SiSSYFiGHT 3000 and Iterative Game Design

22Jan12

Yesterday I assisted Heather Kelley with her workshop “Paper Games” on iterative game design, which was part of the “Make Me Eclectic” festival organized by Miss Balthazar’s Laboratory. The Lab focuses on offering workshops on new media and technology, as well as programming and other seemingly male-dominated areas to interested girls, women and transpeople. No entrance fees are necessary, which should lower any kind of barrier of participation.

Heather chose Eric Zimmerman’s paper version of the online game “SiSSYFiGHT 2000“, which takes place on a playground where girls tattle, tease and pull hair to lower the other girls’ self-esteem. The paper version works with simplified rules. In fact, there are only three actions you can take: team attack, solo attack and defense. Communication needs to be done in public – no whispering or letter-writing is allowed. Secret signs and using code, on the other hand, is perfectly fine! The one who can cheat, lie and bully their way through the game without losing their own self-esteem is the winner.

During yesterday’s workshop it became very clear that the topic of the game is not an easy one when playing with a group of women. Being mean, lowering self-esteem and being, in general, nasty schoolgirls proved to be some kind of problem when playing the game. The attendants knew and liked each other and had moral qualms attacking their friends. What was fairly easy, though, was to team up on the assistant (Heather fell victim to the same fate). A strategic mistake, which became clear when I left the game – they had lost their common enemy and had to turn against each other. While some played the game to understand the rules to change them later on in the workshop, others could not get around the fact that the setting itself was too harsh for them.

It took a while to finish the game and we then moved to the practical part of the workshop – changing the rules, bending the rules, setting new ones and iterating the shit out of them to make them work. Again, we were faced with moral dilemmas – why do games have to pit players  against each other and not let them cooperate? Why can’t we find a topic that focuses on helping, instead of destroying?

In the end, though, both groups managed to not only add new rules to the game to make it more complex but decided upon changing the topic of the games as well. While one group ventured into the realms of the stock market, the other group decided to take their game into space, where nuclear fueled spaceships attack others. In one game, self-esteem became stocks, in the other it turned into cooling liquid for the nuclear reactors. Both groups, interestingly, decided to add the level of player connectivity – either the space around the table and the proximity to the other players became an essential game mechanic, or the stocks one or more players would invest in. This connection added an interesting layer to the games: any action taken not only affects others but also me. Will I sacrifice an attack to protect my neighbor? Will I sacrifice my neighbor because I am strong enough to take the effects?

In the end, even though we didn’t have much time to really play more rounds of our improved games, it was interesting to see the different approaches of the players. What I found also interesting is that the moral qualms of the game mechanics didn’t get in the way of “sissyfighting” verbally. 😉

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3 Responses to “SiSSYFiGHT 3000 and Iterative Game Design”

  1. I think it’s interesting how transporting the game from a maybe “too real” setting to a more abstract/distant one (both the stock market and interstellar wars are nothing we experience every day (unless being a stock broker), and both setting allow to interact with people leaving personal bonds aside, as they pick roles more different from who they really are) gets around the moral qualms.
    Turning this around, some real life behaviour (like acting ruthlessly on the stock market) might be explained by the consequences of what they do being more abstract for the participants, I think.

  2. At least my group still struggled with the “attack”-part of the game. I suggested the alien setting in space to remove them from a too realistic setting after the nuclear plant idea came up first (which then turned into nuclear-powered spaceships). And even then, with a less realistic or personal topic it was hard for some to get into the mechanics of the game.

    I actually had the feeling that certain “positive” stereotypes were enforced to create a difference between male and female gamers and developers.

    Quite often, sexism towards the male gender came up during the conversations, so I assume it was simply another tool to stress the gender differences. Any game that focuses on some sort of “attack” is probably considered more male, than a co-op game, in which everyone tries to help the other players and fight against a common enemy.

    I am hypothesizing, though, and still can’t quite understand what the real dilemma was. After all, it’s an exercise in game mechanics. The game mechanics are great, very simple, very easy to manipulate or to add or deduct elements and dynamics. That’s the reason why it’s used for those workshops.


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