Coding knowledge can be used to do more than build a great website or land a lucrative job. It also has the power to inspire personal growth and shine a light on social issues.
Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser learned this firsthand when the video game they created, Tampon Run — in which players throw tampons at bullies and tackle taboos surrounding menstruation — went viral in 2014. Gonzales and Houser, then teenagers, met as students at the all-girls coding program Girls Who Code in New York City and created the game as their final project.
After the pair released Tampon Run online, they were catapulted into the tech-world spotlight, earning props on the TODAY show, CNN, Time magazine, and more. Gonzales made the Crain’s New York 20 Under 20, and the game won a Webby and a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award. The duo was flown to Silicon Valley, to be courted by venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and more.
Three years later, they’re both well on their way to future tech successes: Houser is now a computer science and literary arts major at Brown University, with a software engineering internship at Facebook on deck for this summer. And Gonzales is studying computer science and journalism at the University of North Carolina.
The process of learning to code coupled with the whirlwind experience of going viral was invaluable for both Gonzales and Houser. Both gained emotional and professional confidence, got an inside look at the tech industry, and found opportunities to build their own futures in coding. Just as importantly, they saw up close how something as simple as a game could be used as a platform to bring to light the taboo topic of menstruation.
In their new book, Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done, the duo share the highs and lows of their Tampon Run journey. Below, they provide insights on going viral, learning in a girls-only tech environment, and more.
What inspired you to make Tampon Run?
Andrea Gonzales: I’ve always wanted to make a game that combines the power of video games with complex social issues — I think that they could do a great job of breaking them down into something that’s easier to engage with and digest. My original idea was to make a game that parodies the hypersexualization of women in video games, but Sophie suggested something better…
Sophie Houser: During our brainstorming session I suggested we make a game where a girl throws tampons at oncoming enemies, which started a conversation about the menstrual taboo. As Andy and I talked, I started sharing my personal experiences — how I was too embarrassed to buy my own tampons the first time I got my period and made my mom do it for me. How I shoved tampons up my sleeve on the way to the bathroom so no one saw. How my guy friends would walk away in disgust whenever my girlfriends and I talked about our periods.
The more I said these experiences out loud and Andy affirmed that she had similar ones, the more I realized how ridiculous it was that I felt ashamed about such a normal thing like my period. We also learned that the menstrual taboo was a much more serious global problem. For example, in India, girls miss weeks of school or drop out because they don’t have the resources or are too ashamed to go to school while they’re menstruating.
You’ve called Tampon Run a feminist game. How do you think it has moved the needle for women in the gaming industry, and in conversations about gender-based bullying and menstruation awareness?
Gonzales: We didn’t realize it, but when Tampon Run came out, the gaming community was in the midst of an — to put it lightly — intense discourse on women in gaming (known as Gamergate). And after Tampon Run came out, we learned about other actions activists have taken to help normalize and draw attention to the menstrual taboo. Our goal was never to solve the problem of women in tech and women in gaming, and we never thought we would completely eliminate the stigma around menstruation. But we hope, and have seen so far, that Tampon Run has helped create conversation in all of these spheres. Whether people walk away from Tampon Run with the same opinion as ours or something different, we know that they’ve at least been given the opportunity to consider what we have to say.
What have you learned from the experience of “going viral”?
Gonzales: Going viral was really fun, rewarding, and hard. The virality of Tampon Run often interfered with our everyday lives as high schoolers and college students — it still does. But the impact we’ve had on people all over the world has been so rewarding and empowering. Because of Tampon Run I got a full-ride scholarship to multiple colleges and won several awards. Sophie and I wrote a book, and we’ve made invaluable connections that we can access for help in whatever projects we pursue next.
Houser: The experience of going viral shaped me into the person I am today. At the beginning of my senior year of high school I was shy, pretty unconfident, and severely afraid of public speaking. Overnight, I was thrust into talking to journalists on the phone, giving talks on stages to large audiences, and meeting accomplished people in the tech world. At first I was constantly terrified and I wished it hadn’t happened. But as I overcame my fears and became more confident, I began to love all the adventures Tampon Run threw at us. The experience also made me realize the incredible power of tech to create social change.
How have women and girls responded to the game? How about boys and men?
Gonzales: We’ve seen an overwhelmingly positive response to Tampon Run from men and women. We got an email from a teacher in Berkeley, Calif., whose middle school students had gotten into the habit of playing Tampon Run during their free time. A girl who had never played the game thought it was inappropriate and disgusting, but then a bunch of eighth-grade girls — and boys! — talked to her about the menstrual taboo and how Tampon Run is a tool for facilitating conversation around it.
Not all of the feedback has been positive, of course. Sometimes people think we were making a problem out of nothing, despite it being a legitimate problem. They also thought that talking about periods is no different from talking about pee or poo — we shouldn’t be talking about any of it.
What I found to be really interesting is how many parents responded so positively to the game, and how excited they were to use it as a tool to introduce menstruation to their children, sons and daughters alike.
You had a really positive experience launching Tampon Run and working with the software development company Pivotal Labs to turn the game into a mobile app, but many women face challenges advancing their careers, products, and access in such a male-dominated industry. What advice do you have for women facing those roadblocks?
