Saturday on Melissa Harris-Perry, guest host Joy Reid told the story of this week’s Foot Soldier Mike Mika: a video-game designer in the Bay Area in California who hacked the classic Nintendo game Donkey Kong so his three-year-old daughter Ellis could play the game as the female character Pauline.
Mika posted his reasoning for hacking “Donkey Kong” this week on Wired. I spoke to him earlier this week to find out more.
What was your daughter’s reaction when she saw that you had changed the game?
Every morning we’ve been kind of getting together and she comes up on my lap and we play games together. This was a few days after she asked for the ability to play as Pauline, so I started the game up. I didn’t tell her anything, and she had no clue that I had done anything. As soon as the game started she could see that she was Pauline, she did what she usually does when she gets excited about something. She looked up at me with a big smile and I knew that she liked it.
Is she still playing it?
She is. So for three weeks leading up to when I did this, she has been getting gradually better and better at Donkey Kong. She and I used to play it all the time, when she was really little, I used to set her on my lap and I had a Donkey Kong arcade machine, and she would sit there and watch me play it over and over. In the last few weeks, she’s actually been getting better at it on her own. So I was kind of excited, and so when she asked about it I was really motivated to give her the opportunity (to play as Pauline) because it’s her favorite game.
How long ago did this happen?
It was literally last week. Friday of last week at night I started working on the hack, and I started posting my progress on Facebook just for my friends to see, and they kept asking if it was alright if they tweeted it or whatever. It kind of exploded by morning, and I had no clue! All the way until about Saturday evening I was oblivious about what was going on, and I was just happy that she played it a bit and she was enjoying it. I just kind of moved on with everything I had to do for the weekend. It was text messages coming in at night that alerted me that something was going on.
What do you think about the reaction? Your story has kind of blown up!
I couldn’t believe it at first. I got a text message from a friend of mine who was like ‘your story is going viral!’ And I was like ‘what story are you talking about?’ I was actually a little worried. I did an interview for a game I was working on last weekend and I was worried, did I say something wrong? Then I quickly got online and I could see that the thing was exploding. I did not anticipate it at all; it was the last thing I imagined. To me, it was like putting together a bicycle the night before Christmas for your kid, so not much really, it didn’t take too long to do. So the fact that it struck a chord is really amazing to me.
Have you gotten any requests from people to remake any other games?
Yeah. I got so many! My email pretty much broke by Sunday. A lot of it was filled up with people asking how to do it, if I could do some for them, and that sort of thing. It’s great and all, but there’s no way I could get to all of that, there were so many!
Has Nintendo reached out to you at all?
No, they haven’t. I can’t even imagine what they’re thinking. They’re like, “well, he changed our game…” (Laughs.) It’s probably an awkward situation for them.
In your piece in Wired you said that you didn’t do this to make a point or a statement, you were just doing something nice for your daughter. But as a father and a video game designer, what do you think about games being targeted so specifically toward males?
It’s eye-opening for me. I have always felt that there should be fairness in games, and a lot of the games I’ve worked on have never really been violent games or intentionally male focused, but now when I reflect on it, especially after this whole experience, it’s impossible to go forward without thinking about it now. And now having a daughter, she’s only three–but even with what we did here, I see the world through her eyes. When she’s upset about something, or when she disagrees with something I naturally do not think about those things, but now I am. It’s definitely changed the way I approach game making.
I had a few designer friends of mine reach out after all this, and they were affected by it as well, and they were saying the same things. One of my friends has a young daughter and he never even thought about doing anything like this, but he said going forward this is the number one thing on his mind now. Especially after this whole thing happened, he wants to make games that would be more fair to both genders.
Do you have any plans or ideas of something you want to do in the future based on this experience?
No plans just yet, but we’re getting ready to start up a couple new games here in our studio. Just in the meeting I had this morning, the people I work with are bringing this up and putting it on the table, which is pretty crazy.
Does your daughter have any idea what you’ve done for her or the type of response it has garnered?
She has no idea at all. It’s pretty interesting because I’m thinking when all of this started to explode that tomorrow she’s gonna be like, “ah, I’m done with that game.” (Laughs.)