A perspective on Fashion within Video Games
The role of fashion in video games can provide both a fun visual expression and a branded contextualization.
Have you ever spent countless hours personalizing a character? I often get myself so hooked on creating my character before starting a game that sometimes I even restart a game just because I didn’t like how my character cosmetics turned out.
The idea of clothes as an expression may seem superficial to some. It is true that great games can exist without frivolous fashion choices. There's nothing wrong with that, we don't all need to be fashion enthusiasts. (For developers, the process of making games is difficult enough.) But why not experiment a little bit more with Fashion within games? There is no reason to limit ourselves when gaming is one of the most exciting art forms out there.
Bill Cunningham, a fashion columnist for The New York Times, once said that fashion was like armor to protect you from the hardships of everyday life. This is true both online and offline, and in video games it’s very literal.
Fashion Brings Aesthetics and a Layer of Individuality
Typically, games operate on two major concepts: dominance and force. My belief is that fashion breathes life into games by bringing in its sense of expression and aesthetic. Orchestrating a different type of play, and the implications it has on the players. It's important to remember that fashion can be any sort of clothing- even sweatpants and a T-shirt qualify as fashion. Not necessarily high fashion, mind you, just fashion.
The Meaning of Fashion
The first impression is a familiar concept - when you meet someone for the first time, you immediately form an opinion of them based on a couple of seconds. You can classify people by age, gender, socioeconomic status, occupation, and personality. The more judgmental among us may overdo it, but we all use first impressions to some extent to make decisions.
Although it's not always perfect, pre-classification is unavoidable because of our brain’s predisposition to categorize things visually in relation to socio-cultural symbols. The way a particular watch strap encloses the wrist could suggest dignity; the way a particular collar encloses the neck could convey a kind of authoritative command.
The clothes we wear offer us an opportunity to correct some of these assumptions. Whenever we get dressed, we are effectively acting like tour guides and showing others how we want to be perceived. We are highlighting the things that are interesting or attractive about ourselves - and in doing so, we are clearing up misconceptions. My Hawaiian shirt shows I am fun, and also that I am not a person to be consulted about how to dress. By intentionally guiding the viewer's perception of who they might be, we act like artists painting a self-portrait.
A wrong approach leads to Fashion that misses the essential information or context. Fashion in games is often associated with this problem. There is nothing interesting or thrilling about them, and your character does not feel or look distinguished as a result.
If someone were to see Rex (Xenoblade Chronicles 2) without context or knowledge, they would not see he is a diver. As for Jill Valentine (Resident Evil 3), it is unclear whether she is the main character, much less a police officer.
Clothing can recreate the feel of a particular era, describe a setting, or even make or break the fantasy world you've created. Who is your character? Where are they from? Why do they behave the way they do today? Is there a way to distinguish between a hero and a villain? Is it possible to use clothing to express something meaningful - a tradition, a culture, or your favorite childhood shirt? What is the best way to express their story?
While we can ignore how bad fashion offers nothing to the games of which they are a part, we cannot ignore how it can also diminish enjoyment as a whole. I have worn things that made me feel laughably stupid during boss fights in multiple games. There is nothing worse than having to choose between better stats or dignity. As I mentioned before, I have even restarted a game just because I don’t like the way my character looks.
There is a language of fashion that speaks for itself. With different contexts and moods, codified, meaningful, and symbolic. First, fashion increases our ability to comprehend the world in general. The way you wear fashion can give you a deeper understanding of the world around you. In addition, it can be used to build your world and tell a message without the use of endless text or speech.
As new generations move part of their life into the digital space, they replicate or create new identities for these new spaces, and so Fashion must find a way to enable self-expression within the digital realm as well
The Inappropriate Use of Fashion
Fantasy is one of the top two primary reasons why people play video games. Imagine being somewhere or someone else (this is the meaning of fantasy) – naturally, fashion has a significant impact on the fantasy connection you have with the character you play or with your role in the game.
You can apply this to any game. Whether you're playing Halo, Monster Hunter, The Sims, or whatever - you want to feel "cool" or "powerful". You want to experiment with the creative possibilities that the virtual world offers that cannot be achieved in the real world while you identify with a character through their clothes.
Of course, fashion can go horribly wrong due to personal aspects. Because of its personal and cultural significance, fashion can easily be done poorly. This is especially true since the gaming industry rarely spends time considering this subject.
A common example of fashion misuse is sexualized fashion. I think ‘The Inexplicable Sexiness of Ivy Valentine’ summarizes this topic, and I strongly recommend it.
In her words, "these outfits don't give us any information about the characters.". In some cases, they contradict the stories and personalities of the women in them."
Moreover, she mentions reclaiming a sense of sexiness for women players, but I find that it must be hard to feel empowered when all you can choose is hyper-sexualized outfits. The best example for this is the craze that Lara Croft caused among male gamers in the late 90s and 2000s. The Tomb Raider main character was a strong clever woman going through the toughest challenges and yet, gamers reduced her to a pixelated fetish symbol because of her sexy attire.
