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Technology

Q&A with the teenage coders behind Tampon Run

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Tampon Run is an iOS game that combats period taboos. Two teenagers, Sophie Houser (18) and Andy Gonzales (17), made the game last summer at Girls Who Code. Since then, they've received an influx of international recognition for their work.

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We're kind of obsessed, so we reached out to Sophie and Andy to show our admiration and find out more.

When did you first realize period taboos need to be squashed? What pushed you to create Tampon Run?

SOPHIE: Andy and I created this game because we saw something happening to us and other girls that we wanted to change. We are made to feel like we can't talk about menstruation, or that it's something to be ashamed of, when really it's just a normal and natural bodily function. I think the taboo has to do with the sense in many cultures around the world that women are unclean when we menstruate.

I also think that people are turned off by blood, except oddly blood in video games and movies is okay when it's associated with violence. It's not okay when it's associated with something as normal and natural as menstruation. That's wrong. If you look at traditions around the world, often women are separated when they are menstruating because they are "unclean."

ANDY: No one realizes that they perpetuate it! But people get uncomfortable whenever someone mentions their period. For example, girls feel uncomfortable asking guys to buy them tampons and guys feel uncomfortable doing it. We want people to realize that having a period is a normal bodily process for women; women should feel just as comfortable asking their friends and relatives for tampons (and other period products) as for toilet paper.

What personal experience have you had with menstrual taboos?

SOPHIE: The first few times I got my period, I was too embarrassed to go to the store and buy myself tampons. I didn't want to make eye contact with the cashier and didn't want anyone to see me with the box in the store. I actually forced my mom to buy them for me the first few times I had my period. Then she was away on a business trip when I got my period and I had to buy tampons myself. I was terrified.

ANDY: One day in school there was a circle of middle schoolers in the hallway gathered around something they all found shocking. It turned out they were staring at a tampon on the floor. It was totally unused–someone had just unwrapped it and popped the tampon out of the applicator. I remember being really unimpressed by it, and confused as to why everyone else was making such a big deal.

I also have a stay-at-home dad, so whenever he went to Costco or to the pharmacy, I'd feel uncomfortable asking him to buy me tampons and pads. While working on Tampon Run, I realized that even I became a lot more comfortable talking about myself, my period and menstruation in general… it's hard not to when you're answering emails about Tampon Run all day!

Tell us a little bit about your experience at "Girls Who Code" and how they're helping close the gender gap in tech. What advice do you have for girls who are interested in tech?

SOPHIE: I had an incredible summer with Girls Who Code! Learning to code at was a life changing experience, one of the most important ones of my life.

I found it empowering to build programs from nothing and know that everything happening on screen was because of code I had written. I also have never been in an all female situation before. The program was 7 weeks long with 19 other girls. We got frustrated together when our code wouldn't work and cheered for each other when we succeeded. I loved the girl power in the room and the way we supported each other.

It is creative, logical, fun and empowering. It's also so exciting that now, with code, I can build almost any idea I come up with. I would recommend joining a Girls Who Code program if there's one near you. I learned so much more than just coding during my summer in the program. I've become more confident, a better team player and I feel proud to be a woman. The only way to make tech a more comfortable place for women is to get more women involved.

ANDY: Don't be afraid!! If you have any interest whatsoever in technology, you've got to pursue it. Especially for women right now, there are so many opportunities encouraging us to get involved, and so many resources for girls and women to learn how to code! Learning to code changed my life. It's so rewarding, and so empowering.

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What kind of response did Tampon Run get from your peers and the greater community?

SOPHIE: We posted Tampon Run online at around midnight the night before our first day back at school after summer break. We assumed only our friends and family would see it. The next afternoon, while sitting in my friend's basement playing Mario Kart, I got a frantic call from my mom. We had been written up in a few papers in the UK and people were tweeting about Tampon Run. I was baffled, and that was only the beginning. We have since been written up in papers, magazines and blogs around the world.

It's also been incredible to receive emails from people who have played the game. We got one email from a middle school teacher in California. She described how the 8th graders started spending their whole lunch periods playing Tampon Run. The teacher began to hear girls talk more openly about the bags they carried their tampons in, and about their periods in general. During one lunch period a 6th grade girl commented on how weird it was that kids were playing a game about periods. An 8th grade boy responded, telling her that periods were a normal and natural bodily function.

We got one email from a 16 year old girl who told us that she used to feel too uncomfortable discussing her period even with her family after a traumatic experience in middle school in which she leaked menstrual blood onto her white pants. She told us that the game made her feel comfortable discussing her period and has inspired her to learn to code.

In general, men and women, young and old, have been so open, supportive and excited about Tampon Run. It is amazing how deeply this little game has resonated with people around the world. It has made us realize that it's an even more serious and prevalent problem than we realized.

It's so inspiring to see socially active teenagers who are already making a difference. What's next?

SOPHIE: I want to use coding and tech for social good. I'm not sure if I want to continue with games, but I know I want to use coding to make a difference in our world. I've seen with Tampon Run how through coding I can build something from nothing and then quickly reach millions of people with it. I have also experienced first-hand how tight-knit and supportive the female tech community is — something I definitely want to be a part of. (I have met many wonderful, supportive men in tech too!)

ANDY: I discovered my love for coding 4 years ago. I started coding when I was 13 years old; I went to a camp called SummerTech Computer Camps. Both that program and Girls Who Code have opened so many doors for me. I'm positive that I want to go into a career where I'm coding, but I'm not entirely sure which path I'm going to choose - for now, video game design and development are areas I really enjoy. No matter what, I'm going to incorporate my knowledge of coding and computer science into my career.

BTW, Sophie & Andy… Clue's hiring devs. Holler when you graduate. ;)

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