When you begin the video game “Tampon Run,” a dramatic 8-bit soundtrack spurs your character forward as text scrolls onto the opening screen: “Most women menstruate for a large portion of their lives. It is, by all means, normal. Yet most people, women and men alike, feel uncomfortable talking about anything having to do with menstruation.”
The rest of the “instructions” expand on the menstrual taboo, as well as how guns and violence are normalized through video games, but tampons and menstruation are largely forbidden topics. Once the game starts, players must shoot tampons at enemies charging forward to confiscate them and collect boxes of tampons to refill on “ammo,” using basic controls and period power to advance. Though it’s a simple 8-bit sidescroller, there’s poignancy behind each tampon launched. Periods are a touchy topic for many people, but for a biological phenomenon that half the world’s population experiences monthly, it makes little sense that menstruation is more taboo than watching someone get beat to death with a baseball bat on “The Walking Dead.”
Now attending Brown and the University of North Carolina, respectively, then-high-school-students Sophie Houser and Andy Gonzales sought to change that dynamic. After creating the game “Tampon Run,” in 2014, during a Girls Who Code summer session, the two women took the internet by storm when their creation became a viral hit, garnering attention from outlets such as “Buzzfeed” and “TIME” in a matter of weeks, and eventually leading them to a book deal, an outcome neither expected. Today, you can even download an iOS-friendly app version of the game. Both Houser and Gonzales are in college now, but they still make it a point to incorporate social activism and creativity into their coding projects, a passion for which they claim “Tampon Run” was the launching pad.
Coding found its way into Gonzales’ life far before “Tampon Run.” Coming from a first-generation immigrant family, finding a job that offered financial stability was a priority. Since her dad was in computer programming, Gonzales was familiar with the tech world and decided to pursue a future as an engineer, attending summer coding camps until she eventually found herself at Girls Who Code.
In Houser’s case, however, coding came out of the blue. “In high school, I thought I was going to be an English major in college, but I didn’t think coding was something I would become passionate about,” she says. After hearing from her older brother who worked in tech that “coding was the future,” her mom came across the Girls Who Code program and encouraged her to try it out.
While attending Girls Who Code, Houser and Gonzales became friends and decided to team up for the final project, which, at the time, had nothing to do with tampons. Growing up playing PlayStation and GameCube games like “Tekken” and “Street Fighter,” Gonzales wanted her final project to put a spin on the way women were portrayed in the gaming world. “Whenever I wanted to play a game as a girl, I would look at all these women and see characters who were super muscular with huge boobs, tiny waists and big butts, and they looked like people that I would never encounter in my life,” says Gonzales. “
And, obviously, in the tech industry all body types—male, female and in between—are super exaggerated, but even outside of that, in other video games, such as ‘Super Mario,’ you would see the female characters had no control over the story. In ‘Mario,’ Peach’s only role is to get kidnapped over and over and over again by Bowser. I felt like there was no space for women to take initiative.”
Through questioning the hyper-sexualization of women in video games, Gonzales realized that she wanted to create a game that exaggerated these tropes and demonstrated the sad state of female characters. When the two were discussing how to make Gonzales’ vision into a reality, Houser, who wasn’t as into video games but was still interested in social activism and the creative side of coding, instead, almost off the cuff, suggested the beginnings of what is now “Tampon Run.” “I don’t really know why this popped into my head, but I had this vision of a game where this girl throws tampons at oncoming enemies, and so I suggested it, and we laughed about it for a little bit,” says Houser.
“Then we actually started to talk about it and our own experiences with the menstrual taboo. I shared my experience of when, the first time I got my period, I was too embarrassed to go to the store and buy my own tampons, and the horror of looking the cashier in the eye seemed too terrible. [Gonzales] echoed the same experience. We realized that we could actually use this funny little game that seemed like just a joke as a tool to start a conversation.”
Almost every girl whose period has unexpectedly arrived during school has memories of shoving tampons or pads up their shirtsleeves, embarrassed or scared that other people might see, as if having a period was some sort of dreaded disease that must never be discovered. Even carrying a box of tampons or pads in the grocery store requires reconnaissance-level efforts to hide any sign that you might have feminine hygiene products in your cart. Through “Tampon Run,” Gonzales and Houser hit on a phenomenon that spoke, and still speaks, to girls and women everywhere.
Neither Gonzales nor Houser really expected the response to “Tampon Run” that they received. In fact, Gonzales was more worried about her parents’ reaction than anything else. After growing up with a stay-at-home dad, period education wasn’t really at the forefront of her adolescence. “While I was working at Girls Who Code with ‘Tampon Run,’ I didn’t tell my parents about it at all. They asked, ‘What are you doing for your final project?’ and I would say, ‘Umm, it’s like a video game.’ I think my dad saw an exploding tampon on my screen once and he asked, ‘What is that?’ and I was just like, ‘Uh, I don’t know, bye,’” says Gonzales.
