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Project Runway As a Game? The Problems of Evaluating Style in Video Games

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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 2, 2009
In the case of fashion, rules exist that can at least be conformed to and learned in order to succeed. And isn't that the nature of playing a game anyway?

Game critics and journalists have been talking for years now about the appeal or lack thereof of video games for a female audience.  While there are numerous attempts at creating games for girls, the deluge of low budget Barbie and Bratz games doesn’t do much to capture a more mature audience.  The Sims is one of the most overtly successful attempts to tap into this demographic, though the virtual doll house that The Sims essentially is was successful among both male and female gamers. It was even called Doll House in its earliest conception –- assumedly the change had to do with capturing the attention of gamers across gender lines.  The resulting game was treated with a bit more maturity and had an addictive and well thought out style of game play.


While female gamers have always been interested in other genres like shooters, RPGs, puzzle games and the like, The Sims managed to capture a model of traditional female activity (playing “house”) and actually make it into a game that women would want to play.  As a result, such success makes me wonder how what might be considered traditionally feminine interests might be translated into games that girls could grow up with and continue to enjoy as adults.  The thought has crossed my mind that televisions shows with high female demographics, like Project Runway or America’s Top Model have the potential to be winners as game licenses.  The problem, however, for dealing with translating games oriented towards evaluating style and image is that “style” and “image” seem like concepts that on the face of them are difficult to quantify and become then very difficult to translate into game mechanics.


If one were to play a digital version of Project Runway, which is in and of itself a competition and thus at least game-like, how would an outfit that a player designed be evaluated by a virtual Nina Garcia or Michael Kors?  Because it is assumed that making judgments about what seems to (as Tim Gunn might say) simply come down to “a matter of taste,” any scoring in the game would come down to arbitrary decisions that are either based on the player conforming their taste to a game mechanic or to sheer caprice.  However, that everything is simply a matter of taste when it comes to fashion is simply not true to anyone who is aware of how fashion actually “works.” 


Several games have already confronted some issues related to style and image and been fairly successful in at least providing the gamer with choices about style.  The most obvious example of style and customization is the now nearly ubiquitous convention in games that allows the player to select what their character is supposed to look like and how they dress.  Role playing games are an obvious good fit for such a system where much of the interest of the game lies in developing a character of your own.  Many open world games like Saint’s Row, Grand Theft Auto, and Bully also allow you to either design the overall look of the character that the player will be using or at least make some choices about how the character dresses, and thus, how the character will be viewed by others in their virtual world. There is something very pleasing about styling a character in a game and this in and of itself is “play worthy.”  Intriguingly, around the time of its release, many players of the massively multiplayer online role playing game City of Heroes reported in online forums that they often found themselves spending hours with that game’s character creation system, simply because designing a superhero’s costume was often as fun as, if not more fun, than playing as a superhero. 


That players want to “play” with the creator enough that some of them have called it a “game” in and of itself testifies to the potential pleasure that could be derived from a game based on styling. Cryptic’s new title, Champions Online and character creator has yet to be released (at my writing) but it is already provoking comments like these that indicate a fascination with styling characters:


After seeing the character creator video and having read a lot about the character creator experience I was thinking it would be great if Cryptic did what SOE did with EQII’s release. There was a pre-order (as usual) that contained the character creator as a stand-alone app that allowed you to save a template file to load for later use.


I’m thinking, that one, it would give Cryptic a big pre-order campaign boost to include such a thing, and two would give us a chance to work on making our characters before the game launches since it will probably take a LONG time to do that. Win Win, IMHO.


The sheer robustness of Cryptic’s character creator (which allows for potentially hundreds of thousands of styling options) at the very least suggests that a fashion oriented game could be generated with sufficient tools to create a lot more style options than a DS game would provide.  The question of course remains, how would an artificial intelligence determine whether or not a clothing design is actually any good?


