Blood is no biggie in the context of violent video games, and yet people tend to freak out at the mere mention of a woman's period. It's a societal hypocrisy that teenage coders Andy Gonzales, 16, and Sophie Houser, 17, decided to highlight with Tampon Run, their new, retro-style, point-and-shoot video game in which the heroine collects female hygiene products, then fires them at her enemies.
Since its early September launch, the game has been played more than 200,000 times online, and earned famous fans from Amy Poehler to Always feminine products. The break-out stars of the gaming world met at the annual Girls Who Code summit – a summer program with the goal of educating more than one million young women in computer science by 2020.
Since then, their universe has erupted with the Gamergate controversy, which originally focused on the relationships between the people who create the games and the people who review them, but has since evolved into a referendum on the role of diversity, and particularly women, in the gaming world.
Gonzales and Houser say the controversy only fuels their passion. Here, they discuss feminism, the future of their game and why talking about tampons is finally starting to feel normal.
You guys met at coding camp. At what point did it go from, 'Hi, nice to meet you,' to 'Hey, want to make a video game about menstruation?'
Sophie: It was Andy's idea to do a game. We were brainstorming and I joked that we could make a game where someone throws tampons. As soon as I said it, we realized there was actually something there. We had both experienced the menstrual taboos personally, and then we did some research and realized this was such a big issue and problem throughout the world.
Was it important to you to have a social-message component to the game?
Andy: Yes. That was the main goal. I knew that I wanted to create something with a feminist twist. My first thought was to target the hyper-sexualization of women in video games because that's such a big issue, but then Sophie mentioned tampons and I was swept away.
What kind of games did you play growing up?
Andy: I didn't play a ton of video games as a child, but I did play Nintendo – Mario Kart, Mario Party. When my dad got a PS3, I was playing first-person shooter games and I remember my mom was very upset by that. She thought, why are you okay with shooting people? That's one of the things we're trying to express with our game – why is it so normal to have these superviolent video games, and yet people get freaked out about tampons?
So periods are still subject-matter non grata in high school?
Sophie: I remember when I first got my period I was too embarrassed to even buy my own tampons, so I got my mom to do it. I still felt pretty uncomfortable talking about my period, even right before we created this game. And now I'm so fine with it.
Andy: Even when we were first introducing our game to people, I felt uncomfortable. I wasn't used to talking about tampons on such a casual level. When I was building the video game I actually didn't tell my parents about it and then they saw bits and pieces and they were asking, why are there tampons on your screen?
Do you feel like your game is making an impact?
Sophie: Definitely. What's awesome is that we've gotten feedback from both genders. Guys will e-mail us and say that the game changed their mind. That talking about a woman's period shouldn't be a big deal. We've gotten e-mails from high-school computer-science teachers, people in tech. It's been so great.
You have certainly entered the gaming landscape at a tumultuous time with the whole Gamergate controversy. I assume you've been following the story?
Andy: One of my mentors from Girls Who Code sent me an article about Gamergate right after we launched Tampon Run [in September]. I certainly didn't regret releasing the game or the timing. If anything it draws attention to the ability that women have to make a difference and to be part of this gaming world.
Sophie: Gamergate just fuels me to keep going and to represent and show that girls and women belong in the coding world and have great ideas.
Why is there is so much resistance to new voices in the video-game community?
Andy: For as long as the industry has existed, there has been this focus on marketing to the male segment of the demographic. That has made it an exclusive club even though we know that there is an even divide between men and women who play video games.
Sophie: It's also that people really love their games, so it becomes this incredibly tight-knit club. They don't tend to want change, so it kind of makes sense that new voices aren't so welcome.
Do both of you consider yourselves feminists?
Andy: Yes. Increasingly, more so. Especially now.
I only ask because there seems to be a movement in the past couple of years, where young role models have been
distancing themselves from the f-word.
Sophie: Last year I remember being worried that the word had a negative connotation, that it made me sound man-hating. After spending the whole summer at Girls Who Code, and sitting around the table with 20 young women, I realized how important girl power is and how much I want to perpetuate it. This is going to sound cheesy, but I realized that I can be the feminist I want to be and in that way I define the word myself.
Andy: I totally agree. I used to worry about the connotations of the word and the stereotypes. Definitely over the summer, I have become a lot more close with my power as a woman and with my femininity.
You don't get much closer to your femininity than creating a game about tampons! So what's next for the game?
Sophie: Our first goal is to get it mobile. We're hoping that will drop on the Google Play store any day now. We're also aiming for iTunes – that just takes a bit longer.
Andy: We definitely want to build on the game. We've gotten a lot of great suggestions from fans – incorporating maxi-pad shields and super-absorbency tampons.
Did you see that there was a model at London Fashion Week last month wearing tampon earrings?
Sophie: I didn't see they were at Fashion Week. I'll have to check that out.
Andy: I haven't figured out a way to incorporate tampons into my wardrobe. Yet.
Sophie: That's the next step.
This interview has been condensed and edited.