Michael Chabon, in “Manhood for Amateurs”, writes an essay telling the story of being at the supermarket with his child, feeling quite run-down and barely hanging on, with his toddler in tow on a Sunday morning so as to give his wife a chance to sleep in. As he’s in line to pay, a woman in line with him says something along the lines of “You’re a good dad, I can tell just by looking”. At that moment he has this epiphany that to be a ‘good dad’ in our society one must merely not be in the process of killing a child in public whereas a women can rarely achieve the status of ‘good mother’ in the public’s ever-shaming eye. If they ever do briefly get told that, it is all too quick to fade with the barrage of societal and internalized messaging women get telling them they are never good enough.
Michael Chabon’s take was this:
“The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.”
As someone who did not have a dad, I have nothing in my upbringing about what it’s like to be a young female with a grown male caring for you, teaching you, or taking an interest in your life’s outcome. Chabon does sum up for me the conclusions I came to, quite young, about these creatures called ‘fathers’. Growing up with my lesbian, feminist mother my understanding of the odds was that netting a ‘good dad’ seemed so low and I was convinced I was lucky for not having to participate in that particular life lottery.
To folks who did have ‘good dads’, this story might seem familiar to you, but to many it may come as quite a pleasant surprise. Someone I am proud to consider a friend had their blog post picked up by ArsTechnica today and, yes, the title of this article is very unfortunate but the amplification of what Mike Hoye did for his daughter is such a ‘good dad’ moment that I hope there will be ripples of this for months as well as more hacking of games to do even just that simple binary flip that helps a young girl see something more like herself as the hero of the stories the games people play are centered around. Imagine for a moment if we could take this kind of hacking to children’s television and movies. Those are immutable objects for now, but video games? Well, Mike has proven that a bit of hacking can go a long way.
Because I am fortunate enough to know Mike through my time at Seneca College where he was a regular mentor to our zealous open source program, I asked him if I could interview him for a Geek Feminism post and he said yes so we hopped into an etherpad and had a talk.
LB: Hi Mike!
First let’s be clear, you didn’t give a fictional character who exists only as pixels in a video game a ‘sex change’ but you certainly upset the dominant males-as-heroes pattern in video games by simply flipping the gendered forms of address in the text of the game where the Hero does in fact have quite a gender-neutral appearance. Does it feel radical to you to do this kind of hack?
MH: It certainly felt… transgressive. I’m an inveterate gamer and Legend Of Zelda fan, and the Zelda series revolves around some pretty well-used tropes. You know you’re going to be the hero, that there’s going to be the Master Sword, a bow, the boomerang, the hookshot… Changing something, especially something as basic as the nature of the characters, feels like it should be a pretty big deal.
But at the same time, it seems like I’m just solving a problem that’s stubbornly refused to solve itself. That option should always have been there.
LB: You gloss over a bit in your post, will you put up more details (maybe another blog post) of step-by-step instructions to help people who have less technical depth than you try to do this at home with their kids? Alternately, is there a way to package up what you did and distribute it without getting yourself put in jail (or heavily fined)?
MH: The way I packaged it up – by making it clear that you’ll have to find the original material on your own, but here is the tool you’ll need to apply the following changes – is the best I could come up with. As for the step-by-step instructions… I found the game’s disk image, opened it up in a hex editor – I used http://ridiculousfish.com/hexfiend/ for that, because it works really well with extremely large files – but once you’ve done that, you just need to make a copy of the disk image, and work on that one; just page around the file until you find the dialog, and then start editing it. The important thing, at least as far as the approach I took, was that you need to be extremely careful to use phrases that are exactly, letter-for-letter the same length as the phrases you’re replacing and make sure you can see the difference between a space (one kind of whitespace) and a linebreak, that look the same in the text but have different numerical values.
It helped me to use a very basic text editor with a fixed-with font, so that I could copy the phrases I was replacing out and work on them for a while without committing anything back until I was reasonably happy with them.
LB: I wonder if you handed this hack back to the game developers/publishers, would they be receptive to putting out the alternate version, considering how simple the hack really is?
MH: It’s unlikely that my approach is well-suited for that – I’m not building in an option that a player would be able to toggle. You either change the whole game or nothing.
LB: That’s a good point. Advocating for more options in the game defaults seems like a great tactic here over asking for entirely different releases of games.
Any plans for other games that you play with your daughter where you might want to make this similar adaptation?
MH: I don’t know – it depends on what she’d like to play next. We haven’t started The Ocarina Of Time yet, so that’s a candidate. But so much of this depends on whatever holds Maya’s interests that it’s impossible for me to say.
LB: It will be interesting when she grows up and talks to others about playing the game, perhaps slipping in a female pronoun. The looks of confusion from other players will hopefully make her laugh and perhaps feel bad for them that their dads didn’t take these matters into their own hands. My mom did a similar thing for me with pronouns in Dr. Seuss stories on characters that were too gender-stereotyped with no bad side effects so far, to my knowledge.
MH: God, I can only hope.
LB: Obviously you’re an accomplished hacker, what is your approach to hacking with your child(ren) in terms of meeting kids where their skills are at?
