I couldn’t pick the perfect jacket. One, slightly too dark to be called camel, had an appealing texture but would have been difficult to coordinate. The other, a classic black, wasn’t terribly unique or inspiring but promised to match just about anything I could throw at it. I couldn’t afford both if I still hoped to visit the salon that afternoon. Of course it was still early. I could always wait until I had another heist under my belt, at which point I’d have enough disposable income to buy every last jacket in Los Santos, stuff them into the trunk of my car, and drive them straight into the Pacific Ocean if I wanted to.
When you think of the intersection of fashion and gaming, it’s unlikely that Grand Theft Auto V is the first thing that surfaces in your mind. Instead, you might think about those “Girl Games,” almost invariably packaged in a shade of pink equal parts magnetic and repellant, interspersed between the “good” games on a store shelf. If you’re up to date on your mobile gaming, you may just think of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the polarized reception it received. Fashion is a common subject of many games targeted towards girls and women, and it’s also easily one of the most derided in gaming. Even though I’ve enjoyed games under this umbrella before, the words “fashion game” still conjure up mostly unflattering (and often unearned) preconceptions. When I ordered Style Savvy: Trendsetters, I slipped Etrian Odyssey IV into my cart too, as if the severity of one would excuse the perceived tenuity of the other. Several critics I respected were singing the series’ praises, but I couldn’t entirely shake my own prejudice.
Fashion-based toys and media have primarily targeted girls and women for centuries, long before the advent of videogames, so it should go without saying that there’s a lot of gender-related baggage attached to the subject. We are simultaneously told that women should meet an arbitrary standard of beauty which includes wearing the right clothes, hairstyles and makeup, but that those who actively enjoy and participate in fashion culture are vapid and shallow. It’s this latter point that tells us, without knowing anything about a fashion-oriented game’s contents or quality, that it will be trash. No “maybes” or “probablys” needed. It just will be.
And some of them are.
Some RPGs are trash too, as are some puzzle games, and action games, and platformers. Sometimes games are just downright bad, regardless of their subject. And—surprise!—every other genre is just as bad at representing responsible and attainable beauty standards as fashion games can be. When you take the proportions of your average female game character into consideration, they may even be worse.
Now I could spend the next three paragraphs explaining the ins and outs of Style Savvy: Trendsetters. I could talk about needing to stock key resources, anticipate upcoming obstacles, and work out solutions with what the game gives me in critical moments. I could mention how it’s one of the most racially diverse games I’ve ever played. Or I could instead gush about my love for the more recent Girls Fashion Shoot, an overwhelming sartorial sandbox whose uninspired name doesn’t do it an ounce of justice. But to some degree, that’s only giving the argument against fashion games credence. My point isn’t that there are good fashion games—it’s that placing an importance on fashion-play doesn’t taint a game. If you don’t believe me, just look at Grand Theft Auto.
The fashion system present in Grand Theft Auto is a significant part of the experience of existing in its open world, and has been developed and refined with each installment. When player fashion debuted in the GTA games, it was in the form of complete outfits that fit over Vice City’s protagonist like the tabbed clothing of an old paper doll. Fashion became a fixture of Rockstar’s flagship series, even if they initially underestimated the degree to which players would want to customize Tommy Vercetti’s ensemble. Following Vice City, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas allowed players to mix and match different categories of clothing, and the options available have only expanded with each successive game. Players now post videos on YouTube modeling their favorite outfits and the latest clothing DLC for GTA V and Grand Theft Auto Online, and these videos have nothing to do with what pieces provide the best stat bonuses or buffs.
What makes Grand Theft Auto such an interesting example to me is that unlike many other games, there is next to no incentive beyond personal taste and expression for making certain fashion choices. San Andreas had “respect” and “sexiness” as two stats that could be affected by attire, but those remain a far cry from the kind of power that can be conferred by high-level gear in a dungeon-crawler. In GTA IV the protagonist’s girlfriends had fashion preferences, and while dressing to please them could be beneficial it’s nowhere near the incentive that +17 to your strength stat would be. And in GTA V, fashion has no impact on the game’s mechanics whatsoever (with the rare exception of certain strategic items, like masks.) Meanwhile, players of the game’s online mode spend in-game cash to update their look and show it off to other players, or so that they can meet the uniform requirements of their virtual biker gang.
Videogames have provided a unique view into the realities of dress-up play: Even when you remove the incentives that connect character fashion to character power, people still love to have a hand in how their character looks, regardless of gender.
When I watch others play Grand Theft Auto (or play it for myself) I’m easily reminded of how I played with my dolls when I was a child. We dress our avatar up in whatever outfit our mood dictates, we load them into the white convertible whose provenance we can never quite recall, and we go on our adventure. Maybe that adventure is up the side of a mountain and through a crowd of gawking tourists, maybe it’s spinning through the “skating rink” on top of the glass coffee table. Customization makes “A Character” into “My Character”, yet when you build a game around this mechanic, or at least decide to feature it prominently, it’s as though someone has snapped their fingers and made these enjoyable systems exclusively the domain of preteen girls. It doesn’t matter that it challenges you creatively, or that it gives you a means of expression you may not be able to exercise to the same degree in reality, or even that it does all of this through a type of play you enjoy in so many other contexts. Michael is suddenly Barbie, and no one’s interested in driving up the mountain anymore.
Caring about your appearance to some degree is natural, as is wanting to dress to meet more than just the most basic practical needs. Likewise players and developers both need to realize that not all girls like fashion, and not everyone who likes fashion is a girl. Because fashion is a form of expression, games that let us figure out how we want to do that both virtually and physically are tremendously important, whether we’re navigating the social fashion codes of a biker gang in GTA Online or curled up in bed finding the perfect hat for a customer in Style Savvy.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.