New Pioneers

The 8-bit viral game designer pixelating Black women's experiences

“Video games are my medium for affecting change because it's naturally kind of how I talk.”

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Among the things indie game developer Momo Pixel would prefer not to:

  • Buy a phone plan
  • Chase celebrities on Clubhouse
  • Zoom with the camera on when it’s snowing

“Are you needing the video?” she asks, on a recent wintry night, over Zoom. “I’m mostly chilling because once I do video, I have to turn on the lights and right now I’m just watching.”

We kept it audio.

It seemed an unexpectedly — but entirely appropriate — setting for a conversation with the creator of 2017’s viral hit Hair Nah, which situates gamers as Black women fending off the itchy hands of microaggressing hair-touchers in Japan, Cuba, and Los Angeles (which are all places where she’s visited). “So nice,” one would-be grabber remarks. “Is it attached to your head?” inquires another. “The game is over, but this experience isn’t,” reads the text at the end.

“This is an issue that Black women face daily.”

“It was like every day somebody was touching me or saying something about my appearance,” Pixel said of her experience first moving to Portland, Oregon, which served as an inspiration to the game. “It was just like, ‘Man, just don’t.’ Hair Nah was me saying hell no.” (She now lives in New York.)

There is a certain ebullient refusal — a joy of no — that resonates through her work. It extends to her exuberant, Kawaii-inflected aesthetic and fashion sense, which is rich in teals, purples, and pinks, and, depending on the occasion, might include a frilly dress, chunky glasses, or creature ears.

“I dress like a cat when I go into offices and meetings and stuff,” said Pixel, a freelance creative who owns her own agency, Momoland Studios, and has worked on ad campaigns for Nintendo, Instagram, KFC, and other companies she is legally bound to non-disclose. “I don’t ever bound myself to the arbitrary rules I feel like society always places on people.”

It has not been a bad year for Pixel (though she is quick to acknowledge her experience hasn’t been a lot of other people’s). In February, Momoland LvL4, an installation of her paintings, sculpture, and a VR game, headlined the yearlong exhibition Game Changers at MassArt Art Museum. In October, Keep It Together!, a pixel art game about hair treatments, came out as part of the promotional rollout to the Hulu horror flick Bad Hair.

Then, earlier this month, the groundbreaking Hair Nah was highlighted in Black Futures, a much-anticipated anthology of Black art, writing, and other creative work, edited by New York Times writer Jenna Wortham and curator Kimberly Drew. Pixel’s work exists at the intersection of geek culture and Blackness.

Employing throwback 8-bit graphics and an unapologetic (and funny!) perspective, games like Hair Nah and Keep It Together! spotlight the hair-raising — and -brushing and -tamping — complexities, joys, and challenges of being a Black woman.

“Video games are my medium for affecting change because it's naturally kind of how I talk.”

“As a person of color and as a Black woman — I’m sure you’ve experienced this —sometimes going into offices isn’t that great for us. We walk into a cesspool of microaggressions.” She noted, with a wry laugh: “I haven’t had any of those during the pandemic.”

Over the course of an hour of voice-only Zoom, we discussed her latest works, the current invite-only app Clubhouse (“it’s just a playground of knowledge”), and what she learned from going viral. Outside, the snow continued to fall.

This story is part of the New Pioneers series.

James: In one interview, I read that you didn’t have a phone. Is this still true?

Momo: So, like, OK. When I say I don’t have a phone, I mean it only works with wifi, and I don’t pay a phone bill. So, yes, that is still true.

It’s been nine or eight years. I just use different apps. I’m in a lot of social apps that have voice capabilities. I find that I don’t even need a number because most times people are calling me from apps anyways. I have a lot of conversations on IG or Facebook. And then, you know, Clubhouse is a talking thing. If somebody wants to talk to you, they literally could just pull you in a room. It also feels like phone calls. So, yeah, I just see no reason to go back.

James: I like that you’ve forged your own path there. Congrats on the Bad Hair game, Keep It Together. In one of the early screens, you mentioned the goal of “keeping up appearances” at work. I was wondering if you might be willing to talk about where you were coming from there.

Momo: That was a game I was hired by Hulu to make. So the game was based on the premise of their film a bit, not completely, but kind of adjacent to it. Throughout the film, you see that she changed her appearance to help her move further in her career. You’ve seen this often. I don’t know if it happens as much as it used to, but I think that a lot of people, especially Black people and other oppressed groups, have had to change their appearance because white America has not allowed them to just be and thrive in corporate spaces. I mean, you’re still currently seeing a lot of lawsuits and court hearings. And you’re still hearing about all of these things about hair — it’s ridiculous. You’re hearing things about dreads or a teacher cut a student’s hair off because they didn’t like it. It’s still a thing.

And so I think that, sometimes, people feel that pressure even before it happens; they feel that pressure that they have to change. I’m definitely a big advocate of not changing who you are and forcing places to adapt to you, because they should. And it shouldn’t be a problem in the beginning. It shouldn’t be a thing at all. I can understand if your hair isn’t actually professional. But your hair coming out of your head and being in a neat style and they just don’t like the texture because, essentially, they don’t like you because of your race — that’s a completely different thing.

