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A stick figure, also known as stickman, is a very simple drawing of a person or animal, composed of a few lines, curves, and dots. On a stick figure, the head is most often represented by a circle, sometimes embellished with details such as eyes, a mouth, or hair. The arms, legs, and torso are usually represented by straight lines. Details such as hands, feet, and a neck may be present or absent; simpler stick figures often display an ambiguous emotional expression or disproportionate limbs.
The stick figure is a universally recognizable symbol, in all likelihood one of the most well known in the world. It transcends language, location, demographics, and can trace back its roots for almost 30 000 years. Its simplicity and versatility led to the stick figure being used for a variety of purposes – info graphics, signage, comics, animations, games, film storyboards, and visual media of all kinds all employ the stick figure. With the advent of the world wide web, the stick figure became a central element within an entire genre of web-based interactive entertainment known as flash animation. Over a period of more than two decades, stick figure animation impacted and shaped the visual landscape of the internet.
The stick figure's earliest roots are in prehistoric art - some of the most revealing and informative markers of early human life are cave paintings and petroglyphs, ancient depictions covering a variety of subjects left behind on stone walls. Visual representations of people, animals, and depictions of daily life can be found displayed across the walls of numerous habitation sites all over the world. Tens of thousands of years later, writing systems that use images for words or morphemes instead of letters — so-called logographies, such as Egyptian and Chinese — started simplifying people and other objects to be used as linguistic symbols.
In the early 1920s, Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath developed an interest in the concept of universal language. He quickly established the idea that, while words and phrases could always be misunderstood, pictures had a certain unifying quality that made them a perfect fit for his project. In 1925, Neurath began work on what would become the international system of typographic picture education, or isotype, a system of conveying warnings, statistics, and general information through standardized and easily understandable pictographs. Neurath made significant use of the versatile stick figure design to represent individuals and statistics in a variety of ways. In 1934, graphic designer Rudolf Modley founded Pictorial Statistics Inc., bringing the isotope system to the United States for the first time in 1972.
The first international use of stick figures dates back to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Pictograms created by Japanese designers Masaru Katzumie and Yoshiro Yamashita formed the basis of future pictograms. In 1972, Otto "Otl" Aicher developed the round ended, geometric grid based stick figures used on the signage, printed materials, and television for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Drawing on those and many other similar symbol sets in use at the time, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, developed the DOT pictograms— 50 public domain symbols for use at transportation hubs, public spaces, large events, and other contexts in which people would speak wide variety of different languages. The DOT pictograms, or symbols derived from them, are used widely throughout much of the world today.
The Stick Figure in Internet Culture
1990s: The Beginnings
In the early 1990s, internet pioneer and programmer Tom Fulp began to produce 2D stick figure animations on his Amiga personal computer for fun. Soon, his interest expanded to include simple game design via html. Fulp also developed a passion for the Neo Geo series of gaming consoles and was at the time running an online club centered around Neo Geo using the prodigy web service. In 1991, he created a fan made magazine for members of the club which he would continue to produce throughout his time in 7th and 8th grade. The name of this fanzine was “new ground”, a synonym for Neo Geo. A year later, Falk launched a small website to host some of his game projects under the name "newground remix". In the years that followed, this project morphed into Newgrounds, one of the most influential hosting platforms for user generated content in internet history.
At about the same time, Californian computer programmer Jonathan Gay and software entrepreneur Charlie Jackson founded the software company FutureWave and began work on a vector-based drawing program called SmartSketch to be used in conjunction with digital tablets. The program was ultimately a commercial failure, but through their struggles Gay and Jackson came up with a new idea that they believed would prove to be a much greater success: A web-based drawing and animation program that they titled "FutureSplash". In January of 1997, four years after the founding of FutureWave, the company was acquired by software giant Macromedia with the primary goal being the acquisition of FutureSplash animator. The program’s versatility and compact design had made it ideal for web media playback and production and Macromedia was eager to capitalize on the software's increasing popularity. Re-branded into "Marcomedia Flash", the software proved to be an even bigger success than FutureSplash, quickly becoming the universal standard for web animation production and playback.
