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 Word.com, 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 Word.com. 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, Word.com 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
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 Word.com
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
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 Word.com. On the popular
punkrock.net 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
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