Super Moss Bros

Please note that this blog is written in an academic style, not my usual Matt-isms.

This blog is an exploration of the roles of fashion in popular video game narrative and immersion. I have never been praised for my fashion expertise but it beats writing about buttons and flowcharts all the time.

Fashion and video games are two very contrasting forms of art. Comparing the two media side by side, we can pick out significant differences in terms of uses and gratifications for the consumer. In the vast majority of cases, video games are built around a narrative, or at the very least a themed objective, essentially still forming the simplest of narratives with one of two basic outcomes. – The player will either win, resulting in a re-equilibrium or resolution to the objective posed to them, or lose, a non-resolution to the disequilibrium in effect during play. “A rambling collection of events” (Barthes 1993) is termed as a narrative as much as “the most elementary combinatory scheme” (Barthes 1993). These narratives are frequently non-linear. The reason for this is the added immersion for the player that believes they have true control over the outcome of the narrative. Fashion is a medium that, by nature, has no narrative, but is based around first impressions and impact of style, trend and compliance with the dominant society. Not only this, but interaction with fashion is minimal compared with the interaction that a consumer has with a video game. Instead it is a voyeuristic pleasure that is appreciated by literally ogling from afar rather than interacting with first-hand. In this essay I will be exploring some of the more fashion-orientated aspects of the interplay of the above points. I will be using media studies theory to explore fashion’s role in the enrichment of game experiences, specifically focussing on the use of fashion as a device for self-expression within online video game communities. Within this topic of expression, I will make use of video game examples to demonstrate the use of fashion as a device to denote and emphasise gender. I will be using the theorist Sigmund Freud to elaborate on this point.

“We may call the 21st century the age of networks” (Van Dijk 2006). The media studies theorist, Marshall McLuhan has written books on and coined the term ‘global village’. This essentially concerns the construction of a community through digital communication networks. Considering the current communication media of the “global village”, it is clear that it currently lacks many of the aesthetic and tangible qualities of face-to-face communication. It is widely understood that the amount of information that is carried through non-verbal means whilst communicating face-to-face is great. “Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking” (Mehrabian 1981) which is commonly misinterpreted as 55% of communication being through body language. Regardless of percentage, often body language is impossible to communicate through these distributed network media. The publication ‘The Virtual Community’ states that “People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind.” (Rheingold 1993). Creating a digital representation of a real-life person allows the designer in the ‘ideal world’ situation where every attribute can be manipulated past the constraints of reality. Factors such as production cost, practicality of design and even external factors such as gravity can be ignored, completely destroying the boundaries of fashion design and allowing players to express themselves. The media studies theorist Esther Dyson talks of virtual communities being an escape from the real world.

In assessing fashion’s role within the single-player game environment, Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto IV will be taken as the first example. Grand Theft Auto IV is a sandbox third-person shooter and driving game hybrid. The application of the above theory can be found throughout the main story where the player character, Nico Bellic, may be dressed differently to gain access to different parts of the game narrative, and, more importantly, access to certain in-game buildings and acceptance of certain key non-player characters. An example of this occurs in a game mission titled “Final Interview” where the player must specifically wear a charcoal suit and black loafers to gain access to a law firm building and eventually a particular lawyer’s office. Fashion plays a bigger part in this game than acting as a ‘pass-card’ system. Personalisation of the player’s character ties in the style and tastes of the player to a virtual incarnation in an effort to increase empathy and ultimately game immersion and enjoyment. The character Nico Bellic’s dress can add to the cohesion, fluidity and therefore player escapism into character stereotypes. A stereotypical assassin is an example of this, anchored by a charcoal suit, weaponry and sunglasses, all of which are present in Grand Theft Auto IV. Many stereotypes rely on visual cues within clothes and accessories. Another notable title that, like Grand Theft Auto IV, appears on the Sony PlayStation 3 console is Media Molecule’s Little Big Planet. In this game, the player takes on the role of a ‘Sack person’ – Literally a blank canvas for the player to customise and display to other online players. The extended metaphor of the sack canvas lives up to its affordances and can be decorated with the tiniest detail according to the player’s desire and can be saved in a virtual wardrobe. Little Big Planet is the video game embodiment of a catwalk fashion show. Clothing designs are simplified and exaggerated, allowing the player to make often subconscious personal statements using simple colour, shape and a great number of accessories. This bold statement is representative of the exaggerated themes that are emphasised in fashion collections. The exhibition of these sack designs to online players replaces the real world catwalk show. Size exaggeration is a property discovered in the Autumn/Winter 2008 collection of Yohji Yamamoto which is mentioned later in this essay. To a more extreme extent than Grand Theft Auto IV, this game has complete customisation of, not only the player’s appearance, but also the player’s starting ‘lobby’. The user is presented with their sack character inside a large cardboard box, a place from which they can choose a game stage to play. This box can be decorated according to the player’s imagination. The design and contents of this box house can again be viewed by other online players. To a greater extent than Grand Theft Auto IV, these features allow each player to identify themselves as a particular style of player with different motivations, priorities and taste within the game world. Like in real life, players around the world are able to follow, modify and invent style trends for player-controlled sack people around the world so, like Grand Theft Auto IV law firm events, a player’s social acceptance and status (this time with real users in a virtual world) is defined by appearance.

Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4 employs a different method of segregation and social determination. A feature that is rarely seen in games in general, let alone console-format first person shooters such as this, is a fully supported clan tag feature. A ‘clan tag’ is worn like a badge or medal by one or more in-game characters during multiplayer online play, indicating that the real life players play together regularly. Rather, creating a new type of fashion. Like more conventional fashion media, the clan creates a sense of belonging between those that wear it. Is this not what fashion is at the end of the day? In this respect, an online clan is similar to a real world clan.

Propp’s morphology of the folk tale is another device that can be applied to most narratives. Vladimir Propp has allocated names to each variety of possible character in modern narratives based on the classic folk tale. These include the hero, the villain, the donor, the helper, the princess and the dispatcher. The game Super Mario 64 provides a good demonstration of this, carrying strong fairytale/folk tale iconography in terms of clothing style, décor and setting (location etc.) The character of Mario Mario [sic] is the alpha male and Proppian ‘hero’.

The hero wears denim overalls – A stereotypical masculine work outfit. The congruence of the connotations of denim with the task set out before the player can only add to the immersion factor and condition the player’s mood to match the mentality of the ‘hero’ protagonist, Mario. The player will want to take on the aggression, iconic status and sexual prowess of a denim-clad rockstar. The dungaree as an item of clothing represents masculinity and attributes attached to this status. “The dungaree, by masking the lines of woman, declares itself anti-gender — it is a garment of anti-fashion: “Is this denim-wrapped [female] flesh parcel man or woman?” we fondly ask.” Garter (2002). The iconic Super Mario moustache confirms this deduction. As valid a fashion as any type of clothing, the moustache is used in several Nintendo games for strong gender representation and narrative purposes. The character Wario from their game Wario Land, whilst still fulfilling the hero role within the narrative, is portrayed as having different characteristics to the heroic stereotype figure of Mario. Like Mario, Wario has a moustache. In this case, it is reminiscent of the classic music-hall villain allowing the player to experience escapism by playing the bad guy. Whilst doing this, the player still maintains the role of the hero that sets out with an objective in mind and a trophy of some sort at the end of the narrative. Wario wears dungarees, again similar to Mario but with yellow and purple colouring chosen over blue with its accompanying male connotations. “In history, yellow was always the colour of outlaws, the persecuted and the rejected. … Violet signifies mysteriousness, magic…” (Klanten 2007).

Judith Butler speaks of gender performativity. The user’s sex is biological but the user’s gender is something that is defined for them by society. Nintendo, the makers of Super Mario 64, have represented gender through fashion in line with the game’s target audience. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) have classed Super Mario 64 as E, describing it as having “content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.” (Entertainment Software Rating Board 2008). It seems logical that a game designed for a six-year-old child should portray conventional representations of gender in order to condition the audience for how they are being treated or how they will be treated in society. Similar to the roles that are designated to Propp’s folk tale characters, each gender is designated roles too. For example, the retailer ‘Topman’ includes the word ‘man’ in the title to immediately indicate its target market. In doing this, the retailer is attempting to tell society how men should dress. People have been informed that they are men by items in society such as birth certificates and passports. These are the people that are being told how to dress by Topman. It is all meaning attached to genitalia by the dominant culture. In which case genitalia is nothing more than appearance and nudity is an outfit connoting intense masculinity or femininity.

