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Dressed for success: Inside the future of fashion and games | Playable Futures

Digital outfits in games are shaping the ways we think about what we wear, but what does this mean for fashion brands?

This series of Playable Futures articles considers how the design, technology, people, and theory of video games are informing and influencing the wider world. You can find all previous Playable Futures articles here.

For decades, the conventions of fashion and style were well established. The 20-year fashion cycle would reliably roll around, bringing various styles in and out of vogue on a two-decade loop. Various youth subcultures over the years – from punk and raver to goth and skater – would be framed by a blend of fashion, music and ideology. Youngsters would join those subcultures as a way to express identity and belonging, subscribing to them loyally for years, their self-imposed dress codes bubbling up to the catwalk, as high fashion simultaneously trickled down to the pavement from luxury brands. In the space between those two opposites, high street fashion and streetwear exist and persist, taking their cues from both subcultures and fashion houses.

In the late 20th century, the postmodern mindset would start to trouble those conventions a little, introducing concepts such as irony, pluralism and self-referentiality. Suddenly, things weren't quite so clear cut. Sociologists of style would argue that at the turn of the millennium, we began to be freed from the meanings certain clothing carried.

But postmodernism was just the start of a grand change. In the years that followed, video games established themselves as a true cultural phenomenon, and offered the worlds of fashion an abundance of opportunity, challenge, and change.

"People from the world of fashion will increasingly be thinking of games as something like venues, or maybe destinations"

For one, 'gamer' as a subculture of its own emerged, offering a broad, vibrant style palette informed by the things we play. Soon after, the fascinating phenomenon of the 'skinification of fashion' would radically shift the very notion of subcultures, meaning, and 20-year cycles. More on that below.

The largest shift, meanwhile, might be that of the opportunity for fashion brands to exist as part of the games people play, connecting with vast audiences while establishing years-long relationships with consumers.

That is something Tom Parry has seen happen across the world of fashion. His varied career kicked off in the media planning world in 2008, before eventually leading him to a contract role at Ralph Lauren, working as gaming strategy and project lead in the company's global digital marketing department. Parry would then move to serving as head of UMI Games, a specialist studio focused on connecting brands with the gaming audience through firstly Fortnite, Roblox, and soon Minecraft.

And for Parry, games are the natural place for fashion brands to congregate, both now and in the future.

"To a significant degree, as a fashion brand you have to go to where consumer attention is; you need presence in those places," offers Parry. "I think the attention of a lot of people has been towards social media over maybe the past 15 years, but increasingly consumer attention is turning to gaming. And thanks to gaming's maturity now, there's a huge built out ecosystem from content creators to players to streaming audiences to certain games emerging as platforms of their own, meaning the likes of Fortnite and Roblox.

"You've also got the industry's technology ecosystem, which is letting the people at the reins of these games serve and maintain these live spaces that games have increasingly become, while letting both players and creators share and host their own content."

Considering games' vast, demographically diverse, always-on and deeply engaged audience, fashion brands simply can't ignore games. And now – relatively, at least – making branded content for the likes of Fortnite is a straightforward process. Equally, placing a fashion brand in a game has been majorly derisked by the emergence of live services. Gone are the days of brand holders having to lay down high sums on content that makes up part of a boxed release, reaching audiences many months after the moment of a campaign's inception.

"You can do something with fashion brands in games that you can't do in other ways"

"I think people from the world of fashion will increasingly be thinking of games as something like venues, or maybe destinations," Parry continues. "They are places players visit and spend time. That's especially true of Roblox, while Fortnite has a bit more of a community-building element to consider. Younger demographics are hanging out in those games now – not necessarily playing – where maybe in the 1990s they spent that time at the skatepark, not necessarily skating. But these games as places are a chance to meet people from across the world, and discover culture and mix yourself up in it. And fashion has always been in part about that."

