Andy Gonzales and Sophie Houser smile while Ms. Shawn Mauser introduces them to the middle school audience. Many in the audience later personally asked them questions about their process and expressed their own interest in coding. Photo by Beatriz Ruiz.
Sophie Houser and Andrea (Andy) Gonzales are two nineteen-year olds that met at a Girls Who Code program in 2014, and together they created a video game called Tampon Run which aims to help break down the universal taboo on menstruation and sanitary products. The game features a female avatar that runs while throwing tampons at characters running towards them, while also jumping to grab airborne tampon boxes. After its release on its own website, www.tamponrun.com, the addictive game quickly went viral, spreading it’s message for social change along with it. This year, the duo released their new book, Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done, where they talk about the process of making the game, their struggles, and their ultimate goal in making it. Plus, they included some tips to get coding yourself!
Polaris Press: Why did you choose to focus on the menstrual taboo rather than just making a regular app?
Andy Gonzales: Especially being at Girls Who Code, we were encouraged to do something that would make a difference, and Sophie and I wanted to make a difference. When I came into Girls Who Code, I knew about the final product, I knew I wanted to make a video game but I wanted it to also have a message. So I think that’s why we decided to make a game about social change, and that led to making a game about the menstrual taboo.
Sophie Houser: Also, it was just something that made us feel super passionate and really really excited, so at first we just had this kernel of an idea that resonated with both of us personally, and we realized it was resonating with our friends, which we were so excited about.
PP: How do you hope the game will get the younger generation more comfortable with the idea of getting periods and using pads and tampons?
SH: Well, I think that something that makes the game really work is that it uses humor to talk about issues that people normally feel really uncomfortable about, and the humor means that instead of making people shut down, people want to interact with it and talk about it and think about it, and that’s really the best way to combat a taboo.
AG: You know, people who play it at, you know, our age now already know about the menstrual taboo or just menstruation in general. We’ve heard from a lot of parents about how they had found the game and now want to show their kids who are definitely younger than people we normally have access to. So, in terms of getting younger people to play the game it was a lot through their parents.
SH: I don’t think the game itself is like the greatest video game out there. I think Tampon Run is more about the message and getting you to think about a new topic.
AG: Yeah, and figuring out new ways to teach people about things that they might not normally come across. Because video games are such an easy way for people to share an idea or share a concept, and so I think that’s what worked really well for Tampon Run.
PP: In your ideal world, how would people, both men and women, view menstruation, what would it look like without that taboo?
AG: You don’t have to run around screaming ‘Tampons! Periods are beautiful!’ I mean like, you can, but I just think it should be a normal part of discussion, people shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. You know, in other countries where having your period is considered taboo to the point where women drop out of school, don’t go to school when they’re on their period, slash they don’t know how to take care of themselves, or they don’t even have the resources to do that. In my ideal world, they’d be provided with those and be educated on how to use them and again also at the same level, not being afraid to talk about it.
SH: And even here, in prisons or in homeless shelters women don’t have access to pads or tampons or ways to deal with their periods, they have to resort to not-hygienic ways to do that, and also ways that are just dehumanizing. So if people thought of periods as more normal, it would just be normal to provide those things.
AG: Pads and tampons are still considered a luxury item, so, to think about them less as a luxury and more like a necessity, because they are, that’d be really amazing.
PP: Branching off of that and the global aspect of it, how does it feel to be on the forefront of battling the menstrual taboo and trying to fix this problem?
AG: It’s been incredible, over the past couple of years we’ve met people who work specifically in this sphere, providing better tampons or better sanitary products for women or providing sanitary products for women who just need sanitary products, period. It’s been amazing to find a community that’s all working towards that same goal, even though it seems like a goal that you don’t think about everyday.
SH: It’s really incredible to meet other people who are really passionate about something. People who are passionate about anything makes you want to be passionate about something, you wanna work towards something, so that’s really been an incredible feeling. It’s just very empowering to be like wow, I, from my bedroom in New York, can do something that will affect people all over the world, people really far away from me. I have a voice, and that voice really matters, and I can affect people.
PP: Why do you think it’s so important for more girls to get involved in coding and technology and enter those fields later on as careers?
