Less than five years ago the International Herald Tribune asked whether "Computerphobia" was "undermining" the fashion industry — and reported that "at least one-third of designers (and even some chief executives) are computer illiterate."
It may have taken them a while, but fashion seems to have finally gotten with the program. Now, in addition to ecommerce websites, Facebook pages, Twitter and Instagram feeds, Tumblrs, YouTube channels, smartphone and iPad apps, and Pinterest boards, brands are creating social video games that people can play on Facebook. Fashion industry trade paper Women's Wear Daily recently highlighted interactive fashion gaming as the next frontier in brand awareness and consumer spending (and time-wasting) — even as their impact remains unproven.
According to WWD, 53 percent of online gamers are women — but that doesn't mean they're engaging in buying stuff in the same way they're engaging in pretend styling outfits on Facebook. Fashion retail expert Catherine Moellering, executive vice president of the trend-forecasting ToBe Report, questions the impact of all the energy brands put into social media, including these new games. "We see stats all the time that say women are some of the biggest online gamers" she says. "But for a major retailer I'm scratching my head — is there an opportunity to translate them to sales? We're still living under this belief that if consumers are spending a lot of time online with your brand that's really positive, but I haven't seen anything conclusive saying these things drive sales or help with the brand image." In fact, Moellering says, some feedback from consumers suggests they want brands to dial the social media stuff way back.
Nonetheless, DKNY is going for it, partnering with 505 Games, Funcom, and IMG Worldwide (which runs Fashion Week) on Fashion Week Live, which recently launched exclusively on Facebook and incorporates DKNY's Twitter personality, DKNY PR Girl. (DKNY already has one of the fashion industry's stronger Twitter presences under the handle @DKNY.)
It sounds similar to many of the games marketed to 12-year-old girls, which award points for things like shopping and flirting with rich virtual men. Fashion Week Live, according to a press release, challenges players to build "fashion careers" through more complex tasks than those games ask tweens to complete:
Players can collaborate across many facets of the industry – from model styling, photography, show production and more. They can explore and activate their own individual talents, collaborate and network with each other to create and build various dimensions of the fashion industry and rise to fame with each challenge.
… As users advance in the game, a DKNY boutique becomes available to them, with access to virtual authentic designs available for purchase as virtual goods. Players are also able to unlock unique DKNY job opportunities and experiences that will be presented to them by [Twitter personality] DKNY PR GIRL as they progress further within their fashion career.
Players aren't spending money on actual clothes — they're just "buying" fake clothes to show off their virtual styling prowess. (DKNY is the first partner label, but others will come on in the future.) The target demographic for this game is women aged 18 to 40, and according to University of Otago video game researcher Christine Daviault, women are more likely to play this game and others like it on Facebook simply because more women are on Facebook — and because women tend to play simple games in short bursts, as opposed to more traditional video games where you need hours to advance to the next level.
DKNY PR Girl Aliza Licht, the senior vice president of global communications for Donna Karan, says that the brand decided to go ahead with the game to expand their social media presence and social gaming presence, which began as far back as 2007 with Stardolls ("the world's largest online fashion and games dress up community for girls"). "Through embarking in social media in 2009, the landscape for us quickly changed and we fell in love with digital or #techic (tech-chic) as I like to call it," says Licht. She believes the value in social media for fashion brands is the inside line it gives consumers on a historically very exclusive industry. "Years ago when Project Runway started, it was like 'wow, that's fashion?' People woke up to the industry and started feeling like, so those clothes on my body, they actually come from somewhere and that's a really interesting story," Licht says. "But TV and Twitter can only go so far, you can watch it but you can't be in it" — a thrill games like Fashion Week Live are supposed to provide.
What Fashion Week Live gets right is the understanding that these days everyone's in the business of self-promotion, which is essentially this game's prize. But what it exploits even more skillfully are the beauty-centric values girls learn at a very young age to embrace. Games for girls as young as eight are designed to imprint upon their brains the importance of having money — perhaps from a wealthy male romantic partner — so that they can dress and look a certain way, and own designer stuff. Once they outgrow simplistic childhood games based on these ideas, games like Fashion Week Live are waiting in Facebook's inviting wings to give women an outlet to continue spending money to play with clothes online.
"At best, these games are throwaway moments between more meaningful events in women’s lives. At worst, they reinforce traditional depictions of women and promote rampant consumerism and the idea that women only have value through their appearance," says Daviault. She doesn't dismiss the idea getting girls hooked on these kinds of games young will affect their desire to play the games later in life. "Girls are told and shown at a young age that they should play with dolls and be nurturing or should pay a lot of attention to their appearance through hair, fashion and make-up." Conversely, they are also taught that boys are aggressive and competitive, and learn to associate "fast-paced games" with boys. "It’s difficult for girls to break out of the mold after that because of peer pressure and the expectations that society places on how girls/women should look and behave," she says.
The fashion industry has already figured out how to train women to buy stuff they don't need. Now the fashion gaming industry is training us to buy virtual stuff we don't need. The popularity of this game and others like it might fizzle, but if there's one thing we know about the modern woman weaned at the teat of Sex and the City or the Kardashians, consumerism is hard to resist. If it wasn't, we'd all wear sensible shoes, and $12,000 leather handbags would probably — happily — be the figment of a sci-fi novelist's imagination.