same way children are
cruelly honest and uncensored in their
playing and fighting, Sissyfight comes
to computers across the world without
having gone through any PTA scrutiny or
having been taken away by the recess

And that’s the way Zimmerman wants it.
“Children’s play fascinates me because I
think it is sort of utterly violent and
perverse and Sissyfight is too,” he
says. “And I think that pop culture and
art in general should challenge and be
provocative, and so there certainly is
nothing wrong in creating a game that is

Russ Spencer is a Southern California freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Outside, Book, Icon, the Los Angeles Times and online magazines New Media, Shift and IFILM.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>