AG: Well I think as a woman, you know, growing up, you have a completely different experience than a man. So if you have an industry that’s full of men, coming up with products that, on the whole, are based off of their experiences, I guess, things that are made to solve their problems. So I think that by having a woman in tech, you can have more unique and more diverse products that come out into the marketplace, and it’s more representative of the world.
SH: I think also, as we start to tackle and talk about the issue of having less women in tech, it also brings up conversations just about systems of oppression in our society and why aren’t women going into tech, and what can we do to change that. Why have we constructed a world where women aren’t thought of as science people, and women are taught to think that they have a problem when they fail. It’s not just about women, it’s also about having more minorities in tech, having more minority women in tech, and those are all super important as well.
PP: What advice would you give to a middle schooler here, right now, if they wanted to start coding?
AG: My parents didn’t really help me look for coding programs when I wanted to code, it was just me sitting down, Googling like, “summer program coding New York.” And from that, I am here. So it’s really just small steps, all you really need to learn how to code is a computer and internet access. And I think even with this school, you have that. So, it’s just as simple as turning on your computer and looking up coding resources because they’re so easy to find.
SH: And once you do that, don’t be afraid to try and to fail, because that’s just inevitable when you code, especially at first, and that might be jarring when you’ve never coded before. But it’s super normal to try even the simplest thing out and it not work, and there’s nothing wrong with you coding, it’s just super hard. I’m in my second year now as a computer scientist, I’m majoring at a good school, and I still fail all the time. I still have a lot of trouble coding, and I know that there’s nothing wrong with me, coding is just hard.
PP: What were some particularly difficult aspects of making this game?
SH: I think, as a whole, it was really hard to start out, like, OK, we know we want to make this whole entire game, but we had six days to do it and how do you start? What we had to do everyday is sit down and say ‘Here’s what we’re going to do by lunchtime,” and at lunch we’d sit down and say “This is what we’re going to do by the end of the day.” And we kind of had to break down this large, looming project of making a whole entire video game into these small steps, and then tackling those very small steps. That’s how we wrote this book, we broke it down into these smaller steps.
PP: Did you expect the response you received [going viral]?
AG: When we shared it, we thought, oh, at most, our family and friends will look at this website, our reach goal is to written up on like, Jezebel.
SH: But we didn’t even think that was going to happen.
AG: Yeah, it was like a ‘Haha, wouldn’t that be crazy.’ It was funny how ridiculous it was. Because Jezebel is a well-circulated feminist media outlet online, and so we just thought that in our ideal world we’d be written up in Jezebel.
SH: And then it was much more than Jezebel. Yeah, we never really thought any of this would happen. We never thought we’d be writing a book, or would be sitting here in Austin, Texas talking with you. We didn’t think about any of that.
PP: Do you have any particular “victory” stories that came out of this game going viral?
AG: My success story has a lot to do with my relationship with my parents, and understanding that they were so supportive of m, and I had to be less quick to assume that they would disagree with any weird ideas that I had, just because they were more traditional. And another thing that happened is that I accepted the fact that I didn’t need to be on a set path towards anything. Like, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, and I thought I would just get all A’s in high school and in college, and then go be a mechanical engineer somewhere along the way. And now I don’t really have a plan but I’m okay with that because I’m doing stuff that I love, and I’m interested in, and I know I’ll be able to figure out how all of those things come together in the end.
