Momo Pixel Lives Life in 8-Bit

How the creator of the viral game Hair Nah uses the internet.

Momo Pink

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock and MomoPink.

At its best, the internet is a never-ending cocktail party, to which we each bring our own special libations. (Its worst is some other column’s problem.) This is How I Internet, where the web’s most interesting personalities share what’s in their punch bowl.

This installment’s subject: Momo Pixel, creator of the viral web game Hair Nah—the object of which is to swat away the grabby hands of people seeking to touch a black woman’s hair. She is also an art director at advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy.

Age: 27
Location: Portland, Oregon
Hardware: MacBook Pro and Samsung S6 or 7 Galaxy—whichever is the one that doesn’t explode

Representative post:

How did you up with the idea for Hair Nah?

I probably would have never had the idea if I hadn’t ever moved to Portland, just because [having my hair touched without permission] had never really happened to me like that before. In college, people would touch my hair, but it was, like, consensual. I just did not like my personal space being invaded. I was trying to explain this to my bosses one day, and one of them was trying to imagine it. He was trying to act it out.

While he was doing that, I was laughing because he was ducking and dodging, and I was like, “Oh, man, it would actually be a really fun game if you could swat hands away.” He’s like, “Wait, what did you say? … Well, go make it.”

I found the game kind of hard!

At one point, my developer made the game really easy. I was like, “No, the game needs to be hard.” When I think of games that I loved playing when I was young, they were hard. Mario used to piss me off. I was like, “It needs to have that,” just to invoke that type of anxiety that sometimes you go through when a lot of people are touching your hair.

You’re a pixel designer. Is that the style of your game, the 8-bit style?

Yes, that’s pixel design. I’m a pixel artist, so I do digital and I do physical pixel art. Physical pixel art is when I use perler beads, and I make … I don’t know how to explain what I make, but I make pixel armor. It’s easy if you see pictures. If you go on my Instagram, you’ll see pictures of pixel masks and pixel armor and stuff. Basically, everything’s pixel. My last name’s Pixel, so it’s just a thing.

Is there a certain point when you feel like you really got into the internet?

I didn’t have the greatest … I had a horrible childhood, actually. I felt very alone all the time. When the internet came, for me, it was the first time that I could find other people who would just like me because of who I was. I loved the internet. I was always in chat rooms. I was always just talking to people. Sometimes I would act like I was somebody else. I just loved the fact that I could be whoever I wanted on the internet, or I could just be myself, and you could find people who liked you. I would say around 2009, I really, really got into it heavy. There was this thing called Tinychat.

On Tinychat, it felt like you could have a show. You could cam up, you could create a room, and up to six other people could cam up, and then there was also a chat box at the bottom. Basically, I started my own internet show. It was just the Momo Show, and I would just get on there, and I would just talk about stuff, and I would do music. My show kind of became this music room, and we would jam online. They would cam on and one dude would have a piano, and he would play the piano. One dude could rap, one dude could sing, and we would just talk about stuff and do stuff. I had people all the way from New Zealand watching. And I’m still friends with a lot of those people from that show. Somebody actually messaged me like a month ago, talking about, “Mo, it’s so cool to watch you grow.” Now people can do it on Facebook and Instagram; it was like a mixture of all the things now. Tinychat was ahead of its time.

You mentioned Mario earlier. Were there other games you played growing up, and do you still play games?

I love games. I actually own a Pandora Box 4S. It came with 800 games, and they’re all pixelated; they’re all like old retro arcade games. I have Michael Jackson’s game—I don’t know if you knew he had one, but he had an arcade game. It’s hilarious. His music is the soundtrack for it. It’s phenomenal. And it’s all 8-bit sounding. It has a Sailor Moon game. It has my favorite anime, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. I used to play games when I was growing up, but I didn’t have my own console, so I would have to go to a cousin’s house. I would play when I went to the movies. The movies had Mortal Combat and Street Fighter and The Simpsons. That’s where all of this comes from, and I still play video games. I don’t get to play them that often, but I love going to QuarterWorld in Portland. That’s my favorite place. That’s a giant video game place.

There’s a little resurgence of games like yours. I think people miss those Flash games that used to be really big on the internet.

I think so too. There was that Red Carpet Rampage that came out. I think it’s because of the generation. I think everybody who’s making stuff right now, we were those kids who used to play these games on the computer, and so now we’re just at that age where we can create our own.

What are you on more, your phone or your computer?

I am mostly on my computer. I don’t really use my phone like that, actually. I actually am talking to you on my computer. I’m a weird person. I don’t even know if I want this in an article, but I haven’t had a phone in five years. My phone only works on Wi-Fi.

I remember I had a phone, and I was paying the bill during college and whatever, but I don’t know, something went wrong, and just going through that process of having to talk to them, and them being jerks and all that, and just the phone bill, I was like, “I don’t need this.” As a college student you get really broke. There was one time where I did not have any money. So I didn’t have a phone, and I don’t think I missed it. But I still had my laptop. That’s when I found out that I could do Google Voice, and I was like, “Yo, this is basically like having a phone, but no phone bill.” I haven’t had a phone since. I went to Tokyo, I went to Cuba, I’ve done all this stuff, and I haven’t had a phone, so I’m kind of just at the point of, Do I really need one?

The game is about your experience as a black woman—sort of in real life, but also filtered through the internet. So I also want to talk about what it’s like to be a black person online and how that affects your experience.

I would say being a black person on the internet is very fulfilling and validating but also sometimes too much. It’s rewarding in the sense that for the first time, I would say, since the internet came out, you can find other people like you, because I think that before the internet, the only other black people you could find were people in your family or people you saw outside. But you didn’t actually have access to black people on a global scale or just on a local scale. It’s just a really different experience because TV and film, and everything else, video games, they don’t reflect us; we’re not in them. We rarely get the shots. We rarely get the roles. The internet allows you to see yourself every day, because people are uploading pictures of themselves, or they’ve started blogs. They make content for you that has people that look like you in it. It’s rewarding in that sense and very validating. It’s just like, “Yay, we look dope. Yes, I get to see us. Woo!”

Sometimes it’s too much, because the world is still very much racist and very much still anti-black, and so when we’re getting murdered in the street for no reason, or another cop gets off and doesn’t get punished, or there’s no justice, it’s just a lot to deal with, especially because on the internet, people just love to share those videos, and I personally do not like seeing people who look like me getting shot. I don’t want to see that. It’s kind of like PTSD. It takes a toll on you, and then you get scared and all these other thoughts, because it’s like if this is happening to this person, of course it’s going to happen to me, because there’s no difference between us. I’m also just a black girl out here, and somebody could just decide to shoot me.

But I’d say the good outweighs the bad, most times. Like on Facebook, I’m part of this Journey of a Black Nerd group, and it’s the best group ever. Everybody just talks about video games and Marvel movies and comic books and toys. We just talk about stuff we like. That’s dope that there’s a group out there for people like me who love this type of stuff, who look like me.

Do you have a favorite or most frequently used emoji?

Either the fire symbol or the side-eye face. Fire means that I’m inspired, it’s amazing, it’s lit, it’s magnificent, you did that. I have a lot of friends who do a lot of great things. I use them in commenting, being like, “This is amazing!” And then side-eye emoji is because people are always just full of it sometimes, and you just throw that emoji up there to be like, “You know you lying” or “This is some bullshit.”