The Tampon Run Creators On Beating Bro-Grammer Culture At Its Own Game

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At a glance, Tampon Run seems like a Mario Brothers revamp, complete with a loop of punchy music and a boxy little figure who hurls weapons at oncoming enemies. But unlike the Nintendo throwback, this game is a beacon of modern-day girl power — and powered entirely by girls.

Built by Sophie Houser and Andrea Gonzalez during a Girls Who Code summer program in high school, Tampon Run’s protagonist is Luna, a mighty gal combatting misogyny with the most convenient ammunition at her disposal: bloody tampons. When the game first launched in 2014, it sparked renewed dialog about women and tech; three years, two TEDx talks, and one iOS app later, Houser and Gonzalez have leveled again. This time, with a book.

Girl Code is a look back at Tampon Run's origin story and how its creators continue to combat bro-grammer culture head-on — and not just with digitized feminine products. We spoke to the newly-minted authors about the creativity innate to coding and how they’re watching tech change the world in real time.

Tampon Run was a hit. Now that the game is a couple years old, is there anything you would change about it or add onto it if you were to make a new version?

Andrea Gonzalez: "We're very proud of Tampon Run and what we made in such a short amount of time. We never really touched the web version after we released it — we wanted it to serve as an artifact for what we were like as programmers and thinkers [at the time]. It changed my life, and I would be such a different person if we never made the game or released it.

"Given more time, there are more features would have wanted to add to the game, though. Currently, users can only play as a girl, and [in the web version] only throw tampons at men. But the menstrual taboo is not a 'women vs. men' thing at all; women can perpetuate the menstrual taboo just as much as men do. Also, some trans men or gender non-conforming individuals still have their period. So for the game, that would translate to having both playable characters and enemies across the gender spectrum. We did have time to make a woman as an enemy in the iOS app. It would also have been fun to acknowledge other sanitary products that exist for women: menstrual cups, liners, sponges, etc. Not everyone wants to or can use tampons, and it’s great to recognize that there are other healthy alternatives."

One of the thing that becomes obvious in Girl Code is that you’re both very creative people. Is there a bridge between your creative sides and coding, which people often think of as a more analytical skill?
AG: "I think that’s a big misconception about what computer science is. I used to think it was all about crunching numbers. But if you look at code, it’s written in English language. I think coding is not as mathematical or statistical as people think — computer science is more logical, like a puzzle."

Sophie Houser: "I agree, there’s a misconception. You need to know very basic math [to code] — how to add and divide and subtract. But it’s also all about solving a problem, and is so creative to me. Also, with coding you can make anything; you can merge art with code. I’m taking a class right now about the intersection of art and code."

You’re both in college now. How much of a part is computer science playing in your studies?

AG: "I’m currently a double major in computer science and journalism, with an interactive multimedia specialization at the University of North Carolina. Computer science is different [at the collegiate level]. I think this is the most formal setting [in which] I’ve studied computer science. Last fall I took a class in a big lecture hall. And, it was really weird, because you do see the gender divide."

SH: "I’m in my sophomore year at Brown, majoring in computer science and literary arts — similar to a major in English, but with more of a writing emphasis. People say at the beginning [of computer science courses], there’s a fifty-fifty [gender] split. But as people move up, and when you get to a higher level, you see women dropping off.

"I think a huge part of coding is that you fail, over and over, which is also why I love coding. But you fail so much before you succeed. I think that women are taught that when they fail, they’re not good at something and that they’re not meant to do it.

Are you aware of gender gap issues in your own classrooms?

SH: "My coding classes are super big, so I’m not sure. But most of my friends [in the classroom] are actually other women. It’s very nice that there was this cohort of women in the coding classes… I am concerned with what life will be like outside of college, though. I think that there’s a culture — especially in the big companies and in the Bay area — like what happened at Uber recently."

AG: "The way I feel in the classroom is different. There aren’t quite as many girls in my class as in Sophie’s. It’s hard to speak up — to have courage to speak up. If you think about it, there are a lot more men who participate because there are so many more men in the class than there are women."

Women are taught that when they fail, they’re not good at something and that they’re not meant to do it. When men fail, they’re just taught to brush it off and try again.
Sophie Houser

Speaking of the Uber controversy: Did the fact that female coders feel marginalized and discriminated against surprise you? Or is it something that, coming up in the computer science field, you’re already expecting?

SH: "I worked at Facebook this summer and there was this bro-y culture. It’s not that everyone is a part of it, but it does exist, and that’s kind of scary. The women [at Uber] were being shut down because the men at the company were so valuable: it’s a problem that we live in a culture where we turn a blind eye to sexual assault and don’t validate victim’s stories."

AG: "There’s also the idea that the harassers [at Uber] were authority figures. There aren’t enough women in tech, period. But there also aren’t enough women in power in tech who manage their own teams. If we did have more women in power, I feel like women would be able to feel like they have enough rapport there to say, 'Hey, I’m being harassed.'"

What will have to change, specifically with the culture in the tech industry so that women get the respect they deserve?

AG: "When it comes down to it, women — both their intelligence and their voices — need to be taken seriously. Currently, the tech industry is this boys-only club: There are many cases, when women have tried to enter the field and aren’t treated like legitimate contributors or creators. We’ve heard people question the validity of diversity programs and initiatives, claiming that women are only at these tech companies because they’re a woman, and not because of their intelligence. That starts to venture into the controversy around diversity programs in general, but it still leads to people within the tech industry treating women like they are somehow 'lesser' and not as qualified to work in the tech sector."

Do you think you’re going to stick with computer science as a career path?

AG: "I used to say I wanted to be a video game programmer. But in my journalism major, with the interactive multimedia specialization, I’ll still be programming. It’s just programming to tell stories better. I think that by doing both computer science and interactive multimedia, I’ll be able to use coding to create change and impact the world around me."

SH: "I don’t know exactly what i want to do with my career and life. I’d like to create change and use code to create change and solve issues. For example: I have an app on my phone called Countable. You can see what your congress representatives are doing in real time, write to them, and post videos. That’s a cool way that code can create change — I want to do something at that intersection."

Do you think of the internet as a safe space for women?

SH: "I think there are certain spaces on the internet that aren’t safe for women — just as there are certain spaces in the real world that aren’t either. The internet is a place where societal stereotypes, bias, and prejudice can manifest in an unregulated and anonymous way; that can lead to lots of ugliness. GamerGate is a good example.

"It’s also easy to make assumptions about someone when you’re not communicating face to face, and all you know about them is their basic information: their name or their profile picture. There’s that viral story going around right now about the two employees at a movie reviewing site — one a man, the other a woman — who switched names in their email sign-offs. The man immediately had a harder time getting clients to respect him. But the whole internet isn’t inherently an ugly place. The internet can be a positive way to connect women, and really any group, and create supportive spaces through blogs, Facebook pages and other forums."

Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done debuted from HarperCollins on March 7.