SH: There was one time when I went up on a stage and forgot all of my lines and that was terrifying for somebody who’s super afraid of public speaking. But, that ended up being a huge growth experience, like, nothing bad happened. I looked down at my notecard and I read off of it, and I made it out alive. That was a huge learning experience. It’s okay to fail, and your scariest moments actually aren’t that bad. Another time that was good was when we went to this really fancy award party, because we had won an award, and we were in this room full of people who were maybe ten or twenty years older than us, and were really fancy tech people. And we were just these two seventeen-year-olds, sweating profusely in the corner, we didn’t know how to talk to anybody. But we really wanted to talk to people, because they all were really cool. So we stood in the corner and finally we said, ‘We’re gonna make a game plan, we have to split up and we each have to go talk to at least one person, and then we can find each other.’ And so we left each other, and I was really scared, I was alone in the middle of all these people. And then I saw this random guy standing alone eating food, and we made eye contact, and I said ‘I’m gonna do it,” and I went up to him and said, ‘This food is really good, right?’ and then we just talked about the free food and how tasty it was, and then we talked about other things, but I was proud of myself for just starting this conversation with this guy. And then Andy met some really cool people…
AG: Yeah, I was just wandering around, kind of lost. And then I saw a circle of people and I said, ‘you know what, I’m also going to be a part of this circle,’ and so I joined and it turned out to be the two presidents and a bunch of chairs of this big organization called Games For Change, which is an organization that basically promotes and encourages the creation and spread of games that spread social messages, so it was a perfect match. I made conversation with them and we got their contact information, and they were just amazing people. And I would never have met them of had an interaction if Sophie and I kept standing in a corner all scared.
SH: Yeah, that’s a good example of how we helped push each other out of our comfort zones, we were there for each other in that party, but we were also there to push each other to do things that were scary, separate from each other. Also, it was just a huge learning experience; I am shy, and I was pushed to not be shy and be outgoing.
PP: How did you deal with the pressure of being a student while also getting a lot of attention from the press?
AG: It was really hard at times, to be frank. Because it’s hard to take on all of that plus all of the extracurriculars that I had already signed up for, and on top of rigorous school work. Doing Tampon Run was also a really important for me learning how to take care of myself, because there were moments where I was juggling Tampon Run while also answering interviews and applying for college while also writing a book while also doing my school work, and it all came at the cost of my mental health and my physical health, and I had to take a step back, you know, I can’t do everything all at once. I failed, I literally failed one of my musical performance examinations because I just didn’t have time for it. But it was an important event to understand that I can’t do everything at once, so make sure you take care of yourself because that’s really important.
SH: I think we had moments where we were in guidance counselors. I think I had a guidance counselor say, ‘How are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m good, and just broke down. It’s funny now, looking back on it, but at the time it was not funny. It was really hard. It’s super hard to juggle two things that are very time-consuming, especially when Tampon Run felt very much larger than school, and felt more important in some ways, because it was like ‘I am doing real things in the real world that are affecting real people whereas my school work is not even affecting anyone. Like, why am I spending my time writing an English paper when I could be spending my time ridding the world of the menstrual taboo. But I’ve come to realize that there’s value, oh there is so much value in school, even if it’s not changing the world. Because you need that foundation in order to have the tools to go on and do things that will have a real impact.
PP: Do you have any plans for the future? Will you keep making games, where do you want to go from here, or expand Tampon Run?
AG: I still have my toes in the idea of doing video game design or working at an animation studio somehow, or making cartoons or something like that. But I want to keep using those types of media to create social change and just encourage positive things that I think need to happen, like maybe talking about the menstrual taboo but also I could talk about gender equality, and ways that aren’t so blatantly saying ‘We’re talking about feminism here!’ but ways that you just see in media that you interact with everyday. That’s what’s really fascinating to me. I want to work at a company that I’m happy to work at but that they also align with my ideals and the ideal world that I have.
SH: I don’t know exactly what I’m going to be doing with my life, but I know that I love to code and I know that I’m really interested in it’s intersection with art and with activism, and I think it’s an incredibly powerful tool. I like to tell stories, and coding is a way to tell stories, writing is a way to tell stories, so I want to continue to tell stories in some sort of media.
PP: What do you hope people will get out of playing this game?
AG: Three things. Thing number one: the menstrual taboo needs to be addressed. Thing number two: there needs to be more women in tech. And thing number three: there are a lot of different ways you can create social change, whether it’s through code, or video games, or writing a book, or some viral video. There are a lot of ways to reach a lot of people.
SH: Yeah, adding on to Andy’s third point, anybody could be Andy and Sophie. Anyone could be us, anyone who has an idea and knows a little bit about coding can reach millions of people and create change. And really, it isn’t even about coding, anyone who has an idea, everyone has a voice, and so anyone can just speak up and use that voice. And obviously, for some people, there are a lot more obstacles, and that is something that we need to acknowledge, but everyone has to have a voice, and if you overcome those obstacles you can use it to create change.