The stickman is one of the most iconic internet characters, being “featured” in countless Flash movies and games throughout history. What makes this character so popular? Is it just the ease of drawing a stick figure, or something else?
When we think of iconic Flash characters throughout internet history, many have disappeared. Newgrounds popularized a number of characters such as Pico, Madness, Saladfingers, due to the ease of creating “shock value” in the late 90s and early 2000s. Yet only the “stickman” has remained popular decades later. Perhaps this is because no one really owns the stickman game character – it’s a faceless, anonymous entity, that anyone can create.
A brief history of stickman
Later that year, Matt Calvert (not the NHL hockey player) launched Stick Figure Death Theater, which featured short Flash videos of stick figures killing each other, with plenty of Mortal Kombat style kung-fu fighting and character deaths.
Due to the ease of creating stick figure videos and GIFs, a craze was spawned that swept the internet (well, mostly Newgrounds / EbaumsWorld). While there’s been literally thousands of stickman-based creations, some of the most popular was the Xiao Xiao series, created by Chinese animator Zhu Zhiqiang.
In fact, Xiao Xiao was so popular, Zhu filed a lawsuit against Nike for “plagiarizing” his stickmen. When Nike argued that there is nothing original about stickmen, Zhu countered that it was his style of animation they were plagiarizing, not the stickman character. He actually won the lawsuit, to the tune of $36,000 USD.
For comparison, here is one of the most-watched Xiao Xiao videos:
And the offending Nike advertisement:
In any case, thanks to the popularity of Xiao Xiao and other stickman games like Madness, stick figures became the most popular art style for Flash content creators on numerous game portals. It also led to the creation of Flash-specific tools for creating stickman content, such as Cutout Pro Stickman, TISFAT (This Is Stick Figure Animation Theatre), Stykz, and Pivot Stickfigure Animator.
Stickman in the modern day
Stick figure games still enjoy a relatively high amount of popularity, even in 2019. They’ve come a long way from their Flash / GIF roots, as there are numerous portals for stickman games (such as this stick game category), and even a large amount of stickman games available for smartphones. There’s also plenty of stickman games to be found on clients like Steam.
It’s a genre that pretty much sticks to its roots (you can’t really expand much on stickman art), yet that actually gives it infinite potential. When developers are working with stickmen as characters, there’s no need to focus on fancy graphics, allowing for greater creativity in gameplay.
One of the most popular modern stickman game examples, Stickman Rope, plays like a cross between Cut The Rope and Spiderman. It’s a fun obstacle game that seems simple on paper – guide the stickman to the finish line by swinging his hook – yet becomes increasingly difficult, with numerous obstacles to navigate.
Thus, the appeal of stickman games may not simply be in the recognizable, iconic “stickman” art style, but in how developers are able to create addicting gameplay using stickmen as a basis. And that could be why the stickman game character remains so popular today.