Lessons from the Brilliant Donkey Kong Hack That Makes Pauline the Heroine

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
March 11 2013 3:39 PM

Lessons from the Brilliant Donkey Kong Hack That Makes Pauline the Heroine

Everyone likes a feel-good father-daughter story, and over the weekend, the Verge reported a great one. Mike Mika, a developer, hacked the classic video game Donkey Kong so his young daughter could play as Pauline, rather than as Mario. Traditionally, Pauline is a classic damsel in distress, eternally awaiting rescue by the male characters standing in for the game's players.

It was wonderful to hear that Mika had put his technical abilities toward making his daughter's feminist wish come true, especially because news of his hack broke shortly after the release of the first installment of Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes Vs. Women In Video Games series. The project became a Kickstarter sensation when Sarkeesian announced it last year, but it also spawned a vicious, violent harassment campaign. (Apparently one questions the representation of women in video games at one’s peril). Sarkeesian persisted, and the first video discusses, among other things, the decision to make Pauline a static object in Donkey Kong rather than a playable character, and the influence of that early game design on many other games that followed. Watch it here:

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Mika's hack of Donkey Kong is a reminder that the video game conventions Sarkeesian describes in her series are precisely that—conventions—rather than hard structural rules. It harms no one to let Pauline be playable and to let Mario take his turn as the prisoner of the ape who is the game's boss. And the fact that Mika could hack the game to reverse the roles of the characters means that, while inserting playable characters of multiple genders into existing games might involve some extra cost and time , it's far from impossible. Wouldn’t it be great if Nintendo took advantage of Mika's ingenuity and bought his hack (or, better yet, hired him to develop a more professional version of it)? I'm sure there are a lot of video-gaming feminist fathers who would love for their children to have the same opportunity Mika’s daughter has.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.

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