NES ROM hacks and discourses on gender anxieties

Earlier this month, Mike Mika made headlines for hacking the 8-bit classic game Donkey Kong so that the roles of Mario, the hero, and Pauline, the damsel-in-distress, were swapped. Mika implemented the game hack to allow his 3-year-old daughter to play the game as Pauline.

Donkey Kong hack by Mike Mika (2013)

Donkey Kong hack by Mike Mika (2013)

Much of the media coverage compared this touching story to a similar one that circulated last year about another daddy-daughter team: “Super Dad” Mike Hoye, who edited The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker to cast Link as a female rather than as a male, and his three-year-old daughter Maya.

I am very happy to see classic game hacking alive and well, and I am very happy to see these interesting projects getting widespread coverage. I think these dads’ projects are great. However, I find the some of the discourse presented by the news media and online commentary problematic.

A new trend?

NPR stated that Mika’s hack of Donkey Kong is not “the first time someone has done something like this, though the first time with such a classic game.” If NPR means that this is the first time someone has hacked a classic game, then this, of course, is entirely false. NES ROM hacking—including the methods employed by Mika—are easily more than a decade old. And hundreds upon hundreds, if not thousands, of NES game hacks have been made in that time by both hobbyists and game piraters. But assuming that NPR meant that this was the first time that the gender of characters had been switched, or the first time that the rescuer had been replaced with the rescued, that too is false. How about the gender-hack of Paperboy to Papergirl, released ca. 2000? Or the incredibly unique damsel-turned-hero ROM Peach and Daisy: The Ultimate Quest, a Super Mario Bros. 3 hack released ca. 1999?

Peach and Daisy: The Ultimate Quest doesn't just feature modified  graphics; it also contains all-new levels.

Peach and Daisy: The Ultimate Quest (ca. 1999)
This game doesn’t just feature modified graphics; it also contains all-new levels.

In the first level of the game, Peach gets a special power-up that transforms her into a mermaid!

Peach and Daisy: The Ultimate Quest (ca. 1999)
In the first level of the game, Peach gets a special power-up that transforms her into a mermaid.

NBC, like NPR, seems to suggest that creating gender-bending ROM hacks is a new and exciting trend. “This may be just the beginning,” they report, “A few dedicated hackers is all it would take and soon we could have ‘Mega-Woman,’ ‘Blaster Mistress,’ or maybe even ‘Super Mario Sisters.’” Yet many of these games, too, have already been addressed by hackers. There was the ca. 2000 NES hack Mega Girl, for example. And prolific gender-hacker “Mr. Dude”  made a staggering number of ROM hacks between 2005 and 2006, including Mega Girl 2, Mega Girl 3, Mega Girl 4, Mega Girl 5, Mega Girl 6, Super Momo Bros. 2, and Super Peach. 

Mega Girl (See her tiny, blue ponytail?) must defend against baddies who shoot hearts at her.

Mega Girl, ca. 2000
Mega Girl, sporting a tiny, blue ponytail, must defend herself against baddies who shoot hearts at her.

I myself have done similar hacks. In 2002-2003, I created a hack of the NES game Super Mario Bros. called Hello Kitty Land. The ROM features revised graphics, palettes, game physics, and levels to situate the Mushroom Kingdom within the Sanrio universe. I also presented a gender-bending NES hack of Mega Man 2 called Mega Mam 2 as part of a live hacking demo in a conference in April 2012.

Hello Kitty Land (2002-2003)

Hello Kitty Land (2002-2003)

My intent in providing some of this historical background is not simply to call out some small error in an article as attempt to tear down an entire argument, author, or subject. Again, I think what these hackers did is great, both in terms of the ideas and execution. But when news outlets like NPR and NBC paint gender-hacking as a brand-new endeavor, it reframes much of the important context: the when, the who, and the why. I think, in fact, there is a specific reason that these stories made the news, and it has to do with anxieties centered on gender, inclusion, and harassment.

Reframing gender-hacking

Because gender-hacking has been presented as a new phenomenon, the stories of Mika and Hoye seem to suggest that this activity is primarily done by dads for their daughters. Über-patriarchal “daddy’s little girlism” aside, I believe these stories have been made into popular news in order to create a narrative about men’s role in reshaping hegemonic video-game culture. 2012 was a big year for “women and gaming and harassment” stories: those of Anita Sarkeesian, Jennifer Hepler, and Miranda Pakozdi come to mind. I would suggest that the recent popularization of these harassment stories has created a sort of anxiety around men’s culpability in these scenarios, and that these pieces on “daddy hackers” aim to relieve this anxiety. They are heartwarming stories that present men as problem solvers rather than problem creators. These men use the technical knowledge that only they seem to possess in order to, as PC Mag reports, “empower female gamers.”

One aspect of this kind of anxiety-soothing frame is a distancing from feminists and feminism, terms that many have been forced to grapple with or reject with respect to gaming. This quote from PC Mag’s article about Mika’s Donkey Kong hack illustrates this:

“By the time I started to catch up with all my social feeds, something insane had happened. This little mod exploded,” he said, citing the feminist/anti-feminist comments made in response to his hack. “In my wildest dreams, I just expected a bunch of fellow coders to chat about the merits of the mod. I never expected it to ignite a gender role debate.”

Mika promised it wasn’t his intention to kick up women’s lib dust; he just wanted to make his daughter happy. “I didn’t set out to push a feminist agenda, or try to make a statement. I just wanted to keep that little grin lit up on my daughter’s face every time we sit down to play games together,” he wrote on Wired.

