Original Text: ‘Fashion and Costume Design in Electronic Entertainment—Bridging the Gap between Character and Fashion Design’ by Thomas Makryniotis
Digital costume in video games functions as an important link between the gaming and fashion industries. This article argues that it serves three main, vital purposes which could symbiotically benefit both fields: as an expression and exploration of the player’s identity and role, involving both the player’s own lived experience and their performance as their digital character; as a form of representation via non-customizable garments through which the player can experience another identity or reinforce their own; and with potential for commercial crossover between industries. Therefore, fashion in games warrants additional attention and research. This topic is of particular interest to me as an aspiring character sculptor for games: when designing garments, I’ll need to consider what they communicate and ensure that sufficient choice is provided for players’ self-expression.
This paper, published in the journal Fashion Practice, is a strong authority on the subject. The author, Thomas Makryniotis, is a PhD researcher and former lecturer at the London College of Fashion who currently works in the field of digital clothing, giving him insight into current industry practices. While this may bring up concerns about bias, as emphasizing the importance of this research does promote his work, the author relies primarily upon outside sources. He cites 60 reputable articles and mentions examples from a wide variety of games genres and academic disciplines.
The text begins by restricting the scope of the discussion to video games and electronic media rather than other forms of costume design. Instead, the initial focus is on character clothing as performance and an expression of player identity. Makryniotis examines several definitions of identity, establishing that identity is not something inherent but rather a ‘mask’ to be actively worn and portrayed, and is constantly being explored, changed, and performed via different mediums.
Within games, this performance occurs through the controlling of an avatar. This avatar becomes an extension of the player’s senses, providing input from the virtual environment, and therefore allows the player to embody the character. The author discusses embodiment as consisting of the player’s physical body, their virtual (avatar) body, and their mental representation or visualization of their body. The latter is often impacted by inhabiting a virtual character, thus blurring the line between real and digital identity. Changing the appearance of the avatar changes the way the player considers their own body schema, and is a useful tool for exploring player identity.
Makryniotis moves on to provide a brief history of fashion and costume in games, emphasizing the limitations of early technology. Costumes developed to be distinct from one sprite angle, with limited colors and detail, often tight-fitting to avoid complex animation. With the onset of 3D graphics and sophistication in character design, avenues emerged for customization and player expression through clothing.
However, the author argues that identity based on character appearance may not capture the player-avatar relationship in its entirety, as games have an additional element of interaction. Rather than experiencing “identification” as one might when watching a film or other passive medium, game players are immersed in the world and have agency. The player experience can, therefore, be better defined as “introjection” or “incorporation” into the game world; rather than simply embodying the character, the player internalizes elements of their avatar and is influenced by that interaction.
This leads into a discussion on representation via intentionally-designed costume (e.g. NPC looks, non-customizable player characters). Story is a major element of games, and is partly conveyed through character appearance (distinguishing them as an individual and defining their role, as in real-world fashion). When game developers are not conscious of issues of character race, gender, and other identity markers in the design stage, it can lead to stereotyping or lack of choice for marginalized groups to express their unique persona. This section is limited, with Makryniotis instead referring the reader to alternative sources for further discussion.
Finally, this portion of the text concludes by touching upon the potential benefits of a commercial partnership between the fashion and games industries. Because in-game skins and real-currency-shops are a substantial portion of game revenue, it makes sense to integrate fashion houses for advertising, popularity testing and experimentation, and transmedia.
The main strength of this text lies in the wide breadth of examples and theories from which Makryniotis derives his argument. Whenever a point is made, he cites multiple sources which approach the topic from varied angles but reach similar conclusions, helping to avoid bias and cherry-picking. Rather than summarize every source, statements are backed by brief references to avoid sidetracking and restating knowledge the reader should have (or can investigate if unfamiliar). There are some instances, such as when defining identity, where the author begins by listing alternate philosophies before those that will form the basis of the discussion. While it’s important to acknowledge other literature on this topic, failing to elaborate on why they were dismissed (or not focal) can obfuscate the select theories that were deemed relevant to the discussion. Still, citing sources from purely video game or fashion spaces to philosophers, psychologists, and behavioral researchers lends perspective to the discussion and emphasizes the interdisciplinary relevance of character costume.
The argument has an excellent logical flow that ensures the reader has the context they need before continuing. It begins with multiple coherent definitions of “identity”, discusses how avatars can be used as an extension of that identity, and describes the historical increase in avatar complexity. This coincides with the expansion of character interactivity and customization, facilitating more options for being placed into other identities as a form of representation. At each point, Makryniotis builds upon the base concept and explains where it needs to be expanded (“identification” to “incorporation” to “representation”). Additionally, the order of the argument predicts the way that the reader will find flaws or ways to expand, and then addresses them. For example, the “identity” paragraph brings up questions of non-customizable characters (are they still useful for exploring identity?) until the “representation” section discusses that scenario.
Overall, Makryniotis makes a strong case for the purpose and importance of fashion in games. This paper successfully categorizes and, more importantly, legitimizes game costume as worthy of attention by establishing its purpose in terms of other more researched fields of study. Including a discussion of game history shows why this topic is timely and relevant, when technology didn’t allow for it previously. The author also emphasizes the importance of this field to different parties (game developers, fashion designers, and advertisers); the audience isn’t limited. By examining many facets and going into so much multidisciplinary breadth, he proves that this is a topic worth investigating.
Makryniotis, T. (2018). ‘Fashion and Costume Design in Electronic Entertainment—Bridging the Gap between Character and Fashion Design’. Fashion Practice. [Online]. 10 (1). pp. 100-102. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/17569370.2017.1412595 [Accessed: 12 November 2021].