While women make up about half of all gamers, the hobby isn't always the friendliest place for female players. In a marketplace dominated by muscle-bound space marines and ineffective female sidekicks, it's not hard to see why women might feel alienated.
Retro gaming is not much better: The old-school game "Donkey Kong" details one of Super Mario's earliest adventures, in which the plumber rescues a woman named Pauline from the titular brutish ape. When one programmer's young daughter asked why she couldn't play as Pauline instead, her father mulled it over and replied with a hacked version of the game, completely reversing the characters' roles.
Game developer Mike Mika has worked on titles for consoles from the Atari 2600 to the Xbox 360. As any good father should, Mika wants to rear his daughter on the classics: The three-year-old knows how to play "Pac-Man" and "Super Mario Bros. 2," but she finds "Donkey Kong" especially enthralling. When his daughter first asked to play as a female character, like she could in "Super Mario Bros. 2," Mika initially dismissed it as impossible.
"But that question!" Mika wrote in a Wired article. "It kept nagging at me. Kids ask parents all the time for things that just aren't possible. But this time, this was different. I'm a game developer by day. I could do this."
Teaming up with fellow Atari developer Kevin Wilson, Mika dove into a program called Tile Layer Pro, which allowed him to deconstruct the assets of "Donkey Kong" using an emulated copy of the game. He encountered a number of difficulties: Pauline's character sprite is taller than Mario's by a fair margin; the background colors did not match Pauline's design, and the "M" for "Mario" next to the bonus score had to be replaced with a "P." [See also: The Best Classic Game Compilations for iPads]
In terms of Internet popularity, the hack has been an unbridled success, garnering scads of admirers on Reddit, YouTube and gaming sites across the Web. Of course, Mika's success has had its ugly side as well: The usual horde of misogynistic trolls have taken to comments sections everywhere, decrying Mika's game as part of a radical feminist or misandrist agenda.
"If this experience has taught me anything," said Mika, "it's that the world could be just a bit more accommodating. And that if something as innocuous as having Mario be saved by Pauline brings out the crazy, maybe we aren't as mature in our view of gender roles as we should be."
More importantly, however, Mika's daughter loves the game. She doesn't quite realize the amount of work that went into the modified version, but is nevertheless delighted to turn the tables and rescue Mario as Pauline.
Sometimes, even daring plumbers need to be saved.
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