Partway through my phone conversation with Sophie Houser and Andy Gonzalez last week, I decided that one of my new goals is to be as cool as they are when I grow up. Although I am already technically considered a "grown-up," I am unashamed to say that Houser, who is 17, and Gonzalez, who is 16, are the kind of inspiring young women who make other young women (even if they're older young women) aspire, in a deep way, to be like them. They are articulate and charming and bright, driven and focused and interesting -- and they make a really, really compelling case for pursuing a career in tech. That could be exactly what convinces other women to enter the field.
Last summer, after meeting at the Girls Who Code summer immersion program, Houser and Gonzalez teamed up to create "Tampon Run," a video game meant to challenge menstruation taboo and depict an empowered female hero. The game immediately blew up online, and the two gaming girl wonders became exemplars of the future of women in tech. They were invited to give a TEDx talk about their game, followed by an opportunity to develop "Tampon Run" into a mobile app. With the help of Pivotal Labs, which offered development assistance to the girls pro bono, Houser and Gonzalez released a mobile version of "Tampon Run" on the Apple App Store last week -- and now they're looking forward to other projects. (Catcall Run, anybody?)
Salon spoke with Houser and Gonzalez about their efforts to create more feminist video games, the challenges and successes they've faced as girls who code, and the best ways to get more women involved in tech. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did "Tampon Run" come to be?
Sophie Houser: For the last two weeks of Girls Who Code, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted for our final project. Andy wanted to make a game that targeted the hypersexualization of women in gaming, and I liked the idea of using coding to create social change, so I hopped on board. We were brainstorming about what we might want to do and I made this joke about making a game where a girl throws tampons. And then we started talking about our own experiences with the menstrual taboo. Both Andy and I had experienced it firsthand. We did some research about it also and we realized that actually it’s a much more serious issue than what we face at home around the world. That’s when we decided that we wanted to go forward with the game and that we wanted to make "Tampon Run."
How did you even get to Girls Who Code in the first place? What made you participate in it?
Andy Gonzalez: I’ve been into computer science for a while now. I read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies where there were teen gangs who would save the world, and I always thought the coolest member of the teen gang would be the person who could hack into stuff. The summer before my freshman year of high school I went to this coed computer camp. I had heard about Girls Who Code that year, but I was too young to apply. So I ended up going to this coding camp where I learned Java for two summers, and the year after I applied for Girls Who Code.
SH: I got to Girls Who Code because my mom heard about the program and she knew that I liked math and she knew that I like being creative, and she saw coding as the intersection of those two things. She also thought that I would just like the tech world in general because there’s so much room for growth there. So she encouraged me to apply and I did.
Andy, I think it’s really interesting that you note hackers in movies, because I’d venture to guess that most of those characters are male. Correct me if I’m wrong, but with that being the case, do you feel like there was anything telling you that it would be unreasonable for you to pursue tech?
AG: I guess for me, part of it is luck because I was raised in a very nurturing environment where I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do. The part where I felt most challenged or most at a disadvantage was the first time I was at coding camp. Because the first time I went there, it was a camp of about 50 campers, and including the staff, there were about four girls. So I felt comfortable interacting with everybody, but I did feel the difference in the fact that there was a huge imbalance.
I’m curious about how you both make your way into this field where you don’t have a lot of female role models. How do you make yourselves comfortable in tech, and why do you think it’s important that you make your way into the field?
SH: I think a huge part of it was was the seven weeks that we spent at Girls Who Code. For me, that was my first exposure to [tech] and it was such a good experience and such a comfortable experience that it made me want to keep pursuing this. If it hadn’t been that comfortable and that fun for those seven weeks, then I probably would have been deterred and not wanted to do it anymore. What’s unfortunate is that not every girl gets to be a part of a Girls Who Code program or gets to be exposed to such a supportive environment or even have a mom who says, “Do it, you can learn how to code.” Also if you can’t see someone like you who can do it, too, then it makes it hard to imagine yourself doing it.
AG: As Sophie said, there’s still a barrier for getting more girls to code. But I think it’s becoming more prevalent that we need more women in tech. But I think even though people say that a lot, a lot of people should realize that if any girl, regardless of whatever situation they come from, takes a step and decides to learn how to code, there’s a super-welcoming community that exists even though it might be really small. I haven’t met another woman in the tech field who rejected me because I’m a woman.
How does that contrast with the larger culture of violence against women online?
