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Great Hacker Dads Make Female Video Game Heroes

03/11/2013 06:59 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2013

Chris Welsh wrote a story in The Verve yesterday that made me smile all night. "Father hacks 'Donkey Kong' for daughter, makes Pauline the heroine."  This is what he wrote:

When Mike Mika saw the disappointment on his daughter's face when she realized Pauline wasn't a playable character in "Donkey Kong," he felt a call to action. Thankfully, Mika happens to be a competent developer, and after a few late-night hours spent hacking the NES version of Nintendo's classic, he accomplished the role reversal his daughter had wished for.

As a friend of mine said in Twitter, "File under cute story, good parenting."

Earlier in the year, in another story, Mike Hoye did something similar when he reversed the genders of protagonists in the Gamecube game "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker." His simple explanation sums the issue up exactly: "Dad's favorite pastime shouldn't treat girls like second-class citizens." No one's should.

Most video games, like movies and other popular media, either entirely ignore female protagonists or marginalize, sexualize and objectify them. Boys and girls learn that as they grow older, females are invisible, distressed or simply accessories. I won't be arguing with anyone in comments about this. Just take a quick stroll around the Media Education Foundation's website, or go watch Miss Representation or search the terms "gender" and "stereotype threat."

I would, as the saying goes, be a rich woman if I had a penny for the number of times I'd wished I could have done what these dads did with a game, toy or movie. Take this instance: One of my daughters is addicted to EA Sports FIFA Soccer. Like millions of other girls, she is a terrific soccer player and rabid fan. She is highly skilled at this game and derives a huge amount of pleasure from mastering it. As a player, you can create a team or pick any team in the world, adding countless famous soccer players for your play. As long as they are male. There are exactly NO women or women's teams. NOT ONE. This isn't only disappointing for girls. It's bad for boys, too. It conveys a whole lot of bad information about who's important and for what reasons. Rebekah Arujo, a member of a U-14 Maryland soccer team, started a petition asking EA Sports to add female teams and players.

WATCH: Soccer Video Games with Females

"I'm tired of always playing these video games with only male players and teams. I want to be able to play as Mia Hamm, Abbey Wombach, Alex Morgan or Marta." (Her petition still needs signatures. HINT, HINT.)

Why is this such a hard concept for people? I'm going to take a wild guess here and say that Roberto Araujo, the man who uploaded her video to YouTube and started the petition, is a boy or a man -- a brother or a father, who supports Rebekah and thinks this situation is absurd. Gaming, in particular, offers rich opportunities for challenging stereotypes and gendered storytelling. Creating a culture of gender parity and diversity in media in our world does not hurt boys. And yet, levels of resistance and resentment are gob-smackingly obscene.

Take the example of Anita Sarkeesian. I recently wrote about her experience, but it bears repeating. In an effort to understand how stereotypes work and what we can do about them, Saarkeesian started a Kickstarter to fund research about "tropes versus women" in videogames. A massive and organized misogynistic cyber mob stalked her, harassed her, threatened her with sexual assault and other violent abuse, you know, for laughs. Her social media accounts were spammed, she was sent graphic drawings of men raping her and thousands played a "game," alternately called "Beat up Anita Sarkeesian" or "Beat the Bitch Up." The end result of was a picture of her face, bloodied, bruised and swollen. Is this what happens to girls and women when they do what these men did on behalf of a more balanced media culture?

Sarkeesian is not alone. While she was deliberately targeted for silencing, women gamers experience frequent and persistent harassment. And that's active harassment. Marginalization and negative stereotypes are passive harassment. This isn't only a matter of gender, but of an overall problem with media stereotypes and lack of diversity. Take this Indiana University in 2012 study, (one of many similar ones) of the impact of electronic media habits on children's self-esteem. Researchers concluded that the more exposure to TV and other forms of electronic media kids consumed, the  lower their self-esteem -- unless they are white boys. This is where I say I love the men and boys in my family who happen to fit practically anyone's current definition of "white" in this country. They understand what I'm talking about even if others choose not to. The researchers put it this way: "Regardless of what show you're watching, if you're a white male, things in life are pretty good for you," Martins said of characters on TV. "You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there." For those scratching their heads as they rearrange the contents of their "boy crisis" bookshelves, here is man, Julian Real, who also happens to identify himself as white, explaining what I'm talking about.

One day, when my daughter was enthusiastically reenacting her FIFA Soccer Ultimate Team's recent win, she explained that they would have a leg up in the next round of tournament play because they took "morale points," given as a result of winning, into the next match. These morale points give her team an advantage, all other things being equal. She thought she'd do pretty well as a result of this edge.

Boys, especially young white boys, get "morale points" from our culture every day. They get them from our history, which made it all but impossible for women and men of darker shades to be educated, participate in politics, economics, the arts or any other form of visible public life. They get them from games that only feature male players and male teams. They get them from going into places of worship with all-male priesthoods. They get them from movies that tell mostly boys and men's stories and toss in the marginal, eye-candy girls.  

Even the most talented, resilient and loved child experiences culture. Girls and women are playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 47% of game players are female. They're just invisible in the games themselves. The developer community is hostile to women in the field . What a shocker.

There is nothing unique about EA Sports, FIFA or gaming. These examples are kind of like IKEA's erasure of women from its catalog in Saudi Arabia last year. Or the egregious absence of women our text books.

What can we, as a parent, do? I'd say discussing the imbalances and explaining stereotypes is a good start. Then, in terms of products, withholding money and actively confronting businesses and marketers who profit from the marginalization of certain children. As far as I can tell, although I am happy to see petitions like Rebekah's above, bad press and money is really the only thing that get profit-centers' attention.

Sarkeesian's kickstarter, happily, was well-funded despite frightening bullying efforts. Here is Part One of a series of videos which examines the Damsel in Distress motif in culture and now electronic games.

WATCH: Damsels in Distress, Part 1

Below is a list of some research and resources that I found while writing this. You will see that it is heavily focused on girls themselves. I hesitated to add this section, because until boys and men happily and with parity cross-gender empathize, I doubt we will substantially move the needles that we need to. So, this list could have been focused on that topic... but... another day.