Momo Pixel is a Portland-based visual artist who really wants you to stop touching her hair. So much so that she made a video game out of the experience, aptly titled Hair Nah. Virtually overnight, the game went viral. In an age where black women face suspension from school for embracing their natural hair, have their texture photoshopped, or are deemed unprofessional, the game is just as much of a protest as it is a fun way to pass some time.
The premise is simple: In the colorfully pixelated style of '80s video games, you choose from a range of skintones and hairstyles and decide on a destination. You then have to get through your apartment, a cab ride, airport security, and a plane ride while swatting away white hands from your head as their owners coo, “Is it attached to your head?” and “Can I touch it?” If you win, you arrive safely at the destination of your choice as a message appears at the bottom of the screen: “Way to go, girl! You made it. The game may be over, but this experience isn’t. It’s an issue that black women face daily. And to those who do it: STOP THAT SHIT.”
Over email, Hair Nah creator Momo Pixel explained the inspiration for the game, her style, and what is next for her.
Your game Hair Nah gained a lot of attention online. What prompted you to create it?
I guess you could say my move to Portland is why I created the game. I’ve lived in four other cities before moving here and I never experienced my hair being touched without permission like I do here. I just wasn’t prepared for the blatant disrespect. I think when I first got here I was mad all the time because my personal space was always disrupted when I walked outside. One day I was trying to explain to my bosses about people touching my hair and they were trying to imagine it. One of my bosses is super animated and he kept ducking. He was really trying to get what it would be like and at that moment it dawned on me: Yo! This would be a fire game! The thing that’s dope is I am already a pixel designer and like everything I do is pixels. So it kinda just came together really nice. The universe was waiting on it.
Thinking about that, what did you hope to accomplish with Hair Nah?
There is a lot I wanted to accomplish with Hair Nah.
I think first is making the game. I wanted to make a fun-ass game that would give black women something to laugh about. I think that it is an uncomfortable topic and often times we don’t get a chance to stop people from touching our hair. So I was trying to give them a game to finally be able to fight back. I also wanted Hair Nah to be the thing that I prove I know what I’m talking about. I think often times that young people in professions are seen as naïve because of our youth, but I knew what I was doing and I knew that I was right. So Hair Nah is like my ultimate “I told you so.”
But lastly I hoped that the game to do what it is doing now, spreading like wild fire! So that women and men who are the hair touchers, could learn to stop. That's it. Super simple. Keep your hands to yourself.
Tell me about your experience designing the game and any difficulties you might have come across.
Well designing the game was a great joy, but it was a so much work! I just didn’t know that it was going to take as much work as it did. I haven’t been doing digital pixel art for long, about a year. So I am still figuring out my methods. But it was difficult when I first started working on it because, when you design with pixels you can’t just make things bigger or just move something. You have to redo it, pixel by pixel. So it was taking me forever. But then I learned some smooth moves and got better and quicker as I went. After that it was dope! I’d get a bit tired of working on a scene, but then I’d finish and be all reenergized to make more.
The aesthetic of the game is vibrant and exciting. Where did the inspiration for the design come from? What influenced your design decisions?
Oh, the design aesthetic is just how I like things. I didn’t look up anything or have images of what I wanted it to feel like. I just would design and choose the colors as I choose my outfits — pick whatcha like! But I think overall my inspiration could be tied to anime. I am a huge anime fan and my favorites tend to be based on story, action, and color. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is my absolute favorite because of this. So when I was designing this I just wanted it to have that kind of beautiful otherworldly feel.
I appreciated the selection menus at the beginning where the player chooses their skin color and a hairstyle. Was this the initial vision you had for the game or did the wider breadth of representation come to you as the process went on?
Nope. Originally, I didn’t have options. Then I was like, If there is going to be a game that lets you swat hands away, you gotta be able to see yourself in it. So then I was like there has to be skin tone options. I originally only had 3 options then I just kept adding. I would have added more if I had more time and bandwidth. But a shawty was tired!
What has the game's feedback been like?
The feedback has been so great! Mostly positive. Like I’m happy! Everybody happy! It’s dope.
Looking at your Instagram, it seems like you really love color. What is the significance of color to you, especially when you incorporate it into your work and physical appearance?
Color for me is freedom. When I was younger I wasn’t really allowed to be myself and I didn’t fully know who that was because I didn’t get to explore. So first things I did when I was out on my own was experiment with color. I tried different looks and hats. I’d wanted to dye my hair since I was 8. So I just started dyeing it all the colors, any color. Then I figured out that I’m in love with gradients. So with my afro I always had that effect, and if you look at the game it’s the same way.
Now I’m just very secure in who I am and the freedom of being myself and color represents that.
Talk to me about your experience as a black woman of color navigating the space of game design and art.
Hmm. I mean. I don't know. This is the first game I’ve designed and I do art but I don’t know if I’m in the art space if that makes sense. I’m just a happy go lucky girl who has never fit in. So I just make my own way. I went to art school but had never been asked to be in an art show. I graduated never knowing that feeling. So in 2015 I literally quit my job so that I could. I went and started Momoland. Ha and now people ask me to bring the experience to them. Momoland level 4 and 5 have already been booked starting in the beginning of next year. Which is dope! But I’d say that’s my experience as a black woman navigating any world. I think it’s us just making our own way. But I’m here for it and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Do you think that games can have a role in social discourse?
Yes of course! I think games are great for social commentary because they are easy teaching tools. You learn with any game you play. When you’re a child it's one of the first methods use to teach you. Games and playing. So to me, it is a natural thing to use to teach and an effective one.
Finally, what can we expect from you in the future?
Getting [Hair Nah] to be an app. I want that to be the first thing. But I have a lot of personal projects that I’m working on and a music project coming soon. And who knows, I may finally get around to opening my store. Time, money, and opportunity will tell. But I’m excited for it all! Leggo!