E3 Gaming And Technology Conference Begins In L.A.

Good news if you like video games but hate the patriarchy: The Wall Street Journal reports that video game fans/computer geniuses (nerds?) are reworking video game narratives to up-end the ubiquitous lady-gets-saved-by-a-dude trope in favor of a more egalitarian ending. While on the surface this seems great, it brings up questions of artistic ownership and plagiarism.

WSJ has an adorable anecdote about Mike Mika, a video game developer who had to explain to his daughter that Mario always saves Pauline in “Donkey Kong” because that’s just the way it is. Because he is a super-wizard computer expert and amazing father-type, he went ahead and “hacked the classic game’s software to make the damsel into a heroine who saves the plumber Mario.” After making his new version of the game, “Donkey Kong: Pauline Edition,” available online, it has been downloaded more than 11,000 times. And it’s not only Mika who has made awesome hacks to reflect a more up-to-date attitude about gender roles:

One gamer turned the namesake character from “The Legend of Zelda,” a princess saved by a guy named Link, into a sword-bearing warrior. (The game’s creator called it “Zelda Starring Zelda.”) Another made Princess Peach, a different kidnapped friend of Mario, throw her own fireballs as she fights her way through a Mushroom Kingdom to save the plumber. Even the lipstick-lined Ms. Pac-Man started as a hack of the popular arcade game about her male counterpart.

I think we can all agree that it’s commendable that gamers are taking matters into their own hands in order to update the stories. And frankly, it’s ridiculous that they even have to, given that nothing is stopping game companies from producing more female characters.

Here’s my question: is going in and changing an existing game okay, or this bordering on plagiarism? While I completely agree that video games in general are behind the times and the industry is certainly male-dominated despite the huge presence of female gamers, creating video games is a huge undertaking involving hundreds of highly trained artists. Art and design are notoriously difficult to protect, and “copyright lawyers disagree on the legal implications of changing characters in the games.” In some way, does hacking existing video games demean or devalue the work and skills of the game creators? After all, nothing new is being created – gamers are simply manipulating exiting artwork.

I don’t want to be a killjoy here (whatever, I never said I was fun), because I truly think that gamers rallying to give females characters a voice is admirable. But I wonder if a more effective plan would be to boycott the gaming companies until they offer games with female characters, instead. A boycott would firmly tell gaming companies that the current state of female character options is unacceptable, instead of letting them continue on with male dominated games while gamers adapt. Hacking video games isn’t sending a message or hurting the video game companies in any way, but it very well might be devaluing untold hours of specially-educated artists’ work.