Stripped of the labor of IRL try-ons, fashion dress-up games are the ultimate identity play.
In the late 1990s, game developers began to create an overwhelmingly popular new genre. With nomenclature as basic as its graphics, in came the era of the dress-up game.
Characterised by pastels, pixilation, and endless allusions to noughties nostalgia, these games hold appeal that’s unlikely but undeniable.
The 2004 classic Stardoll is a case in point. With a community reaching 400 million all time players in 2017, the game's popularity competes with the largest MMOs (massive multiplayer online games) like World of Warcraft or Old School RuneScape.
But what’s so appealing about gamifying the mundane (often grueling) activity of getting dressed? The answer, of course, is identity.
The key to which lies in the first 5 minutes of play.
Me, Myself and I
More than just electing a lifeless paper representation, the process of doll discovery is a crucial part of bonding players to the game (to such an extent that the poor computer graphics melt into the background).
In general, creation occurs in one of two ways: either you 1) personalize a doll to make it look like you or 2) select a character to transform into. Each engages you in the gaming experience in entirely different ways but both crucially involve the element of choice.
A 2014 study by professors Turkay and Kinzer serves as proof. The study shows that the time a player spends customizing their virtual version directly impacts the strength of identification with that in-game self. This is because player agency, experienced through the act of choosing, welds a bond between player IRL and URL.
Choice 1: Freeform personalization
In games like Lady Popular you create your doll with parameters as vast as your attention span.
From individual choices in eyes, hair, skin etc. (often replicating your IRL characteristics), each increase in avatar granularity raises the stakes. By the end of the formation period you’re no longer dragging and dropping onto a lifeless doll, you’re placing clothes onto a version of yourself.
Doll personalization transforms the game into an opportunity to test things out, to see how it feels to identify with something unfamiliar and so sample the feeling of being viewed by others in completely new ways. The entire process is pinned to how clothes work to form our identities. The outfits we choose and how we put them together says something about us. Therefore, in the dress-up game, we aren’t playing with clothes per se, but with new ways of seeing ourselves.
Choice 2: Getting Into characters
With access to the digitized wardrobes of their most cared-for celebrity, people spend hours getting their Kim-like characters to try-on the Balmain dresses they wish were theirs.
In creating would-be Kim outfits and deciding how to wear the looks, players have the chance to embody a new character; developing an affinity to their world as if they were a part of it. Where the KUWTK TV show renders viewers passive observers, in the realm of dress-up games you're given a role.
One step further
While the graphics of dress-up games haven’t advanced much since the 90’s, the advent of social media has advanced the intractable involvement we have with these games. Recently, we’ve even taken to sharing our dress-up game creations, just like we share ourselves.
Not unlike the droves of selfies that litter our feeds, social media and forums provide locations for feedback, aka. validation, for the dressed-up selves we create.
Many fashion games on the Roblox platform are accompanied by eponymous social media accounts, serving as display arenas for outfit co-ordinations. After completing creations on games such as Royale High players often immediately move to platforms like twitter to show off their looks and compare sets.
And, in showcasing their outfits, they’re also showcasing themselves.
We’ll be dressing up for a long time to come
Tapping into the growing, and yet still underserved, market of those maligned by the traditional game-play of the video game world, dress-up games provide a safe (and sociable) haven for those who would rather flex through fashion than fights.
Despite the janky graphics and abysmal variation in gameplay, the dress-up game still reigns. This is not because of the incredible digital craftsmanship of its clothing (that’s rare) but rather because these games allow us to feel free; free to be the selves we don’t have the confidence to be in real life; free because through digital clothes, we can all try ourselves on.