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Reviving and open-sourcing Sissyfight 2000, the psychological schoolyard web game

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The creators of the original browser-based social game, a turn-of-the-millennium relic called Sissyfight 2000, are attempting to bring it back through Kickstarter. They believe it's important — not just as a landmark for its time, but also as a game that's perhaps more relevant now than ever.

Sissyfight 2000's designers set their game against the backdrop of a quintessential crucible of social conflict: a school playground. The game's mechanical simplicity belied the depth of its social interactions, but the setting was what really made the experience, imbuing the proceedings with a deeper psychological meaning that was unique for each player.

In Sissyfight 2000, each player begins with 10 hearts signifying self-esteem points, and the objective is to use words and actions to take down other people's hearts until only two sissies (or sometimes one) remain. The players choose their moves in secret, and those choices are revealed at the same time on each turn.

Sissyfight 2000 was ahead of its time in a number of ways. Its design, which contained many elements that we would today recognize as "indie," stood out back then and is still striking today.

"Sissyfight really anticipated what we now call independent games," said Eric Zimmerman, the game's designer, in a phone interview with Polygon this week. "The whole look of Sissyfight, these big, chunky pixels; the idea that it was kind of experimental, a simple, replayable game that was clever and cheeky — things that are now hallmarks of indie games — just didn't exist then."

The game also flipped late-'90s video game conventions on their heads. Players could customize their avatars, but only to a point: The characters were all non-sexualized young women, as opposed to the typical tropes of the damsel in distress or the adolescent male fantasy of a buxom model. The setup was a turn-based strategy game, but without weapons aside from words and a few physical attacks.

"There [was] definitely a kind of interventionist intention with Sissyfight," Zimmerman explained. "In other words, we [felt] that Sissyfight [was] sort of an intelligent rebalancing of game culture, as opposed to another mainstream shooter game."

"Sissyfight really anticipated what we now call independent games"

Sissyfight 2000 didn't only innovate on a design level; it was a technological achievement as well. Launched in 1999 on the website of Word Magazine, a now-defunct web-based zine, Sissyfight 2000 is recognized as one of the earliest massively multiplayer online titles, and one of the first browser-based games to feature real-time chat. Although individual games were limited to between three and six players, the community of "sissies" (players) surrounding the game — which, at its height, numbered in the hundreds of thousands — made the experience feel larger.

Like all online games, Sissyfight 2000 depended on a host for its servers. When Word Magazine shut down in 2000, Zimmerman and two co-developers, producer Naomi Clark and lead programmer Ranjit Bhatnagar, took over the game and maintained it under their new studio, Gamelab. The company closed in 2009, and no one was left to run the Sissyfight 2000 servers.

According to Zimmerman, the developers have been receiving "a steady stream of emails from fans and former players since the closing of the game," which is a major impetus for their Kickstarter campaign.

Team Sissyfight is looking to raise $20,000 to fund a complete rewrite of the game in HTML5 — it was originally built in Shockwave — so it can run natively in modern browsers on computers, smartphones and other mobile devices. (Luckily, finding the source code wasn't a problem, said Bhatnagar during our phone interview: "We all just happened to have various old backups and long-forgotten ZIP drives and stuff lying around.") The developers would also recode the server back-end and set it up to be hosted on Venus Patrol, the indie game site founded by Independent Games Festival chairman Brandon Boyer.

But Kickstarter backers aren't paying for a copy of Sissyfight 2000; the game will be available for free on Venus Patrol. In fact, the developers have pledged to turn the game into an open-source project, with its source code released under the MIT license and the rest of its assets released under Creative Commons. Even if the Kickstarter drive is unsuccessful — with just under three weeks to go, it's already more than halfway toward its goal — the team plans to at least release the existing code and assets for the community to do with as it pleases.

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That's the team's solution to what Clark called "a very difficult, challenging preservation obstacle" in the same phone interview.

"We think that Sissyfight is so historically important that we love the idea that it becomes open-source. And our hope is that, in a funny way, open-sourcing the game keeps it alive and helps it evolve and grow as platforms evolve and grow," said Zimmerman. "It kind of feels like we're exploring a new way for games and game culture to stay alive." One of the team's stretch goals is the ability to customize the game, since players have come up with different sets of house rules over the years, such as versions without text chat or certain actions. Even if the campaign doesn't get there, open-sourcing the game will allow users to build those experiences themselves.

"I look forward to people inventing their own weird versions of Sissyfight," said Zimmerman.

Similarly to parlor games such as Mafia/Werewolf, the actions depend on the interactions between players and are keenly balanced. Attacks consist of Tease, Scratch and Grab; defensive moves are Cower (shield from attack) and Lick Lolly (restore two hearts). There's also the Tattle option: Telling the teacher gets all attackers in trouble, but if more than one person decides to Tattle, only the tattlers lose hearts.

The in-game chat functionality turns Sissyfight 2000 into what Zimmerman described as a game that's about "making alliances, tricking people, psyching them out, bluffing [and] backstabbing your friends."

Sissyfight 2000 is about "making alliances, tricking people, psyching them out, bluffing, backstabbing your friends"

Although it's a browser-based game with a simple interface, Sissyfight 2000 drew criticism upon its release for its gameplay and themes — its overt and underlying exploration of bullying and the emotional violence that young women perpetrate against each other. And that was years before our society's increased focus on the harmful effects of bullying, with movements like the It Gets Better Project and Cartoon Network's Stop Bullying: Speak Up.

"We are definitely aware that we are bringing the game back into a very different atmosphere than when it launched," said Clark. She explained that the developers built the game to address bullying "in a way that was lighthearted, was a send-up, let people step into a sort of absurdist version of social conflict in school and kind of let them take off their adult guise and be kids again."

At the same time, said Clark, the developers consciously designed Sissyfight 2000 to make people think about these issues, and because the players determine the experience themselves, the designers had no need to bake any particular message into it. "We [wanted] to give people a space in which to express themselves and see what they [did] with it," she explained.

According to Clark, the Sissyfight team believes the issues that the game explores are just as relevant and important now as they were when Sissyfight 2000 launched, if not more so. Bullying is a major topic of discussion these days, and Clark feels that the game's lessons are also applicable to the general conversation about violence in media.

"People can learn things about violence by being placed in situations of violence and then having choices of how to react," she said. "I think the same is very true of Sissyfight when it comes to emotional violence, to bullying, to horizontal violence between women and girls."

Sissyfight-dancing-girls_856

Zimmerman agreed, but believes that games don't necessarily have a responsibility to be "good for you," or that designers should have to "justify play that is transgressive and sort of dark and edgy," because games — and all works of art — should be free to tread that potentially controversial ground.

"Games are a place where we can do things that we don't normally get to do in real life," he said. "It's part of the pleasure of games, is that games let us explore identities and conflict in a safe way."

Clark added, "I still feel, even after 13 years, like Sissyfight does a good job of approaching those subjects in a really interesting way."