1998-2005: Increased Popularity
Tom Fulp started working with Flash soon after the Marcomedia acquisition, producing his first game with the software, “Telebubby Fun Land”, in 1998. Despite the limited capabilities of the animator, flash games were like nothing web users had ever seen before. The publication of Fulp’s 1999 point-and-click flash game classic “Pico's School” kicked off the exponential growth of the genre’s popularity. As a result, “newground remix” soon became a major hub of online activity. In 2000, Fulp converted the site into newgrounds.com and introduced a portal system through which users could submit flash animations and games of their own. Other game and animation aggregator sites like “Addicting Games” followed soon, and even older, more niche animation platforms like "stickdeath.com" and "stick figure death theater" reached wider notoriety.
On April 19th, 2001, Chinese animator Zhu Zhiqiang uploaded a 75-second-long video titled "Xiao Xiao" on the newly formed Newgrounds animation portal. Accompanied by bit-crushed audio samples, it shows two simple stick figures fighting with their fists and various weapons over a white background. Inspired by over-the-top, Hong-Kong-style martial arts films, Zhiqiang let his figures perform flips, flying kicks, and a number of other exaggerated attacks and defenses. As the fight gets increasingly intense, more tools like bow and arrow, rocket launchers, and duplication abilities are added to the mix before the battle comes to a final, violent conclusion. With this simple formula, "Xiao Xiao" quickly became the most popular flash animation ever created. Spawning countless imitations and "Xiao-Xiao-style" descendants, it turned into the blueprint for an entire sub genre of 2D animation that has garnered hundreds of millions of views since.
- Late 2001: Canadian animator Jason Whitham creates stickpage.com, an animation hosting website focused on stick figure animation and flash games. At the height of its popularity, stickpage.com has nearly one million visitors per month.
- July 13, 2003: Newgrounds.com user "IGSDann" publishes the flash game "A true stick death", rapidly increasing the popularity of the genre. Later that year, user "qwerqwer1234" releases "mudah.swf", a comedic series of fight sequences inspired by the Japanese manga series JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.
- December 7, 2003: "壁破き", or "Stickman vs Wall", an animation video in which a stick figure uses increasingly elaborate and insane methods and tools to break down a wall, is released, marking the beginning for an entire sub-genre within the stick animation community.
- 2004: Armor Games, another major participant in the growing pantheon of flash sites, goes online.
- June 2, 2005: The original "Storm the House" survival flash game is posted for the first time on Addicting Games by user "IvoryDrive".
On December 3, 2005, Adobe Systems Inc. acquired the entirety of Macromedia, once again re-branding Macromedia's now ubiquitous Flash software. Almost a decade earlier, Adobe had turned down an offer to buy FutureSplash in favor of their own Acrobat system. Now, the tables had turned and the corporation was buying flash's new owner for USD 3.4 billion. With this acquisition, the program entered its final and most recognizable stage of development. Adobe spearheaded flash animation for the next decade and a half, and it was during this period that flash facilitated some of the most recognizable stick figure animations and games of all time.
Animator vs. Animation
Created by animator, YouTuber, and artist Alan Becker, the first episode of "Animator vs. Animation", premiered on newgrounds.com on June 3, 2006. It showed a stick figure fighting to break out of the animation program it was created in and garnered over 70 million views since its publication. As of 2021, the series contains five main episodes and a number of spin-offs, among them "Animator vs. Minecraft", a video that has gained over 270 million views alone. In total, all of Alan Becker's animation videos were watched over three billion times with a vast majority of them being centered around stick figure animation.
While Adobe flash was at every point in time the most popular flash animation tool, there were other competitors - most notably the Pivot Animator. Created in 2005 by software developer Peter Bone, the program was specifically geared towards stick figure animation. Unlike Adobe Flash, which had grown into a highly complex 2D animation environment, Pivot Animator with its simplicity allowed virtually anyone to create stick figure animations without requiring any form of expertise. This brought the ability to create and distribute quality stick animations to a much greater audience than before and alongside Flash, Pivot soon became another central tool for the countless internet users who were caught up in the trend.
Other Notable Milestones
- July 4th, 2006: The first episode of stick figure animation series "Tha Cliff" by xefpatterson is released. As of 2021, three episodes have been released. Together, they have been watched over 40 million times and inspired countless fan-made imitations.
- August 26, 2006: "wpnFire", a stick figure action flash game, is first published on Newgrounds.com. Since its release, it has been played over 2.3 million times.
- October 10, 2006: Yet another content hosting platform, Kongregate, is launched. It hosts a number of highly popular flash games, among them "Electric Man 2" and the "Shopping Cart Hero" trilogy, which accumulated over 15 million plays alone.