MH: I don’t have fully-formed thoughts about this yet. I’d like to start by asking Maya what she’d like to create – not necessarily out of code, but starting with carpentry or paint, and then helping her work stuff through. The only overarching principle I want her to understand is that she can, if she puts her mind to it, make and change things.
LB: Have you had to deal with any sentiments from your daughter that suggest she might get messages telling her that computers are ‘for boys’ or that doing anything hacky or tech-related isn’t ‘for girls’?
MH: Yeah, that shit is pervasive. It’s not so much computers – there aren’t a lot of those in school yet – but “boys do this”, “girls do that”, that starts awfully early.
I quiz her on it, when it comes up – Why do you think that? And the answer is always, always that one of the other kids, usually boys, in her class told her. It’s… disheartening, but you push back when you can.
LB: That’s interesting that your anecdotal evidence is that the boys seem to be doing more of the gender policing. In my experience it was more the girls who seemed invested in protecting ladydom.
MH: My sample may not be representative (interviewer acknowledges that hers wasn’t either) (also, it’s certainly possible that I’m not getting a reliable story from Maya, who has in the last two weeks claimed to be a girl, a boy, a crab, a moose and, earlier, a pentagon. So she may not be the most reliable narrator.
LB: Starting kindergarten can be a time when the gender binary really hits home for kids and the positive messages a kid gets at home start to become overwritten by the massive mainstream’s – are you having to up the ante in un-learning?
MH: She is in preschool, not quite kindergarden yet – and I don’t really have a clear sense of how things get addressed there – I suspect well, but I don’t know. Having said that, I think the old lead-by-example tropes are important. Mom and Dad treat each other with respect, even when we disagree, and insist that Maya does so as well. When she uses some other kid’s misbehavior as a justification for her own, we don’t accept that as an excuse, and occasionally admit our own mistakes as well.
Mostly, though, we just try to avoid television and Disney movies, and try to avoid books where the women are either helpless NPCs or props or both. It’s not always a perfect approach, because frankly there’s not a lot of those books out there, but it’s an uphill battle. But so is all parenting, so hey.
LB: Should we talk about the “P” word? Are there inklings of wanting to be a princess? Even if it was Princess Leia (who is now owned by Disney) would this fly with you and your particular approach?
MH: I don’t really know. We’re not there yet. She’s expressed as much interest in being a princess as she has in being a moose at this point, so I’m not super-concerned about it.
We’ll go through that phase at some point, I’m sure, but I just don’t want it to be the only phase she goes through.
LB: Love the moose stuff – where is that coming from?
MH: She has a shirt where the moose has antlers, so she holds up her hands to her head like antlers and says “MOOSE” and charges. It’s pretty great, unless you’re afraid of moose.
LB: Have you broken the news to her that moose are really big and stinky? Also a menace on country roads in Canada? :)
MH: For polite situations, she’ll hold up only one hand, and be a half-moose.
LB: You’re doing a great job here :)
Are you aware of projects such as: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/16029337/goldieblox-the-engineering-toy-for-girls ?
MH: Yeah, I gave them some money on general principles.
LB: Can you speak to what works/doesn’t for you in terms of making technology feel accessible to your daughter and what seems to entice her or dissuade her from the things we technologists might be taking for granted?
MH: It’s too early to say. Right now, she’s surrounded by the tech Mom and Dad use in our day to day lives, watching us work with it. She understands very quickly how to use it herself. So far, to be quite blunt, “Accessible” means “stuff I can manipulate without needing to know how to read”, which basically means touchscreens with icons or hardware with big buttons, where interactions don’t generally have hard consequences.
LB: That brings up a good question – what does Mom do with regards to hacking or owning/customizing things in a way that teaches curiosity and exploration of creativity? Are you a one-man show, or is a love of technology, gaming, hacking something the whole family participates in to varying levels?
MH: Mom has almost no interest in technology per se. It’s not her thing, but her hobbies – more artistic, craftier in general – are complimentary, and also something Maya’s taken to.
LB: So your daughter gets balance then, between those many areas. I think it’s great that you take such responsibility for transferring your knowledge and sharing your passions with your kids.
MH: I’m not sure how they learn any other way.
LB: Final question:
What would you list as starting point for useful tools/skills a geek or geek-leaning parent might want to have at their disposal tohelp them alter the tech realities around us in this way and other ways that upset the defaults?
MH: I don’t think there’s one answer to that question, certainly not one that’s less than book length or applies to everyone. The thing that you ultimately need to do is to believe that not only can you look behind the curtain, but that if you’re a little bit smart and a little bit careful, you’ll be able to step up and operate the machinery there yourself. That’s what I’m hoping Maya takes from this – there may be an infinite number of things in the world you don’t understand, but there’s nothing that you can’t understand, and a little patience, a little courage and enough small steps. will get you there.
LB: Thanks for sharing your approach here, Mike, I think you’re an inspiration for open source geek parenting and I hope we’ll see more of these sorts of hacks in the years to come until they are no longer even “hacks” but in fact, defaults or built-in options.
MH:There’s a lot of work left to do, but we’ll get there.