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A View from Erica Naone

The Most Popular Game of All

Fashion trends in online games tap into a common obsession with identity.

  • August 3, 2007

It’s not surprising that fashion gets a lot of attention on sites such as Second Life, where a primary draw is creating interesting virtual objects. More surprising is how much interest fashion generates on sites devoted primarily to simple, casual games.

Sites such as Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, Pogo, and NHN USA’s ijji give users the chance to customize avatars by earning or buying different outfits, hairstyles, and equipment.

Pogo’s players can choose to personalize their avatars, called minis.

Credit: Pogo

Players seem to welcome the chance to personalize. “Everyone wants to stand out and not look like a lemming,” says Robin Rosales, public-relations manager of NHN USA. While the company’s games are free to play, players can pay small fees to get special items. Rosales says he has noticed that the most popular virtual items are often aesthetic rather than practical. And the phenomenon doesn’t seem limited to a single demographic. Even in fighting games, he says, the best-selling item might be a cool-looking camouflage mask, rather than a special gun. The company’s newest game, Drift City, released in beta on August 2, is a racing game with opportunities to customize cars for performance or cosmetics.

Me, I’m all about functionality. All my Drift City modifications would be with an eye to performance. In real life, beneath the hail-studded hood of my 10-year-old car is an engine I keep in excellent condition.

But in recent years, I’ve grown suspect of my scorn for self-expression through fashion. Fashion is a popular game, whether played out in real life with hubcaps and designer jeans or represented online by a virtual orange bandanna. It’s a game people play when selecting work clothes, or when choosing to be the shoe in Monopoly. It’s a game I am playing even as I pride myself on refusing to play. The urge people have to design how they appear is common and deep, and the makers of online games are wise to tap into it in any way they can.

When it comes down to it, fashion is a game of identity. It could be the most popular game of all.

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