Shopping isn’t just a hobby, it’s a philosophy. One might take such a statement to think that a person just likes spending lots of money in their spare time or when a fancy strikes them. But over the past few months, I’ve learned how shopping is a hard skill not dissimilar to strategy in any sort of game that has resource management and social relationships. It’s a ruthless battle between brands, stores, and other people along with the economic and social factors of your life; buying an actual object takes up the least amount of your attention and time, as opposed to understanding your own sense of style, the stock of the stores and brands that fit your body, budgeting, and your intentions of how you want to relate to other people. Shopping is the means in which you expressing yourself, making informed decisions of how you want to be seen within your own social positioning.
When asking around for games about fashion, Style Savvy: Trendsetters came up with a cult following that I never heard of. You manage a fashion boutique in a dating sim style, having four sections of the day that move in a sort of real time as you buy stock, style customers, and participate in fashion contests. What is indulgent about Style Savvy is how rare it is to work through your understanding and values of fashion, for instance wanting to only have high-waisted skirts and off the shoulder tops or diving deep into edgy or luxury styles. While many games include some sort of customization option, these are usually auxiliary and nice to have instead of the main draw of the the experience. There’s a great feeling in an entire game revolving around your subjective sensibilities, and not in the ‘player agency’ sort of way but rather as a mental exercise.
It brings up the scary notion of taste in games, scary because most game designers wouldn’t know how to build a game around it. It’s a particular challenge trying to have a player express their aesthetics and have the computer respond in a meaningful way. Even in a game like Style Savvy, there are numbers under the hood qualifying all of the choices you could make to show if you are making a right or wrong decision. But I feel so few games inspire this sort of design challenge as this game does, which is what makes me enjoy it so much. Here we have what was imagined to be a girl’s game that wouldn’t really see much rigor that crashes right into a major problem with current imaginings of how games are to be created. Fashion is an intentional crafting of clothes to reveal aesthetics and political ideologies along with a starting point for relational methods of understanding one another. How can games sense style? How can games cultivate style? I don’t accept that a medium is intrinsically faulty at playing with subjectivities and expression, and thinking how fashion speaks to play challenges what we believe are well-crafted games, or furthermore, well-crafted theories about how games and play work.
While looking at Style Savvy might make fashion in games seem a cute and frivolous discussion, the topic is extremely important to me. I’ve learned first hand the many axes that appearance influences in regards to how people treat me, how they think of me, and my bodily safety. I’ve learned from a young age that people are constantly crafting my identity in their mind depending on what they see, and that sets the mode in which they will interact with me for as long as they do. The main way I’ve attempted to manipulate this is through attention to clothes and what they signal to other people; with as much power as I can, intentionally create contexts with my clothing that help people to relate to me in a certain range ways that makes it easier for me to physically and emotionally exist in the world. This isn’t a frivolous topic.
We can see the struggles we have to surmount, at least in digital games, in Style Savvy itself, which could be read more as a game about consuming fashion than learning to manipulate it. I believe it’s because it’s actually a game about shopping, and that the designers don’t take shopping as a philosophy, but more as some niche (read: feminine) interest. You’re always acting out buying clothes, even the times you’re technically selling things to other characters. You shop at the buyer’s market, which gets you samples for your closet, you shop at your own shop for customers, as if it was you trying everything on and not them, and then the same interface for that is used for fashion contests. The requirements for a successful style is minimal at best, usually prompting you to choose clothes from a certain preordained style (preppy, gothic) that you can search for easily since your entire inventory is tagged with those adjectives. While this might resemble the act of obtaining objects, this isn’t how humans shop, especially if you’re approaching fashion with intent. That is, Style Savvy is still overly mechanized, trying to prompt a player’s interest through buying things instead of wearing them.
We see a glimmer of an answer to these problems in its “Style Trial,” where you assemble an outfit in order to for judges to assess your brand of style. You are rated on variables like “It Factor,” originality, and balance, but I haven’t been totally successful in manipulating these; there is something imperceptible going on, which comes out every once in awhile in the main game but is most represented here. And you get ambiguous titles like “Enlightened Eccentric,” or “Vogue Virtuoso” based on your ratings, which at least shows that even if you get ‘low’ scores, that the game expresses it might not really understand what you’re doing but if you have some things right, maybe you’re trying something new. I find myself more curious about this weird mode than the game itself, especially this idea that there is this entity constantly labeling people based on how their outfits come together, but I’m not completely privy to how that works. Sometimes it feels truly random, which speaks to my experience with fashion in life. It’s less about exactly hitting some mark through the correct assemblage of clothing, but trying to control the range of experience that can happen but will always be outside of your grasp. And I believe games could use more of those experiences, that people are a bunch of moving black boxes we can’t fully anticipate, and the struggles of self-actualizing in a world constantly trying to wrest that power away from you.
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