“After the project, [my parents] came up to me and said, ‘So this is definitely something we have never seen before, but we’re really proud of you, and we’re glad you’re doing something you’re really passionate about,’ and that was an incredibly rewarding experience for me—not just from the fact that I had made this video game in nine days, but that I had this realization about my relationship with my parents, and that they were really here for me regardless of what I did.”
After they finished the final project, Houser and Gonzales posted “Tampon Run” online, happy at the thought of it reaching a few people. But thanks to the world wide web, it took one day before the game went viral. Though they were still in high school, both women went from homeroom and extracurriculars to press inquiries and auditorium speeches, which, for a shy person like Houser, was a big step. “I was so afraid of even raising my hand in class to answer a question that I would never talk in class; I would shake before presentations, and that had been an issue my whole life. Then I was thrust into all these situations where I was talking with strangers, and I had to be confident not only to talk to them, but to talk to them about my period, which was something I wasn’t totally comfortable with.”
In time, people all around the country started playing “Tampon Run,” which led to a flood of emails thanking the girls for creating a tool that helped parents and older siblings talk to their children or siblings about periods in an approachable way.
One of Gonzales’ most memorable interactions came from a middle school teacher in Berkeley, California, who wrote to tell the girls about how “Tampon Run” had swept their school by storm. Gonzales read the email in one of the girls’ TEDx Talks, saying: “Two sixth grade girls saw the game for the first time and reacted with ‘Ew,’ and ‘Gross, why are you guys talking about that stuff?’ I was about to step in and explain when four eighth graders, two boys and two girls, looked up from their computers to calmly and convincingly explain that there was nothing wrong with menstruation, and that, in fact, it was really weird that we talk about guns and violence all the time, but periods are considered gross.” Interactions like this make the experience all the more worth it for Gonzales. “That was a really incredible landmark of the power of how far ‘Tampon Run’ has reached. I never would’ve been in contact with that middle school teacher in California without ‘Tampon Run,’” she says.
For both women, the “Tampon Run” period of their lives was a life-changing learning experience, and now that they’re in college, they’re using those experiences to move forward professionally. Both went on to pursue Computer Science majors with humanitarian components—Houser double-majors in Literary Arts and Gonzales took on Journalism.
Though her path isn’t concrete, Gonzales’ passion for social activism hasn’t faded. “I guess what has come from ‘Tampon Run’ is that I have become really fascinated in people’s stories and giving them a voice, especially through technology, because technology is constantly evolving, and I think it sort of manifested in my studies,” she says. Though she was confident in her choice to become an engineer before creating “Tampon Run,” the experience taught her not to limit herself. “Having all those different experiences helped me realize that there is so much more I haven’t tried yet, and so much more that I can incorporate computer science with.”
Houser has used her experience with coding to secure some high-profile internships and is currently working as a software engineering intern at Facebook, using the website’s code base to create a new project for the company. After she finishes up there, she’s headed off to Berlin for a semester, where she hopes to incorporate social activism and coding in a new way. “There is a big refugee population in Berlin, and I’m interested in how I could use coding to help with the refugee experience there. There is a nonprofit there that works with building community with the refuges and people from Berlin, and I think it would be cool to use my coding skills to somehow help them out,” says Houser.
And though “Tampon Run” is certainly about breaking the menstrual taboo, it is also just as much about the importance of getting more women involved in the tech industry. In their TEDx Talk, Gonzales and Houser cite the statistic that in a room of twenty-five engineers, only three of them are likely to be women.
Recently, dozens of articles have hit the internet detailing the sorts of harassment that women in tech face. A recent survey titled “Elephant in the Valley” questioned over two hundred women, all of whom had been involved in the tech industry for over ten years, about their experience with gender discrimination in the workplace. Eighty-four percent responded that they have been called too aggressive, 60 percent reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances and 39 percent of those women responded that they didn’t report the instance out of fear of negative career effects. So while “Tampon Run” may seem like a wacky way of addressing the menstrual taboo, it speaks to a much larger problem.
In their book, titled “Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done,” their talks and through “Tampon Run” itself, both women hope to spread a message that encourages young girls everywhere to invest in coding. “What I found working in tech is that the community of women is small compared to the community in general…In college it can be difficult, because you’ll go to class and see the divide between the number of women in the room versus the number of men, and it can make you feel isolated. I felt that coming into college, but it’s important reminding yourself that you’re doing something that you love, and hopefully by doing this you can inspire other girls to start looking into it or stick with it, too,” says Gonzales.
“There were a lot of points where I was really afraid of failing—while building it or getting on stage to give a speech—and I did fail,” says Houser. “There was one time where I literally forgot all my lines on stage to give a talk, and it was terrifying, and my worst nightmare come true, but it was fine in the end. I fumbled, figured it out and nobody knew. So I try to always carry that with me. When it seems like I’m not going to do something just because I’m afraid of failing, I’ve learned to just push through, because it’s better to be uncomfortable than shy away from anything.”