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, serving to separate Mika’s act from feminism while denying the possibility that women have engaged in similar endeavors.

To summarize, I believe that some of the 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 women and 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.

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Barbie Game Girl: As Long As It’s Pink

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“[T]he objects of feminine taste […] have frequently been deemed inferior to those of high culture. The material culture of feminine domesticity—expressed by such reputedly ‘vulgar’ items as coal-effect fires, chintzy fabrics and potted plants—has frequently been singled out for condemnation or, at best, sarcasm, termed as ‘bad taste’ or ‘kitsch’. The aesthetic and ideological opposition to modernism demonstrated by these objects served to divorce them from the world of ‘legitimate’ culture and its ‘good taste’ […] although it was increasingly vital to the commercial system in the post-war years, feminine taste remained marginalised by dominant masculine culture through the establishment of a clear-cut polarity, epitomised in the dualisms of ‘good design/bad design,’ ‘good taste/bad taste,’—or perhaps more accurately ‘good design/bad taste’—within which feminine culture was always linked with the morally and aesthetically inferior category. As long as the ideological and aesthetic programme of modernism remained the main cultural rationale and means of expression for dominant masculine culture, feminine taste—however satisfying and important it may have been for women’s lives, and however vital it became for economic growth—remained both illegitimate and marginal within cultural life as a whole.”

—Penny Sparke, As Long As It’s Pink (reprint, 2010)

How might Sparke’s ideas about “good design/bad taste” relate to the “pink ghetto” of girls’ toys and video games?

Untitled Film Stills

Untitled Film Stills“[Cindy] Sherman’s photographs feed our nostalgia for bygone eras at the same time that they offer reflexive critique of that engagement with nostalgia […] Irony can be derived from contexts in which appearance and reality are in conflict. Sherman’s photographs comment not only on the conditions of the past but also, ironically, on the artist-producer’s awareness of her own pleasurable engagement in the visual culture of nostalgic fantasy that she evokes. By situating herself as both artist and subject, Sherman invites us to think reflexively about our own subjectivity and gendered processes of identification, cultural memory, nostalgia, and fantasy in our engagement in postmodern visual culture. This makes her photographs ironic images that also instruct us in seeing practices of looking.”

—Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (2nd ed., 2009)

Hacking or reimagining classic video games, I believe, can serve as an interesting analog to Sherman’s work.