Lately, Mike Mika is receiving a lot of press after hacking a Donkey Kong NES ROM so that his young daughter could play the game as Pauline – formerly the damsel-in-distress – to save Mario* from his escaped pet, Donkey Kong.
*Although the male character’s name was Jumpman in the original 1981 arcade version of the game, the 1986 NES port’s manual unambiguously refers to the player character as Mario.
This modification comes right on the heels of the Anita Sarkeesian’s much awaited video, made possible by overwhelming support via Kickstarter ($158,922 raised out of a $6,000 goal!), Damsel in Distress Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.
For a significant fraction of videogame history, videogames weren’t made for girls, and bringing up such an idea could even get a person fired (Laurel 17). Sarkeesian’s video shines some light on how this culture began, frequently revisiting Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto regarding his reliance on the damsel-in-distress pattern for so many of the major franchises he created. Donkey Kong was Miyamoto’s first famous application of the trope, but he went on to do the same for Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, and even (as quite a surprise within a franchise that early on had managed to avoid having a damsel-in-distress) Starfox Adventures.
While countless other companies and developers have followed suit in relying on this story contrivance, Miyamoto set the tone and pace of the 80′s and 90′s console games industry with his design decisions. An entire generation of videogame developers grew up subtly accepting the values of a Japanese man born in 1952, while the generation before ours competed on his terms. Even my favorite childhood game Bubble Bobble, released in arcades the same year as the DK port for NES in 1986 and on NES a few years later – though completely unconnected to Miyamoto – appears throughout 99% of the game to be innocently about 2 dinosaurs fighting an army of toys, robots, witches, monsters and drunks, but turns out in the end to be (spoiler alert!) an adventure for the two dinosaurs to turn back into little boys and save their girlfriends (“lovers” in the NES port, or in addition to the mother and father in the original arcade ending).
In Utopian Entrepreneur (62), Laurel observes that values are pervasive in, and conveyed by, the media we create and consume, whether they were planted deliberately or not, and whether or not we’re taking responsibility for them. It seems more likely, or at least more fair, to suspect not that Miyamoto sought to advance a chauvinist or misogynist agenda, but instead that in his intense focus on gameplay and graphical design he may have taken the relatively easy way out for story. The friendly disclaimer used by Fron et al. (2) says it well: “We are not trying to suggest that game publishers or developers are insincere. Rather we are trying to call attention to the power structures that surround game technologies, game production and game consumption.” Additionally, early hardware didn’t have much representational power, and the arcade context for which Donkey Kong was first invented favored simplistic or generic content that players could easily grasp without any explanation. These very may well have played into a tendency to adopt old-fashioned, easy story contrivances.
There are nevertheless consequences to turning to such simple solutions, independent of the reasons for doing so. Perhaps more importantly: if the underlying reasons why these solutions were once turned to no longer apply – changes in technology, payment context, and consumer demographics – then it may be productive to rethink those patterns. Perpetuating these techniques as “what worked” based on a different time, business model, and customer culture simply doesn’t make any sense.
Sarkeesian acknowledges in her video that these damsel-in-distress stories have been around for millennia, but that they only became common in videogames with Miyamoto’s 1981 Donkey Kong. According to Sarkeesian, Donkey Kong’s character setup was initially based on Popeye the Sailor Man (a comic with its origins 1919), then switched to resemble King Kong instead (originally released in 1933, however the 1976 remake seems a more likely influence – for much more on Nintendo’s legal battle with Universal over King Kong IP, see Kent, Chapter 13). This conception of women as an object to advance the plot action of the male protagonist, then, traces to thinking that’s even more old-fashioned than the 1950′s, and by no means unique to Japan. Sarkeesian notes that the rerelease and porting of iconic classic games on virtual consoles and newer mobile platforms continues to introduce new generations of players to these outdated depictions, though in this case for NES Donkey Kong emulation is what enabled Mike’s daughter to become attached to a 27 year old game. Fortunately, playing it in emulation is also what made the Pauline hack possible.
Jenkins (7) emphasizes that as the opportunities for children to play outside dwindle for those living in urban or even suburban settings, videogames are in some ways filling in for many of the functions and formative experiences once offered by relatively safe, natural spaces. Videogames that seem to ignore girls and women, or adopt a representation likely to repel female players (for example, due to a female depicted as either an incapable reward or as oversexualized for male gaze) denies half the population this or other potential benefits of videogame playing. The way that this hacked Donkey Kong ROM lets the player for once be a female hero rescuing an incapable male has excited press and readers on the web as a symbol of progress, being a good father, and in some sense, simply fixing something that’s inherently wrong.
However, Mike points out in his Wired article on the hack that he hadn’t really been keeping up with the Tropes vs. Women happenings. Other than overhearing references to it lately, the timing is somewhat coincidental. As Mike explains at the close of that Wired article, “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.”
Even if Shigeru Miyamoto wasn’t trying to make a values statement with his game, inadvertently, he certainly did. And likewise, even if Mike Mika didn’t intend to serve an agenda or make a statement, his ROM hack is clearly garnering the attention that it is precisely because of the way that it calls attention to, and inverts, female disempowerment in classic videogames to serve as a trophy for the male protagonist. In Mike’s version of the game, Mario is disempowered to serve as a trophy for the female protagonist.
In the unmodified version of Donkey Kong for NES, Mario can collect Pauline’s dropped purse and parasol for extra points. As a minor emergent curiosity, in switching the roles of Mario and Pauline for this ROM hack, the items were not changed in representation, so that now instead of the male protagonist retrieving the woman’s things for her, the female protagonist is retrieving her own lost goods. In a way this is even more empowering: not only is Pauline looking out for Mario, or there only to serve and free him, but she’s looking out for herself and her own interests, too.