“They wanted the end message to be something more palatable to white people.”

James: As another person of color who’s had to deal with microaggressions, I think it’s heartening to see another person turn those kinds of experiences into something that is informative, but is also more than just that. There’s a real sense of humor and joy and play to both Keep It Together and Hair Nah.

Momo: I mean, that’s kind of just how I see the world. Video games are my medium for affecting change because it’s naturally kind of how I talk. I’m very honest and pointed. But I’m also very joyful and silly, you know? And so a lot of the things that I say — you know, I think of myself as a comedian at times — I do it through art. You can say a lot of things when you add humor to it in ways that you can’t when you come straight out, right? I’m not necessarily saying anything new. These are all issues that many people have faced. You see it all the time. However, I think the way that I’m going about saying it is different. And so it’s received as friendly and seems to be more digestible. Um, so yeah, I thank you. Thank you for acknowledging that.

It was a joy working on the game. I think my favorite part was when I got to the sound effects. Like all the images, all the assets had been built, and towards the end I got the sound effects for the slap and that’s when I knew. I was just in the office by myself, cracking up. And I couldn’t wait for people to see. I was like, “Aw, this is going to be amazing,” you know? I would never go back and live in Portland again, but I definitely appreciate the experience. I’m in a completely different space of work because of that.

James: You’ve described Hair Nah as “getting to say no exactly the way you wanted.” I imagine that must have felt very liberating.

Momo: Absolutely. It was liberating, but also, even during the process, people were trying to change the way that I was making the game. They wanted the end message to be something more palatable to white people. And it’s like, no, that discredits and that removes the whole point of the game. This is on purpose.

James: Do you remember any of the suggestions?

Momo: So, one suggestion was putting at the end: “We’re not mad at you.” [Both laugh] Right? Just undercut the whole thing — “we’re not mad at you.” For me, it was like the audacity for you to say that and not realize that you are trying to speak for a whole group that you’re not a part of, and you’re literally the person touching people’s hair. How do you, as the oppressor, need to put words in the oppressed mouth? I’m always baffled. Like, that’s literally what the game is about. I just don’t understand the automatic thinking that you have rights to that. That would never come out of my mouth to somebody.

Yeah, that was a suggestion. “We’re not mad at you.” And I was like, what do you mean? Yes, we are!

“I'm not necessarily saying anything new ... I think the way that I'm going about saying it is different.”

James: I understand that, when you were making the game, you already had a sense that it was maybe gonna take off.

Momo: Yeah. I really think that people get feelings, and I think that people should trust their gut more often. Once I had the idea, I was like, “Oh, this is going to go viral.” And so, because of that, I had already deleted my Twitter. I was like, you know what? Make sure you’re on the clear.

I knew because Solange had just came out with that song [ed. note: “Don’t Touch My Hair] not too long ago. So even though like the game wasn’t inspired by her, because of her, I already knew the cultural value. And I knew that I wasn’t unique in my experience. If I’m experiencing this, I know other women experience it.

James: What surprised you about the response?

Momo: I knew it was going to go viral, but still there’s no way to really prepare for viralness. Like, how do you prepare for that? There were a few months where I couldn’t really focus on a lot of other things because just reacting and responding to press alone became a job in itself.

I think also I was surprised, and am still surprised, to enter the academia space. The game is used in a lot of college lectures; it’s a part of curriculums; it’s in afterschool programs, like MIT, Harvard, and other universities. I really did not know that there weren’t other games that address microaggressions in that sense.

It’s awesome that it’s being used to show people that you can use this medium to tell your story, and effectively. It’s in Woke Gaming — they opened the book talking about hair, and I was like, “Wow. Right.” And then people have sent me their dissertations, and it’s just like the gift that keeps on giving.

I think the only other thing I was surprised about — I knew it wasn’t going to get backlash, but there’s always like a chance with things like this — I think I only got, like, four bad emails from racist folks. And I was like, “There’s only four of you mad? This is great.”

“I really want to keep trying to push the envelope of what games can be.”

Momo Pixel

James: What are you working on next?

Momo: I have plans and have started working on other game ideas for myself. Some personal IP work and doing more VR work. I’m not really giving myself a deadline. Because I want to really spend time on it and the art, and I really want to keep trying to push the envelope of what games can be, whether that’s simple or complicated. I can’t speak about them because, just the space I’m in, the type of games that I make, they don’t really exist.

I will say the games that I’m making for my personal self, they’re going to continue being in realms of Black identity, or things that are culturally relevant in that space. But they’re not about hair. [Laughs] I’m done. I’m done with hair games for a while.

James: Now that the interview is over, are you gonna go back to watching the snow, or—

Momo: Clubhouse. [Both laugh]

James: You’re addicted!

Momo: Hey, they have good talks! Like, right now there is “How Is Crypto Shifting the Value?” It’s just some things that I’m interested in.

It’s like you're learning at 500 miles per hour. Once you’re on it, you’re like on it. I have not gone to bed most nights until like 5, or 6, or 7 a.m. It’s way better than any of the panels and events I feel like I’ve ever been to in real life.

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