Before answering that question, first, I want to return to my other potentially image oriented game license, America’s Next Top Model, to consider how its interests as a competition would have mechanics that prior games have created precedents for.  Taking photographs is something that a game can obviously (and has) emulated in the past. Limited ways have existed to evaluate the successfulness of photography in video games like Grand Theft Auto and Playboy: The Mansion. In GTA missions in which your rather unscrupulous character has to take blackmail pictures largely just boil down to a very limited evaluation of precision: did you manage to get the intended blackmail victims and their questionable antics in frame?  Playboy: The Mansion, which is a game about putting together issues of Playboy, and thus, photography becomes a major component, treat evaluation in a seemingly less elegant way.  Given the Sims-style networking component of the game, players network in order to provide content for the magazine. From a pragmatic standpoint, the relationship that exists between a Playmate and their photographer coupled with the photographer’s skill is somewhat sensible in determining the quality of pictures produced during a shoot.  One would assume that collaboration of model and artist would matter in saome way.  But it is a limiting factor in that the actual test (in terms of the game’s mechanics) of whether or not the actual images created are erotic is completely arbitrary.  A picture of a model’s elbow can become a 5-star issue cover if the model and photographer really get along well.


The immediate sensibility of the mechanic, though, does begin to touch on one element of style that is obviously important: relationships.  The somewhat less successful fashion oriented version of The Sims, The Urbz, demonstrates this importance and a much more interesting and thoughtful approach to evaluating what “taste” might mean.  The Urbz is predicated on the idea that the character that you will be playing is interested in becoming a fashionista of sorts. Doing so is determined by how well the player fits into various counter cultures that are largely defined by style choices.  Moving between various parts of the city, our urban sim is forced to redesign their own look each time that they meet a new group of people, be they punks, skaters, ravers, or the upper classes.  Character creation, or more appropriately, character recreation becomes a critical element of The Urbz, and while the choices that one makes are not specifically evaluated (as long as you wear clothes that are associated with punk, the punks will like you), it acknowledges an actual rule of fashion and style: consensus. 


Fashion choices like these suggest that “taste” is not the only factor in determining successful style.  Such choices are very much social constructions that depend not only on what the individual likes but how the people that individual interacts with respond to those choices.  The Urbz at least successfully simulates how the consensus of cultures and subcultures effects choices and how conforming to that consensus is potentially beneficial.


Playboy: The Mansion suggests that it is a reasonable guideline that successful photographs depend upon some degree of chemistry between photographer and subject, which shows that there may be other mechanics to help govern a player’s “fashion” score.  Part of what distinguishes games from play is that games tend to need purposes, boundaries, and goals to determine how successful the player is.  The Urbz likewise acknowledges that fashion and style is also governed by social boundaries. This is a major step in recognizing how style needs rules in order to be played like a game and that it already is one.


Watching an episode of What Not To Wear will rather quickly educate the uninitiated in the “rules” of such a game.  Both Stacy London and Clinton Kelly spout copious amounts of rules about what looks best on what kind of body type, how to visually lengthen the leg, enhance the figure, etc.  Likewise, Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn has written a Guide To Style that suggests many similar rules that govern broader social concerns with how to “play the game” of looking good correctly and successfully.  But as anyone schooled in the visual arts knows, illusions are the nature of visual design.  Getting a flat piece of paper to represent distance, depth, and texture are governed by “rules” that actually work.  Surely some of London, Kelly, and Gunn’s rules could be translated into ways of measuring the success of virtual garments or models?


For that matter, much of art history has been interested in examining the way that the mind reacts to visual imagery and what is pleasing or not pleasing to the eye.  From the discovery of and influence of the The Golden Ratio on music, painting, and architecture to psychological studies on the pleasant and unpleasant nature of symmetry and asymmetry, there are a great many choices of rules to help in governing how one can evaluate style with criteria that might allow for a degree of objectivity.  In the case of fashion, rules exist that can at least be conformed to and learned in order to succeed.  And isn’t that the nature of playing a game anyway?

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