After a half hour of play, I can confirm that this hacked version is just as hard as NES Donkey Kong has always been. The changes made affect only the representation, and the mechanics still fit squarely within the design patterns commonly marketed toward male play preferences. The gameplay still revolves largely around projectiles (a central feature in male sport, according to Charlotte Perkins Gilman via Fullerton et al. 2), in particular the barrels and springboards thrown by Donkey Kong. The game still does not allow for any personalization, socialization, or redesign of the space, factors recognized as having appeal to female players (Fullerton 7). The game is still played with uncompromising, machine-adjudicated rules of the type Fron et al. (4) identify as interfering with the social accommodation and cooperative negotiation experiences at the start of play historically favored by girls and women. Gameplay still centers around “boy culture” of doing dangerous things for thrills that, at least in the real world, mom certainly wouldn’t condone (Jenkins 11): playing at a construction site, playing with fire, and taking risky leaps. Jenkins explains that, among several other distinctions, (29), “play spaces for girls… are less filled with dangers… are really about the interior worlds of feelings and fears.”
Learning Donkey Kong involves dying early and often, using instant failure as its primary feedback mechanism. The protagonist can’t fall very far without dying, but there’s no way to learn that fall height besides exceeding it over and over to varying degrees. As Prof. Celia Pearce summarized in our class lecture on February 21, generally speaking male players are motivated by dying, whereas female players are discouraged by dying. The documentary King of Kong explained this difficulty as an artifact of the game’s origins as a coin-operated arcade machine, an environment where merciless difficulty equated to higher profits, as long as the player remained engaged. Mike even acknowledges in the Wired article that his daughter isn’t very good at the game, and her play sessions tend to end in “total frustration.” In sprite of this, Donkey Kong – even before it was modified to let her play as Pauline – is her favorite game.
However in other ways Donkey Kong was perhaps a particularly good fit for this modification. While the game does include projectiles, they are thrown by the enemy, not by the player. Nothing explodes. The player actually doesn’t commit acts of violence or aggression during play, aside from smashing barrels, cement trays, or flames with a hammer, and aside from the indirect collapsing of structure out from under Donkey Kong to save, in this case, Mario. These mechanics reflect a deviation from the elements of harsh boy culture (Jenkins 14) often central in other arcade-style games.
One of the underlying themes and reoccurring points of Laurel’s Utopian Entrepreneur is that sometimes in pursuit of advancing values worth standing up for, a culture worker may run into tension between creating what’s proven to be profitable as opposed to designing work consistent with our deeply-held values. One of the benefits of hacker culture and the internet is the opportunity to create things independent of whether they can be easily sold through an existing channel, while still reaching and influencing a massive audience. It’s difficult to hypothesize how any of Shigeru Miyamoto’s franchises – least of all his breakout success with Donkey Kong – might have fared differently in domestic and overseas arcades and consoles in the 1980′s or early-mid 1990′s with a female main character (as one reference point, Ms. Pac-Man seemed to fare quite well around the same time). The runaway popularity of Mike’s tinkering certainly suggests potential, at least among more contemporary gamers, however by doing this project as a personal ROM hack he managed to evade the tensions of business concerns altogether. In the old ways of videogame production, something had to be pitched as profitable to be done at all; in the hacking and hobbyist indie scene, even when done on the side while working in industry as in Mike’s case, it’s a viable option for us to do something merely because we want it to exist, without regard for bottom line.
Perhaps most interesting of all though is how Mike’s daughter seems to have framed her initial question and the situation (Wired): “How can I play as the girl?” To Mike’s daughter, this seemed like a simple, reasonable expectation, like the idea of a female actress playing a female role in a play, even though there have been times in history when all roles were portrayed by men. She’s not old enough to understand what goes into ROM hacking, so as Mike explains it, to her playing as Pauline is just something that’s supported by the game. I suspect that increasingly, games that don’t support female players at least at a representational level are going to seem antiquated.
Even back in 2001, Laurel (50) saw the effect on culture made possible by determined Star Trek fans waging a persistent battle against the IP owners trying to shut down or marginalize fan creations. Though Mike decided to be conservative and respectful of IP law by not widely distributing his modified ROM (I know him from business years ago, and he was kind enough to provide me with a copy temporarily for use in preparing this article), the videos of his modified game in action are now out there along with a pile of screenshots and articles. More importantly, the idea is out there that classic videogames reflecting outdated values can be updated, even if DIY for now. Perhaps just as the Star Trek franchise came around to supporting and capitalizing on official fan conventions and creative outlets (ibid.), game companies, Nintendo or otherwise, are hopefully paying attention to what’s going on, and in future ports or rereleases might consider including a gender-in-distress reversal option. This hack also serves as a vivid reminder to creators of new game concepts and properties that fail to consider females risks making a game appear obsolete to at least half of (quite possibly all of) the next generation of players.
Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Ford Marie, J., Pearce, C. “The Hegemony of Play” <http://lcc.gatech.edu/~cpearce3/PearcePubs/HegemonyOfPlayFINAL.pdf>.
Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (Ludica) (2007). “A Game Of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space.” In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia, September 2007.
Jenkins, Henry. (1998). “Complete Freedom of Movement” Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman (Eds). The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kent, Steve L. “Chapter 13: A Case of Two Gorillas.” The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokémon and beyond : The Story behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World. Roseville, CA: Prima Pub., 2001. N. pag. Print.
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, The. Dir. Seth Gordon. Feat. Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, and Walter Day. Picturehouse, 2008. DVD.
Laurel, Brenda. Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2001. Print.
Mika, Mike. “Why I Hacked Donkey Kong for My Daughter.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 11 Mar. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2013/03/donkey-kong-pauline-hack/>.