Wieden+Kennedy art director Momo Pixel spends a lot of her time in Portland warding off white women who try to touch her hair. After a conversation with a coworker who was baffled by the phenomenon, she decided to make a game about it.
Nine months later, she had Hair Nah, an 8-bit-style video game where players try to help a black women travel to three different destinations while continuously swatting away pale hands reaching for her hair. Pixel tweeted out a link to her game last Wednesday. Within a day, it had gone viral.
"PR was trying to figure out how to launch it, and I told them, ‘Literally, I’m just gonna make a status and it’s gonna go viral,’" Pixel told Campaign US. "And the game went viral. I told you it was dope, is it not dope? It is the dopest."
Dope to the tune of over 25,000 retweets and 105,000 game plays, with 16 percent of users (and counting) returning to play more than once. Dope to the tune of widespread earned media, from CNN to Buzzfeed to Fast Company, not to mention international publications in other languages. "Black Twitter is the reason a lot of things go viral, and I knew [the game] would go viral because I’m a black woman, this is an issue I face. And what I go through, others like me go through," said Pixel.
The art director has been with Wieden since last year, arriving as a copywriter before transitioning to creative this March. She’s been a pixel artist since 2011, crafting physical objects that mimic the look of 1980s-era graphics. This was an opportunity to further develop her self-taught digital pixel art skills, while also trying out game design for the first time.
She took particular inspiration from Leo’s Red Carpet Rampage, a 2016 title riffing on Leonardo DiCaprio’s lack of an Oscar, which she said showed her the value of simplicity and humor in getting a message across. There was never a question of whether this was the right medium for communicating her experiences, she said. "Play is one of the first places you learn things as a child, and that doesn’t go away," she said. "As adults, people still like the escapism of games, so it was a no-brainer for me."
This is not the first time W+K has hosted a discussion about black hair. Since this spring the agency has run On She Goes, a travel site by and for women of color, whose most-shared post is also about the frequency with which black female travelers have to defend themselves from hair-grabbers. The platform is part of an ongoing effort at the agency, of which Hair Nah is a part, to experiment with audience development through employee passion projects. In the last year, they’ve also released a politically-tinged food truck, an empathy robot, and a book commenting on America’s gun violence crisis.
The small team that created Hair Nah included six other designers, animators and developers, though Pixel was the only black woman on the project. While W+K says its creative department is 19 percent multicultural, both Pixel and a representative of the agency agreed that's far from sufficient. "I just made a viral game, and I think more things like that would happen if more people of color were employed," said Pixel. "Advertising needs to get its shit together, because it’s missing out on money [by] going the traditional route of hiring from schools where people like me don’t be." (Pixel is a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design.)
She hopes the game will also attract more creatives of color to the industry. W+K talks frequently of its commitment to diversity, and by supporting this vision, said Pixel, the agency has proven itself a place that such talent can thrive.
"This is the blackest thing to happen to this place," she said. "They just let a black girl put out a game about white women touching black girls’ hair. That’s a really black thing to do."