In other words, games are increasingly places fashion brands have to be, and where they can meet many different types of potential customer. And, curiously, it looks like we are set to see ever more high-end brands have a presence in games more commonly associated with younger players who sport shallower pockets.

"It's about a longer-term strategy than going to your immediate and existing audiences, and that's only going to become more true in the future," states Parry. "Brands are seeing that they need to start building that relationship with that consumer on what ultimately is a very low financial lift, perhaps long before that consumer might spend on the brand, versus the existing model of reaching them later in life. And there's increasingly older players in these games too, and it appears we'll only see these larger games offer ever more diverse audience. I think it's a bit of a scattergun approach for fashion brands. You can reach hundreds of millions of players globally in a very different, new way, in a very immersive way, really immersing the player in that brand and telling a very rich brand story. I think that is key.

"You can do something with fashion brands in games that you can't do in other ways. So it's ultimately about building that brand loyalty; building brand awareness. We had it working on the Ralph Lauren campaign. We found that lots of these players didn't know what or who Ralph Lauren was. It was a big shock internally. Everyone must know who Ralph Lauren is, right? But that wasn't the case. So even these huge, iconic brands need to keep fighting for presence and attention; maybe moreso in such a crowded brand landscape. And with that effort, within Ralph Lauren we also saw how games could engage people who would be loyal customers a few years later. This approach and mindset is going to become hugely important to fashion in the future."

The way players interact with skins in games like Fortnite is presenting new opportunities for fashion brands

Parry also sees – and believes we will increasingly see – fashion brands of every size start to become more involved, with a broader sweet of games becoming embraced.

"For now there's a lot of focus by the bigger fashion brands on Roblox and Fortnite, and we're seeing increasing interest in EA FC and reaching older players through Call of Duty and so on. But as these bigger brands set the example of what's possible, I think that absolutely, we'll see fashion brands of every size start to work with quite a spectrum of games of all sizes.

"And we're seeing new platforms such as Discord born from gaming, and now they're beginning to branch out and to grow as more audiences come into this space. Discord and other equivalent platforms offer another opportunity for presence where audiences are. So gaming is creating all these brand opportunities that go beyond directly placing your content in a high profile game, and I think right now we're just seeing the beginning of how important games become to fashion – and arguably vice versa."

All of this presents a tremendous opportunity for games; especially as a movement that permeates the medium beyond the live service giants – and particularly at a time when the likes of in-game cosmetic items offer new generations means to explore and assert identity. Which brings us back to the 'skinification of fashion.'

The theory – proposed perfectly here in digest form by trend forecaster and internet culture expert Agustina Panzoni – suggests that the approach to dressing characters in games is starting to profoundly shape style choices in reality. It's part of a cultural movement called hyperrealism, which itself is in part informed by the prowess of game engines like Unreal to play with the space that exists between realism and representation (again, Panzoni sums it up best).

The skinification theory proposes that video games have set a new standard, where we are free to hop between something like skins out here in the real world, rather than having to subscribe to a singular subculture or personal style for multiple years. That, it is suggested, explains the boom in fleeting fashion 'aesthetic trends' such as 'kidcore', 'clowncore' and 'blokequette/blokette', each of which is giddily free of the cultural and ideological commitments once demanded by traditional subcultures. Now one can hop between these fashion trends day-by-day, or even hour-by-hour, swapping them like skins – embracing a movement that could potential diminish the 20-year cycle to a matter of moments.

"It's a fascinating concept, absolutely, even if it's not yet influencing the mainstream of fashion," concludes Parry. "But it seems to be at play in the evolution of fast fashion. There's every chance we're going to see games and their content directly influence all kinds of elements of fashion in the future, from the brands that succeed to the ways people think about how their clothes reflect who they are.

"It's a really exciting time to be in the space, and if you're in games, you already are."

Playable Futures is a collection of insights, interviews and articles from global games leaders sharing their visions of where the industry will go next. This article series has been brought to you by, Ukie, and Diva. You can find previous Playable Futures articles and podcasts here.

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