He may be associated with bratty, hair-pulling sadism, but Eric Zimmerman is just playing around. And yet, as an accomplished game designer, artist, and philosopher of gaming, Eric doesn’t take play lightly. Zoning into a screen with a joystick in hand isn’t mindless or mind-melting, he argues. It helps us pick through the sort of complex systems that run the world, the kind of systems that lead to massive crises like poverty and climate change. Good thing the era of the moving image is wrapping up, he says in this episode of Oral History of Gaming. Welcome to the Century of Play.
Eric’s been exploring innovative video game design since the 1990s. His introduction to internet social media came in 1999-2000, when he was hired by the multimedia magazine Word.com to help develop a multiplayer game concept. The result hit the internet in a big way with the viral online success of SiSSYFiGHT 2000.
The browser game looked simple and mindless on the surface: asexual cartoon girls tease, taunt and scratch each other on a playground. But requiring careful strategy and drawing inspiration from the work of outsider artist Henry Darger, illustrator Edward Gorey, Japanese anime, and early, 8-bit video games of the 1980s, the underground game was a pioneer. With its community-building via chat, message boards and social points, SiSSYFiGHT helped introduce America to the world of online multiplayer gaming.
That success and subsequent ones landed Eric in the pages of magazines and earned him a “VIP Award” by the International Game Developers Association. In the decade since, he’s run Gamelab, a game development company based in New York City that has racked up awards and spun off other companies, including Gamestar Mechanic, a site that lets kids create games. With one of his latest projects, a nonprofit called the Institute of Play, he’s preparing to launch a school in New York City that puts play at the center of learning. It’s not yet clear if sissy fighting will be permitted.