ROM Hacking

ROM Hacking

Many early NES video games were based on cartoon and toy franchises that embodied hegemonic masculinity, such as G.I. Joe, Beavis and Butthead, Darkwing Duck, Popeye, Transformers, and Toxic Invaders. These games not only reinforced views that males are/were the primary video game consumers, but that male power is reflected through the video games’ hypermasculine traits. Several gender swapping hacks or mods have responded to this claim: for example, in 2012 Mike Mika created a Donkey Kong NES hack that places Pauline in the protagonist role which is usually occupied by Mario. While the ROM (read-only memory) hack was created for Mika’s daughter, it garnered the attention of national news outlets, such as NPR, ABC News, and the Huffington Post, and it was shared thousands of times on social media. The emphasis on the man’s actions and classification in the Donkey Kong hack news reports is representative of larger video game communities where there often is ‘a lack of interest or even outright derision regarding games about domesticity and girlhood’ (Alexander 2014). This has contributed to the popularization of narratives that concentrate on ‘men’s role in reshaping hegemonic video-game culture’ and reinforces cultural assumptions of the default gender of video games (Weil 2013). Consequently, feminine/girly games as well as the women players, creators, and production laborers have been erased, excluded, and marginalized from larger historical narratives and certain video game communities.

To address the dominance of hegemonic masculinity in video game culture and the problems with supporting male-based intervention into this culture, such as the Donkey Kong hack, we must first consider what conditions predicated the need for such interventions. From the forgotten labor of the migrant women workers in Chinese electronics factories to the lack of attention paid to feminist artists and game developers creating deep hacks of classic games, women have been excluded from the mainstream conceptualization of the video game industry and larger tech culture. Correspondingly, this article poses the following questions: in what ways are women already contributing to this culture and why are they ignored/erased from the mainstream narrative? How can we imagine and/or produce feminist interventions or hacks into the hegemonic video game culture through ROM hacking?

I am currently adapting ROM hacking methodologies to critical inquiry practices. This involves two parts: (1) creating various ROM hacks that embody feminist interventions and (2) developing ROM hacking workshops that encourage critical examinations via physical deconstructive and coding practices. ROM hacking consists of the following steps:

  1. Disassembling the game cartridge
  2. Detaching circuit board from cartridge
  3. Desoldering ROM from cartridge
  4. Clearing ROM
  5. Editing game code via hex editor
  6. Editing visuals through Tile editor
  7. Burning game onto ROM
  8. Resoldering ROM onto circuit board
  9. Re-assembling ROM with cartridge
  10. Playing game

With each of these steps I conduct in-depth investigations and encourage my workshop students to do so as well. Photos below demonstrate several of the steps and workshops. Currently my hacks are under constructions and will be available to the public soon.