Another character from the folk-tale morphology is Princess Peach, or from Propp’s perspective, literally the princess, the hero’s trophy. Her corset-like dress emphasises her exaggerated coke-bottle-esque feminine hourglass figure. This fashion blog increases the contrast between the extreme masculinity and femininity or the hero and the princess. Looking into colour, Mario’s blue overalls also contrast with the pink of Princess Peach’s dress. This makes use of the universal connotation of ‘blue being for boys’ and ‘pink being for girls’. Super Mario 64 is not the only text where colour–gender association can be made. “The meaning of fashion resides almost entirely in gender construction.” (Scruton 2006). This use of colour in gender performity is evident in the Sonic Team’s Sonic CD series. Similarly to Super Mario 64, the male hero, in this case Sonic the hedgehog is coloured blue while the female Proppian princess, in this case Amy Rose, being pink. This gender-colour association has become deeply engrained in societies around the world.

A subversion of this gender representation, accompanied by a total absence of the two colours just mentioned, can be found in the character of Lara Croft from Core’s Tomb Raider game. This is a game that highlights different representations of feminine qualities, both maternal and sexual. The voyeurism for the lead female character in this game is comparable to the passive consumption of fashion that was mentioned at the start of this essay. Relating this voyeurism to Freud, Carolyn Korsmeyer defines the Freudian term ‘scopophilia’. It is “Freud’s term for pleasure in looking” (Korsmeyer 1993). Scopophilia is closely linked to the development of a child at an early age, amounting to a psychological depth rarely associated with video games. “It is rooted in a pre-articulate level of consciousness traceable to the experience of the infant looking at the mother while suckling”. (Korsmeyer 1993). Lara Croft’s signature outfit is a compromise of practicality and fetish with boots for rough terrain and an equipment belt for holding tools and weaponry accompanying a small tight top accentuating her breasts and short hot pants emphasising and optically extending her long thin legs. In narrative terms, she is the archetypal modern emancipated woman conducting explorations, excavations and literal tomb raiding and by doing this, demonstrating many traditionally masculine attributes such as independence, profession and strength. This compromise of practicality and sexuality is rare and falls into the gap between Haute couture and anti-fashion. Anti-fashion being a concept that is generally employed by male characters in video games. Another example of this practicality/style tradeoff can be found in the Nintendo game Metroid. The female hero character, Samus Aran was originally perceived to be male based on the androgenous suit of armour that she wears in-game. In later media, the character of Samus is displayed with the armour’s helmet removed, revealing a typically attractive blonde-haired woman. There is a clear divide between the different possible interpretations of a female that can be explained with Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze.

A differentiation is made between the sexual voyeurism of the “whore” character and the fetishism where the female character is looked upon as the mother or “Madonna”. The breasts are maternal iconography but the independence and power connoted by the practical masculine dress transforms this motherly image into a sexually orientated dominating stereotype.

Square’s Final Fantasy VII is the example in this essay that bears the most likeness to real world fashion trends. Looking at existing fashion styles, examples can be within the Harajuku and Shibuya districts of Tokyo, Japan, which acts as a strong indicator of the origin of the graphical style for the game especially whilst bearing in mind the geographical location of the developer. Geography has been found to have influences on in-game fashions. Capcom’s Street Fighter II is an example of this. There are very few fashion modifications available to the user but each of the twelve playable characters is dressed in costume influenced by their geographical location and culture. Examples of this are Japanese martial arts suits and Indian jewellery and face paint.

Returning to Final Fantasy VII, the playable character Cloud Strife’s dress is important. The most prominent attribute of his clothing and accessory set is the grossly disproportionate sword on his back. The Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto showcases extreme contrasts of garment and accessory size in his men’s Paris Autumn/Winter 2008 Collection. Please see the appendix for an example photograph of an item in this collection. Lots of fabric is used to create an oversized effect which mirrors the theme from the game. Another example of this has been included in the appendix from a Shibuya street style website. Yohji Yamamoto has made use of other iconography that features in Final Fantasy VII. Belts and boots in his women’s Paris Autumn/Winter 2008 collection are very comparable to those found on several Final Fantasy VII characters. They also follow the practical yet stylish adventure-boot theme found in Tomb Raider.

