March 12, 2013— -- When video game developer Mike Mika taught his 3-year-old daughter to play the Nintendo game "Donkey Kong," he had no idea he was about to make a statement on gender roles in the gaming world.
Ellis, Mika's daughter, took an instant liking to the game, but wanted one tiny accommodation. She wanted to play a female character who climbs up the ladders and jumps over the baskets to rescue a male character, rather than playing a man who rescues a woman.
In the original "Donkey Kong," Mario must ascend the ladders and levels to rescue Pauline, one of the original "damsels in distress" of video games, Mika explained.
"One of the first games I introduced her to was 'Super Mario Brothers 2,' which was the first one where you can select your character," Mika said. "So when we back to 'Donkey Kong,' she said, 'Can I play the girl?'"
Mika explained that there was no option for a player to adopt a girl avatar in Donkey Kong.
"She was genuinely disappointed," Mika said. "I was watching her and she was really bummed out. And there was something about this one thing, you know, I have spent my career making games, and so I should be able to do something about this. That's what I do for a living. If she wants to go to the moon I can't do that, but I should be able to do this for her."
Ellis's disappointment may not be all that unique, according to Scott Steinberg, a video game expert and consultant, who said that the number of female gamers has outpaced the number of female-led video games even today, more than 30 years after "Donkey Kong" was first released.
"In the (Nintendo Entertainment System) days, it was a big shocker to have a female heroine. It was typically, like in 'Donkey Kong,' the man who rescues the helpless woman," Steinberg said. "But as the industry begins to mature, deeper, richer female heroines are appearing with greater frequency, without simply reducing them to sidekicks or highly exualized archetypes."
The evolution, he said, still has a long way to go, but video games have made progress as more female video game designers and developers have joined professional teams that make mass market games.
Nintendo did not respond to a request for comment.
Rather than introduce his 3-year-old to a modern female-led game, which could come with too much violence for his daughter, Mika said he decided to hack Donkey Kong to suit his needs.
He asked the advice of coworkers and friends and looked up possible hacks on the Internet. He said he first began hacking video games when he was just a kid, around 7 years old, which led to his career in video games. On Friday night, he began to hack Donkey Kong.
"So Friday night the whole family went to sleep and I started poking around at it, thinking I can probably do this," he said.
Mika had to rewrite most of the script, and he posted updates on his progress all night to his Facebook friends, who in turn posted about his project to Twitter.
Saturday morning, Mika presented Ellis with the finished product: a fully working version of "Donkey Kong" in which Pauline is the main character and must rescue Mario, held captive by Donkey Kong at the end of each level.
"I showed it to my daughter and she really liked it, she played it longer than ever and she was really excited about it. But I didn't explain it to her. She just thought that I figured out how to finally turn the character on," he said.
Meanwhile, word of the hacking triumph spread rapidfire around the Internet through his friends' Facebook and Twitter posts, eventually landing on the front page of Reddit and earning thousands of views on YouTube for a short video he posted of the new game.
The game sparked conversation around the web about female characters in video games.
"Video game makers are starting to show a little bit more respect for women as that part of the industry is maturing," Steinberg said. "Game makers are waking up and realizing that there is a broader audience, and there is an effort to try and expand that traditional gaming audience and broaden the community."
Mika said he didn't set out to explore gender roles in video games, but now that he's seen the reaction, he may think twice about games he works on in the future.
"I've been making games for a long time -- never really violent games but games -- and now I'm thinking about what exactly I'm working on and how to be more fair and balanced," he said.
Meanwhile, Ellis keeps trying to beat Donkey Kong's obstacles in level one to rescue Mario.
"This morning we played again. She's yet to get Mario, but she's getting close. I never pushed my kids into playing video games, I just planted the seed and so far she's taken to it," Mika said.