- 2007: The first episode of "Shock Series", a high-octane stick figure fighting series featuring over-the-top combat combined with Lolspeak-one liners, is released. Today, reuploads of the series on YouTube have tens of millions of views.
- August 27, 2008: Indie animation studio PuffballsUnited releases the first installment of the "Henry Stickmin" flash game series titled "Breaking the bank". Years later, the same developers are involved in the creation of the chart-topping "Among Us", an online social deduction game that is highly reminiscent of early stick figure flash games. In Novermber 2020, Among Us has 500 million active players.
- December 24, 2008: Flipnote, another competitor to Adobe Flash and Pivot, is released. While not as popular as the aforementioned two, Flipnote does serve a role in the productions of stick figure media until the software's termination in 2018.
- June 2009: Jason Whitham, the founder of stickpage.com, releases a large-scale stick figure combat simulator titled "Stick War".
- In the same month, YouTuber and animator "TheAssassin650" publishes the first installment of his influential "Blue vs Green" animation series.
Towards the end of the 2000s, the stick figure animation community began to diversify the content seen in their animations and games. While exaggerated, fast-paced combat was once the gold standard, story-driven adventures and more frequently also comedy sketches steadily gained in popularity, with the most prominent example being the "Henry Stickmin" series.
2017-2021: The End of Flash
In July of 2017, Adobe Systems, which had continued to support and develop both Flash Animator and Flash Player for the past 12 years, announced that they would officially end support for the program by the end of the decade. This decision had far-reaching consequences as it entailed not only the end of development on the software but also the official end for sites that still supported flash and the deactivation of virtually every instance of flash player via a built-in kill switch. A number of safety issues and more versatile alternatives like HTML5 had rendered Flash obsolete, running on infrastructure that was in essence nearly two decades old. For long time flash advocates and fans, the ultimatum was clear: If nothing was done to circumvent this event, games, animations and all types of flash media would be lost forever and a cultural movement would be wiped from the face of the internet, along with its legacy.
Following Adobe's announcement to retire Flash, the community began efforts to preserve the genre's rich and influential history. In January of 2018, a YouTuber named Ben Latimore, going by the online handle “BlueMaxima”, started up a community project called Flashpoint. The aim of the project was to document, categorize, and most importantly preserve two decades of Flash history, culture, and community. BlueMaxima’s Flashpoint grew to serve as a massive archive, a library for the most influential and renowned Flash animations and games of all time for any internet user to view and experience, even after the death of the program that once supported them. The project started slowly, but once word began to spread about the initiative, the development team began to grow and the library began to expand exponentially. Xiao Xiao, Shock Series, WPNFire, Storm the House, and countless other stick figure games and animations were saved and archived over the coming months and years.
Despite the impending doom of Flash, the final years saw the release of some of the most popular and most polished stick figure animations and games of all time. Notable examples include “Combat Gods” (released June 5, 2019), the extensive “Henry Stickmin” -finale titled “Completing the Mission” (released August 7, 2020), and the half-hour long “Animator vs. Animation V” (December 5, 2020).
Finally, on January 12th of 2021, all instances of flash player ceased operation, all flash media refused to play, and Adobe Flash was officially retired. Due to the conservation efforts of Project Flashpoint, and big hosting platforms like Newgrounds and Kongregate developing their own workarounds, the Flash community and, with it, the stick figure animation sub genre were preserved from extinction. Creators from this point onward found alternatives for the now defunct software, such as Pivot and flash's official successor, Adobe Animate.
OpenMoji supports the five characters along with joining character sequences to give the other figures a dress. For example, the sequence U+1FBC6 🯆 STICK FIGURE WITH ARMS RAISED, U+200D ZWJ, U+1F457 👗 DRESS (🯆👗).
|U+1FBC5||STICK FIGURE||🯅||Not to be mistaken with U+1F6B9 🚹 MENS SYMBOL|
|U+1FBC6||STICK FIGURE WITH ARMS RAISED||🯆|
|U+1FBC7||STICK FIGURE LEANING LEFT||🯇||Mirror images of each other.|
|U+1FBC8||STICK FIGURE LEANING RIGHT||🯈|
|U+1FBC9||STICK FIGURE WITH DRESS||🯉||Not to be mistaken with U+1F6BA 🚺 WOMENS SYMBOL|
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