Nowadays, we can see that the game studios are working on that by portraying less sexualized version of their lead female characters - and we have seen that over the years with both Lara Croft, Jill Valentine, and with new characters like Ellie from The Last of Us. To clarify - sexiness isn't necessarily a bad thing, however, that doesn't mean it needs to be used all the time. Women can empower themselves in a variety of ways, not just with sexy outfits.
Let's look at another way that fashion is misused. Consider a world in which Brazilians always wear soccer uniforms or Carnival attire. Additionally, they are always overly charismatic and loud. That's all there is to it. It is literally impossible to watch a movie, play a game, or see pictures online of Brazilian wearing anything other than soccer uniforms. Try to imagine how tired, annoyed, and dumb this would look after years of portrayal? My reductive approach is the easiest way to explain how fashion can reveal the culture and meaning stereotypes.
Cultural appropriation and diversity are issues that extend far beyond the games industry, but that does not mean the game developers can't make a difference. Video games are a powerful form of media, so why shouldn't they be used to bring about growth, change, and fun as well?
The Geeky Baju Project, by Charis Loke, is a good example of using fashion to promote cultural understanding.
As a game and movie designer, she reimagines Southeast Asian garments. Her goal is to interpret people's personalities, beliefs, and histories through textiles, motifs, and silhouettes, rather than to simply convert their existing clothes into local apparel.
The author points out that when characters appear in science-fiction and fantasy titles dressed in clothing from another country, issues of culture and race arise. The majority of these tales are still told by creators who aren't Asian, so they tend to misrepresent and work on stereotypes."
The potential of game fashion is huge; it can be used to learn about cultures and communities all over the world.
Fashion Goes Unnoticed By Game Developers
Astonishingly, there are very few modern Fashion games, and if they exist, they're usually mobile games with microtransactions. We have seen fashion as a profitable business model before, whether it is physical merch or cosmetic loot boxes.
Dress-up games have become increasingly popular, yet there is still no section on Steam for fashion games.
Nonetheless, mobile games (like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and Love Nikki) clearly demonstrate that fashion can be part of gameplay, as the entire game revolves around clothes. In the game, players can collect clothes, complete story quests, compete in style battles, and improve their clothes with skills and abilities. AAA games are generally lacking in this regard, but the Hitman series and the Yakuza 0 hostess makeover minigame are two examples of fashion implemented seamlessly into gameplay.
The Challenge for Fashion Brands
Brands exploring gaming and digital worlds is a growing trend. 80% of titles are "free-to-play". These games monetize with micro-transactions, one of the most important streams being news skins (i.e. cosmetic features) Yet, the industry is still based on "one-off" collaborations limiting brands revenue and distribution.
Platforms like Skinvaders connect brands (fashion and others) with games, facilitating the distribution of digital clothes and the integration in existing games’ "cosmetic engines". By a “One-to-many” approach, digital products are exposed at scale to several games..
Across the board, branded skins are an attractive innovation for gamers. The gaming segments that are most interested are high frequency, high-value gamers as well as a younger cohort who are more likely to focus on how they are perceived and their identity in online gaming communities. The majority of gamers agree that branded skins are more effective than non-branded skins at meeting their objectives with skins.
When you work on characters customization, it will be helpful to keep in mind that the Fashion experience created for it should be informative, expressive, and fun for gamers. To make this possible, brands sometimes need to let go of a little bit of the ‘designer’ control compared to how they approach their physical goods. The focus on in-game experience must consider the behavior of the gamer related to the game in question.
Identity, taste, and individuality are key factors for gamers when indicating their motivations and use of skins, particularly for certain subsets of gamers. The primary use of skins is to reflect how they dress in real life, making their character personal, standing out, and giving their character an identity that is an extension of their own. It is no surprise then that these gamers over-indexed on interest in branded skins, as they are a sharper tool to indicate their personality and tribe in online spaces.
Gamers are willing to spend on the branded skin proposition, particularly those who use skins to represent their individuality as well as gamers who already spend in-game and use skins in-game. Interestingly, branded skins may also encourage gamers who rarely use skins to increase engagement with the feature, as they over-indexed on the likelihood to pay for branded skins.
Gamers are interested in using streetwear, luxury, and athleisure clothing categories as branded skins in-game, aligning with current trends in popular culture and fashion. This is supported by the most popular brands identified to use in-game; Nike, Adidas, and Gucci.
For game developers, it is important to keep an open mind and be inspired by the real world. You can learn a lot from runway shows, their inspirations, and the themes they experiment with. Additionally, social media platforms like Pinterest are a great way to discover more wearable outfits and trends.
Keep your eyes open for news about certain clothes and be curious about the motivations behind them. Discover the possibilities of self-expression, personality, and culture through Fashion. Celebrate art in new and creative ways.
One of the most effective methods for creating authentic fashion is to bring diversity to your development team! Team members with a diverse range of perspectives, interests, and ideas make the team stronger. As a result, they attract a wider audience.
Skins or in-game fashion might exceed their attachment to particular items and be different in how they can be expressed, but overall, they tap into a very universal truth about Fashion: clothes are symbols of value that convey personality.
In general, I consider fashion to be an underutilized outlet for exploration and self-discovery. Until Mario can wear a shirt with Sonic’s face on it, and vice versa, we’re not reaching our full potential.