Dad's 'Donkey Kong' Hack Recasts Female As Hero For Daughter

Mar 12, 2013
Originally published on March 12, 2013 6:42 pm

The world of video games has a long history of damsels in distress. It's the go-to framework for endless heroic adventures where fabulous male heroes journey to save [insert female captured by villain here].

One of the earliest of these is the classic tale of a plucky, mustachioed plumber on a vertical, girder-climbing quest to save his lady Pauline from the barrel-throwing primate Donkey Kong. It was the game that would set the stage for a long series of Mario adventures where his princess would continue to be captured and wind up "in another castle."

After being introduced to the game, Mike Mika's 3-year-old daughter, Ellis, asked why she couldn't "play as the girl" and rescue Mario instead. (She'd recently played Super Mario Bros. 2, where you could play as Princess Toadstool). She was disappointed to find that she couldn't.

"So I had to tell her, 'This game doesn't let you do that,'" Mika told All Things Considered. "She was actually bummed out by it."

As a dad, Mika says, he gets the sort of impossible requests often asked by children (like going to the moon to eat cheese, for example). But this time, he realized he had the power to make it happen.

"A light went off," he says. "It's like, 'This I can do. I know I can do this. I have the tools, I have the power.' This is the one thing probably I'll ever be able to do that's outrageous."

So Mika, a game designer by trade and chief creative officer at Other Ocean Interactive, set out to flip the script on the game and make it happen. He spent a furious night of hacking through the game's code and swapping out all of the Mario graphical sprites and color palettes for new ones of Pauline.

"Once I started going, it was like when you pull a string out of a sweater, one thing led to another and another, and it was just really exciting," he says.

He posted his progress on Facebook and YouTube to share with friends. Soon the project found its way to social-sharing site Reddit, where it went viral and earned Mika several superlatives across the Internet including "feminist hero dad" and "dad of the year."

The end result, he writes in Wired, was met with a lot of excitement from his daughter.

"She was excited! But for all she knew, I just figured out how to get Pauline to work. And that was fine. I wasn't expecting it to change her life. We played for a bit. And some more. And again later. You know what? She really did seem to enjoy the game more. For whatever reason, she was more motivated to play as Pauline than as Mario. I can't read into that too much, because it does feel a bit like a new game to her still. So we'll see how she does after a week with it."

This isn't the first time someone has done something like this, though the first time with such a classic game. Last year, Mike Hoye re-scripted a Zelda game to make the hero a girl for his daughter as well.

This story, and ones like it, are becoming part of a larger conversation about gender roles and feminism in the multibillion-dollar video game industry. It's something media critic Anita Sarkeesian is exploring in her recent video series Feminist Frequency.

Mika, however, says he didn't set out to push any sort of feminist agenda or statement. He writes that he simply wanted to "keep that little grin lit up on my daughter's face every time we sit down to play games together."

This also isn't the first time Mika has used his programming skills for the ladies in his life. According to comments from friends on Reddit, Mika also apparently proposed to his wife by hiding a secret code in a game he was working on at the time.

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In the classic arcade game, "Donkey Kong," Mario dodges fireballs and climbs ladders to save damsel in distress, Pauline.


BLOCK: But video game developer Mike Mika's three-year-old daughter, Ellis, wanted to play it the other way around, where Pauline would rescue Mario.

MIKE MIKA: She goes right out of the - right out of the gate was like: I want to play the girl.


That's Mika, chief creative officer at the game company Other Ocean Interactive. He's been in the industry for more than 20 years and has worked on games from the Atari 2600 to the X-Box 360. But this latest project was on a smaller and more personal scale.

BLOCK: It started when he had to explain to his daughter why she couldn't play the heroine in one of his favorite old games.

MIKA: I had to kind of tell her that this game doesn't let you do that. And she was actually bummed out by it. And it was totally a weird moment because I'm like, well, she really is bummed by this. And she likes "Donkey Kong" more than the other game because she can actually play it.


BLOCK: But the idea stuck with him. So the next night, he started tinkering with the system.

MIKA: And once I started going, it was almost like when you pull a string out of a sweater, one thing led to another and another. And it was just really exciting. And as I started doing it, I'm like, Oh, I should put this on Facebook so my friends can see what I'm doing 'cause they'll like it.

CORNISH: By morning, Mika had Pauline jumping barrels and climbing ladders on her way to save Mario from the giant ape. One of his friends posted a screen grab of his modified "Donkey Kong" to Reddit. It quickly went viral; more than 600,000 views on YouTube and more than 1,000 comments.

BLOCK: The video has ignited a gender-role debate. But Mika says he didn't hack "Donkey Kong" to make a statement. He just wanted to do something special for his daughter.

MIKA: I wish I had a camera because when she saw that she could play Pauline, like, it was a quick glance and a big smile and then it's like, OK, that worked.

BLOCK: A tough question from his three-year-old daughter, answered by hacking "Donkey Kong."

MIKA: For me, it's like I'll be asked probably so many times, and I have been, of things that are just impossible, like, No, we can't go to the Moon tonight to eat cheese or - those sorts of things. But when she asked like, Hey, can I play the girl on "Donkey Kong?" It's something that, like a light went off. It's like, this I can do. I know I can do this. I have the tools. I have the power.


MIKA: This is something - the one thing probably I'll ever be able to do that's outrageous, it will be this one.


BLOCK: And for Mike Mika, that was worth all the points. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.