PC Mag emphasizes that Mika didn’t want to “ignite a gender role debate,” “kick up women’s lib dust” or “push a feminist agenda,” suggesting that women’s rights issues are radical or extremist. (Note the choice of the verbs “ignite,” “kick,” and “push,” casting feminism as aggressive or violent.) The notion that gender-hacking could “kick up women’s lib dust” is a postfeminist suggestion that such dust has already settled and that to kick it up is to create a dirty mess of a debate that is already “over.” A commenter on Slashdot posted an interesting comment in response to Mika’s Donkey Kong hack: “This dad did what feminists can’t be arsed to do, he worked long hours past midnight to change a game so it was more of her daughter’s liking, instead of bitching about it for years without doing anything.” This statement, too, pointedly situates the hacker dad in opposition to the “bitching” feminists, also serving to separate Mika’s act from feminism.

To summarize, I believe that some of discourse centering on Mike Mika’s Donkey Kong hack aims to present men as positive forces for gender equality in gaming while distancing them from feminism. These strategies help to relieve anxieties that might implicate men in the shaming and rejection of girls from gaming cultures. Additionally, the suggestion that this kind of ROM hacking is new and limited to loving fathers obscures a long and rich history of ROM hacking that includes women hacking games for their own ends.

4 thoughts on “NES ROM hacks and discourses on gender anxieties

  1. Hey, I just wanted to say that I think this is a really astute little piece on the ways recent gender swap NES ROM hacks have lit up the news. Wildly, it all services an address of gender issues that can be framed through a sort of vacant summoning of egalitarianism rather than a historical indebtedness to feminism (and shutting down the long history of women’s hacking!). Very nice work, might be putting this on a syllabus. :) Thanks!

  2. Hey, yo. Mike Hoye here, of the Zelda hack mentioned. I’ve found my way here from the links in Anita Sarkessian’s latest Tropes V. Women, and I think you’re just about right here – there’s no question that my Windwaker thing got as much attention as it did because of what I am, which fits a preexisting (and super-convenient, if you’re a regressive neanderthal or just a lazy hack!) narrative. In any case, this was a good read and spot on, I think; thanks for putting it up.

    Being a white, middle-aged dude and trying to be a proactive feminist and a decent ally is a weird experience.

    • Hi. I’m always curious about situations and perspectives that I can’t experience personally, especially in regards to views that I am passionate about. Not many men will refer to themselves as a feminist. As a woman, I can’t directly relate to that experience even though I am a feminist as well, so I was wondering what made it a weird experience.

      I guess I have some motives that are more practical than sheer curiosity. For example, I would like to gain knowledge that might help me figure out how to better defend a male feminist who is accused of being a “white knight”. That kind of knowledge is useful to rational discourse on the subject in a group discussion.

      It’s also worth noting that it is always wonderful to encounter male feminists. For one thing, I think that having a lot of varying perspectives and ideas within a movement is usually helpful (especially if the movement is geared towards equality). Additionally, there are a lot of people out there who will dismiss an argument about feminism outright if it comes from a woman, but it may just be possible for a man to make the same argument and at least be heard. It is worth noting that your efforts and wisdom are appreciated.

  3. This article is pretty brilliant. I don’t know much about programing history in general or gender-hacking history specifically, but you have made a very good case about the rich history of gender-hacking and how that history is being completely disregarded. I would probably find that to be a minor peccadillos if it weren’t for the reactionary nature of this phenomenon that you pointed out. (To be fair, I would probably be pissed if I had an extensive knowledge of programming and previous gender-hacks, and certainly if I had ever done a gender-bending hack myself.)

    The shrewd observation you made about the reaction to anxiety is an important one that should be pointed out to everyone and discussed. The misinformation being spread and the heavy implication that the dad-doing-the-hack-for-his-daughter scenario is the exclusive gender-hack motivation is really just an attempt to make everyone feel better. Unfortunately, “feeling better” usually translates to a cease in positive progress in a more practical sense. In other words, “If cyber mobs harassing women who talk about gaming is not a problem any more, why should I do anything or even care at all?” That is a huge problem.

    Then again, when the status quo is at one extreme, typically the metaphorical cultural pendulum swings to the other and back an fourth until it can ideally come to rest at a more moderate stance (for a while). Pertaining to media coverage of this issue, the starting position was at the institutionalized sexism in gaming and geek-culture in general. The first swing to the other side was the moves some women have made to share their criticism of gaming in a very public manner (the only reason I call that “extreme” is because I don’t think it was done so publicly before, so it is a massive deviation from the norm, albeit a good one). The swing back to the other extreme was the incredible, vitriolic backlash by cyber-mobs and individuals who harassed these women online. The swing back to the other side was the media coverage of the harassment (again, not that the position itself was extreme, but rather that gaming culture and specifically women in gaming culture got so much attention is truly unusual). Now we have a swing back in the original direction with the media trying to soothe the anxiety with outright lies. Whether they are actively trying to halt the progress people are making on this issue (unlikely, and they may not even realize that they are doing so) or not, that is what they are doing. Thank you for fighting to maintain the positive progress that is being made.

    I also really appreciated how elegant the layout of your post was. You explained things very well, and in a logical manner that was easy to follow. It was very smart to note that you weren’t calling out the media coverage over the facts that they got wrong without reason, but rather you were pointing it out for the sake of giving some background to your argument. The placement of that note was excellent, too. It was also good to point out that the dads involved did something pretty awesome for their daughters, no matter what the reasons one of them gave; it was a good way to avoid marginalizing them and their awesomeness, as that was obviously not your intent.

    Sorry for the verbose comment, I don’t know that you want a literary critique from a stranger (especially without any actual criticism that could at least be useful) or a commentary on the issue. A “good job” might have sufficed to get my appreciation for the post across (though that would have been a gross understatement). Please keep posting, as I will keep reading.

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