Returning to the representation of gender in video games using fashion, the large sword on Cloud’s back can be seen as a possible representation of a phallus. If Mario and Sonic have proved that expression of masculinity through visual style can aid the player’s immersion then there should be no reason for the ultimate symbol of masculinity and male/female differentiation not to be used. The distinction must be made between the ideological symbol of the phallus and the physical, biological male penis. There is significant meaning attached to the phallus. This can be explained with the castration complex, a theory devised by Sigmund Freud that, like scopophilia, takes place in a boy’s infancy. It occurs when the boy observes genitalia for the first time. A comparison is made between his own and that of his mother and the obvious difference is noted. Upon making this first outward observation, the boy notices the presence of the father for the first time. The boy then makes another comparison of genitalia between himself and the father. At this point, the notion of the phallus becomes apparent. From the boy’s perspective, this third person intrudes upon the special bond between the mother and son. Having control over the mother and son, the father’s power is epitomised in the phallus. Whether subconsciously or not, Square have used this large sword’s connotations of power to increase the level of masculinity and respect that is felt for the hero character by the player. The character Cloud, like Mario, is performing his gender and his Proppian folk tale role according to the common meanings attached to his clothing.

In conclusion, having begun this essay establishing a void of difference between the media of fashion and video games, it seems that fashion has several common goals with all visual media in terms of the communication of gender, self-expression, communities and networking. These key themes feature as the outcome of the interplay of the two media as discussed. Listening to someone else’s definition of fashion, it becomes easy to pull reason from the observations made in this essay – A fashion “prescribes a total appearance, a total vocabulary of expressions and gestures, a community of friends and rivals, a pool of common resources and common actions – even a language of its own … Because fashion is so evidently a human action, a deliberate reconstruction of the body, it serves as a collective defiance … against the implacable law of embodiment. (Scruton 2006).

References

Barthes, R. (1993) Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press. ISBN-13: 978-0006861355.

Dyson E. (1997) Release 2.0: a Design for Living in the Digital Age. New York: Broadway Books. ISBN-13: 978-0767900119.

Freud, S. (1997) The Interpretation of Dreams New Ed., Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. ISBN-13: 978-1853264849.

Klanten, R. (2007) The Little Know-it-all: Common Sense for Designers. Berlin: Die Gestalten Verlag. ISBN-13: 978-3899551679.

Mehrabian, A. (1981) Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. ISBN-13: 978-0534000592.

Propp, V. (1968) Morphology of the Folk Tale. University of Texas Press. ISBN-13: 978-0292783768.

Rheingold, H. (1993) The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electric Frontier. New York: Perennial. ISBN-13: 978-0060976415.

Scruton, R. (2006) Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. London: Continuum. ISBN-13: 978-0826480385.

Van Dijk, J. (2007) The Network Society: Social Aspects of New Media. London: Sage. ISBN-13: 978-1412908689.

Web references

Entertainment Software Rating Board [Online]. Available at: http://www.esrb.org/ (Accessed 9 December 2008).

Garter, G. (2002). Loving It: The Intellectual’s Guide to Fashion: Dungarees [Online]. Available at: http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/style/blog817700.ece
(Accessed 8 December 2008).

Korsmeyer, C. (1993). Pleasure: Reflections on Aesthetics and Feminism. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 51(2) [Online], p.199-206. Available at: http://www.jstor.org (Accessed 16 November 2008).

style-arena.jp [Online]. Available at: http://www.style-arena.jp/en/ (Accessed 9 December 2008).

Yamamoto, Y. (2008). Yohji Yamamoto [Online]. Available at: http://www.yohjiyamamoto.co.jp (Accessed 2 December 2008).

Computer software or video game references

(2007). Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. [computer programme] Infinity Ward. Los Angeles.

(1997). Final Fantasy VII. [computer programme] Square. Tokyo.

(2008). Grand Theft Auto IV. [computer programme] Rockstar North. Edinburgh.

(2008). Little Big Planet. [computer programme] Media Molecule. United Kingdom.

(1988). Metroid. [computer programme] Nintendo. Japan.

(1993). Sonic the Hedgehog CD. [computer programme] Sonic Team. San Francisco.

(1991). Street Fighter II. [computer programme] Capcom. Osaka.

(1997). Super Mario 64. [computer programme] Nintendo. Japan.

(1996). Tomb Raider. [computer programme] Core. Derby.

(1994). Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. [computer programme] Nintendo. Japan.

Matt Radbourne

Matt Radbourne

London-based web developer, tech enthusiast and digital exorcist.

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