Houser: Andy and I have been incredibly lucky to have entered into the tech world being pushed forward and applauded as young women here. But that’s not common, and many women face roadblocks in the industry from not getting promoted, to not getting equal pay, to even having a lower rate of code approval versus male colleagues.
Some advice I’ve heard that’s stuck with me: Find a network of women to share struggles and solutions with, find a mentor who can advise you and guide you. And don’t be afraid to speak up or self-advocate. A lot of these issues are systemic or because of someone else’s bias. Some come from how we, as women, have internalized to not speak up for what we want or need.
What blockers do you think keep young girls from developing an interest in coding?
Gonzales: Certain careers and areas of study are prescribed to certain genders by society. Girls are encouraged to be ballerinas, nurses, and mothers — boys are encouraged to become astronauts, computer scientists, and architects. None of those careers are illegitimate, but when young girls are constantly and only encouraged to work toward a specific path, they feel like when they venture to become an astronaut or an architect and fail, it’s because they as women are not suited for that field, and they’re less likely to keep pursuing it.
What advice can you give to combat the isolation or lack of support that many girls or other minorities in tech face?
Gonzales: I don’t want to sugarcoat it and say it isn’t hard sometimes. There are definitely moments when I feel isolated as a woman and a minority in the tech industry. But even when I feel frustrated, I think it’s important to check in with myself and remind myself how much I love the work I’m doing and everything I’m learning. It helps that I’m helping forward a movement for gender equity in the tech industry, too.
Which women in tech do you most look up to?
Gonzales: My mentor, Nikki Wiles, has been an incredible guiding force for me. And Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, is the person Sophie and I have to thank for it all. But it’s hard to pin down which women in particular we look up to — throughout our journey with Tampon Run, we’ve met an incredible amount of women who’ve made an impact in tech.
Houser: We’ve met so many incredible female founders and entrepreneurs and they’ve all been so encouraging and supportive. Reshma has been a huge mentor and role model. She’s both encouraged us to keep coding and also to self-advocate for what we want.
What resources like online communities or events do you find most useful for women and girls in tech?
Gonzales: Girls Who Code was an invaluable resource for me. It created a space for Sophie and me to make Tampon Run, which connected me to the whole world of tech and women in tech. Once you’re in the program, you’re given access to an incredible network of GWC alumni, teachers, and sponsors all devoted to supporting women in tech.
But Girls Who Code is far from the only resource available to women and minorities in tech. There’s Women Who Code, Black Girls Code, plus all sorts of meetups that happen all the time, everywhere. Minorities in tech work really hard to create spaces where participants old and new feel welcome.
Why did you choose Girls Who Code’s learning environment rather than a coding course or camp that wasn’t gender-specific?
Gonzales: For the two summers before I went to Girls Who Code, I attended a co-ed computer camp. I loved it, but it, like many co-ed coding programs, had an unequal gender divide. Taking the leap into Girls Who Code was a challenge because I was used to interacting with mostly men, but I was curious to see how I would change as a programmer and as a learner in an environment with only women. I wouldn’t have been encouraged to talk about women’s issues at my co-ed camp in the same way I was encouraged to at Girls Who Code — and safe to say, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable enough to make Tampon Run at my co-ed computer camp.
What kind of tools has coding given you in life, both work and play?
Houser: So many! And that’s why I love to code. On a literal level, coding gives me the power to build anything technology-based I want. If I have any idea, big or small, and I can figure out a way to solve it with code, I now have the skills to bring it to life. And I can apply my coding skills to solve problems in any industry.
Coding has also taught me a lot emotionally. I used to be so afraid of failing, mostly because I was afraid of affirmation that I was stupid and because I didn’t want other people to know that I was. But you have to be OK with failing when you code. The coding process is basically you write some code, you find a bug, you do everything in your power to fix it but nothing works, you feel frustrated times a million, and then you figure it out and feel like the smartest person ever.
Another huge lesson: If you don’t know how to do something, just look it up. Every coder does it, but also applies to all facets of my life. I love the internet. The answer is always there.
What other social-good tech projects have you been inspired by?
Gonzales: I learned after making Tampon Run that there was a whole genre of games that have objectives other than pure entertainment. “Serious games,” as they’re called, focus on other things, like education, sexual assault, sustainability, and, in our case, the menstrual taboo. Games for Change is an incredible organization that works to create a community for games with social impact.
Houser: Tech is an incredibly powerful tool to talk about social issues since technology-based products can reach so many people so quickly. Games can bring humor or fun to difficult topics and allow users to actually engage with the topic. One “social-good” game I learned about recently, Phone Story, is about the abusive and awful conditions for people who manufacture smartphones. In order to “win” the game, the user must actively perpetuate these awful conditions. Playing causes an uncomfortable visceral reaction, which makes you stop and think about what goes into making devices we use daily.
There are also a lot of social-good Twitter bots. One I found particularly jarring is @congressedits. It tweets every time someone anonymously edits a Wikipedia page from an IP address in the U.S. Congress. Most of the pages have something to do with events or people in the U.S. government.