SH: It’s so easy to be horribly hateful and mean online when there’s nobody else around you. You’re not actually facing a real person. I think that’s where that all comes from. The whole Gamergate thing, for instance, is a small community that has a very loud voice over the Internet, and then when you actually get to meet people in the field, not everyone is a part of Gamergate and most people think it’s a horrible and ridiculous movement.
Has that vocal hatred and misogyny made you pause and reconsider your involvement for a second or has it made you more defiant and driven to be involved in both gaming and development?
SH: I’ve thought about it. It definitely makes me want to be here more and it makes me want to stand my ground and show that women have an important place in tech and have an important place in gaming. It’s important that we’re here and I want to show people that.
AG: I agree. My mentor actually sent me a bunch of articles right after the Web version of "Tampon Run" got really big, about Gamergate and what was going on. That’s when I first took a step back and realized that this potentially could have been very dangerous and very real for us. We’re very lucky, but if we were to back down or to be deterred from being a part of this community just because of a small group of people who feel like they can bully us out of it -- that wouldn’t be something in my nature, to back down.
So you mentioned, Sophie, that you are interested in making a game that had a positive social message. Are there any other taboo issues or social issues that you have thought about incorporating into a different game or tackling in some way?
SH: Well, Andy and I were flown out to a gaming hackathon at Stanford in the fall, which was a very cool experience in itself. We were up coding for 24 hours, maybe 36?
AG: 36 hours.
SH: It was very cool. Andy fell asleep under a table, which was really funny.
AG: For an hour!
SH: We had a good time. But we made a new game while we were there, which was called "Catcall Run." It was about street harassment. It was right around the time when that video came out about the woman walking around New York and it was something we had in our mind. That’s something that really makes my blood boil. As two New York City teen girls, we’ve definitely felt that one firsthand as well. If everything with "Tampon Run" dies down, then maybe we’ll spend more time on "Catcall Run."
AG: And as Sophie said before, one of the initial seeds for "Tampon Run" was this concept I had of a game that addresses the hypersexualization of women in video games. That’s something I also feel really passionate about, because it shouldn’t be the case that Zelda is always getting rescued, for instance. If we had more games that presented women as powerfully as men, I feel like even that could also affect how society perceives women.
Is the lack of women in tech and the representation of women in gaming two separate issues, or are they really one and the same?
SH: I do think that if there are more women in gaming there will be more games about cool and empowered female role models. I don’t think a guy would have made "Tampon Run." I was thinking when I went into it that I wanted to make a game about something having to do with girls, but we were just sitting down and talking and that’s just what came out of my mouth. I think it’s inevitable if there are more women in tech.
How have your peers responded at school to the game and to your success with it?
SH: Before "Tampon Run," my guy friends never used to like to talk about menstruation. We would talk about everything else, but that was the one not OK subject. They would say, “That’s disgusting,” and walk away. But now they play "Tampon Run," they think it’s really fun, and they’re totally fine talking about menstruation now. Actually, one of my guy friends dressed up as the girl in "Tampon Run" for Halloween and threw tampons at me, which was really funny. Even my girlfriends and I have talked about our periods more, and it is super-nice to feel so comfortable about that. People in general at school will come up to me and talk to me about their period. I’m just Menstruation Girl now. I love it.
AG: My friends have been super-supportive. My school is not a big school, and everybody knows about the game. One of my computer science teachers found a tampon on his desk and put it in his pocket and was like, “Oh, cool, I can throw this at someone now!” People have been super-open and comfortable and very supportive about it. They fight over rankings now on the app. I feel really lucky that the people that I know are really supportive about it when it could have easily gone in another direction.
So what else do you think needs to be done in order to encourage more girls and women to get into tech?
SH: I hope that through our story girls will see that as a girl in tech you can make a cool project and you have a voice that people want to hear. I hope girls can look at our story and see that there really is a place for them in tech and they should try it out. The more women that code, the more comfortable other girls will feel in joining this. There’s a lot of programs like Girls Who Code that are opening up to try to get more girls involved in tech. So I think giving girls a supportive environment will definitely encourage more girls to join.
AG: I think a lot of it is just getting girls to realize that this is an option for them. Luckily for me, I already knew that I wanted to code and I went and sought out opportunities for myself. But I don’t think a lot of girls realize that they are capable of coding and that they should learn how to code and that they could be really good programmers. So I think just spread the word more that there are opportunities out there for girls of any situation.