Object Oriented #03: Clothes
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Games mentioned: Bloodborne (FromSoftware, 2015), Command & Conquer (Westwood Studios, 1995), Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt Red, 2020), Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019), Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment, 2010), Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix, 2016), Fortnite (Epic Games, 2017), Hitman series (IO Interactive, 2000 onwards), Metal Gear Solid V (Kojima Productions, 2015), Team Fortress 2 (Valve, 2007), Time Crisis (Namco, 1995),
A mistake that is frequently made, in both videogames and everyday life, is to assume that clothes don’t matter. They are often associated with superficiality, artificiality and inauthenticity, seen either as the trivial obsession of the narcissist, or as a deception that obscures a more important real that lies beneath. Anthropologist Daniel Miller argues that this “struggle with what might be called a depth ontology” is a:
“very specific Western idea of being, in which the real person, myself, is somehow deep inside me, while my surface is literally superficial, a slight, transient aspect that is shallow, more contrived, somehow less real and certainly less important. Politics as abstract and explicit debate is profound, while attention to forms such as clothing is trivial and self-indulgent. This denigration of surfaces has been part of the denigration of clothing and, by extension, of those said to be particularly interested in clothing, often seen as women, or blacks or any other group that thereby come to be regarded as more superficial and less deep.”(i)
Naturally, videogames reflect ideas present in the culture at large, so these ideas are carried over into games too. However, we also see this downplaying of the significance of clothes expressed in ways particular to the medium and its culture, one of the prime examples being the phenomenon of microtransactions. While microtransactions are often fiercely resisted and incredibly controversial, from conversations around “pay-to-win” models corrupting the purity of game design, to court cases debating the extent to which they represent a way of introducing gambling to children, clothing has proved to be an effective Trojan horse. Silly hats in Team Fortress 2 and skins in Fortnite have been waved past uncontested as the debates around microtransactions rage on. The argument goes that clothes are “just” aesthetic, don’t represent a “real” part of the game and, therefore, don’t matter.
In some of these preconceptions around clothes we can find elements of truth, but these truths will mislead us if we don’t interrogate them fully. There is something superficial about judging someone by the clothes they wear. However, even putting aside the fact that these judgments happen all the time, the idea that this means we can relegate clothes to the realm of the superficial becomes complicated when you consider what they represent. Clothes are a manifestation of very real social dynamics and forces of power: the gown of a judge, the overalls of a janitor, the expensive suits of a CEO and the hole-specked sportswear of a destitute person are all expressions of the level of power and affluence the wearer enjoys, over who and in what contexts they might be able to exercise authority, how they can expect to be treated by others, and so on. It is also true that clothes can be used as a means of disguise. This does not mean that they are a trivial veil to cast aside to get at the “real” underneath. Their ability to deceive tells us they are powerful vessels carrying symbolic power, with effects that are, deception or not, very real indeed.
Coding With Colour
Communicating information effectively is a vital part of game design. As players, we need to know where we can go and where we can’t, how we are expected to respond to other characters, what the results of performing particular actions will be, and so on. Environmental design (the way light and darkness can be used to subconsciously point a player in the right direction, for example), intuitive UI and well-written dialogue are just a few methods that might be used. These are also methods that are frequently given due credit. Clothes, on the other hand, are an underappreciated and equally vital device for communicating information to the player.
Arcade light gun game Time Crisis provides us with a particularly pure example of the long-standing tradition of clothes being used to tell us what to expect from the characters who are sporting them. At the very beginning of the game you encounter three enemies (see the image above). In the middle is a solider wearing a brown shirt. He is flanked by two soldiers wearing blue, positioned slightly behind him. Already we can make effective judgments, probably without even realising we are doing it. The brown soldier’s positioning in the centre and foreground suggests greater importance relative to the blue soldiers. We know that in the real world, uniforms can be used as a means of denoting rank or division and can surmise that the brown soldier is of higher rank than the more numerous blue soldiers, who are likely grunts. We would be correct. Even if we fail to make this connection, we quickly learn through gameplay that blue soldiers are the most numerous and least deadly threat we face, while the slightly more accurate brown soldiers should be dealt with a bit more carefully. When a red soldier appears, the knowledge we’ve gained that colour has a bearing on ability, combined with our cultural association of danger with red, should warn us that these enemies are particularly lethal. Again, if we fail to heed that warning, a couple of their annoyingly accurate shots will teach that lesson through gameplay, and we will be left with a clear colour code to work with that allows us to read each scenario quickly and respond appropriately.
This functional use of clothes is incredibly common throughout the history of videogames: they tell us who is a member of what faction, like the heavily armoured Brotherhood of Steel versus the Ancient Rome-inspired dress of Caesar’s Legion in the critically praised RPG Fallout: New Vegas; denote who is an ally and who is not, as in classic gold vs blue RTS Command and Conquer; or give us clear visual clues about what kind of challenge an enemy represents – when we come up against a brute wearing a thick helmet and chunky armour, we know they are likely to be a slow-moving, heavy-hitting, damage-sponge. This is far from the only way that clothes are used to communicate information.
Alongside these mechanical uses, clothes communicate narrative information. They might tell us who is important to the story, what a character’s job is, or even give us a sense of the type of person they are. Sticking with Time Crisis, look at the way that the ostentatiously dressed Sherudo Garo, with his white suit, orange shirt and puffy bright yellow cravat, stands out from the his uniformed soldiers (see the image below). His lavish threads are a way of telling us that he is significant to the story and make hints towards his wealth and social privilege as a member of the Sercian royal family. Think of almost any game featuring NPCs wondering around and you can find multiple equivalents. Take the stranger who shows up when you first arrive at Galdin Quay in Final Fantasy XV wearing an intricately layered and patterned coat and a fancy ruff. These decadent threads stick out like a sore thumb in a seaside resort where everyone else is wearing polo shirts, slacks and jeans, screaming to you that this is someone significant way before you discover that he is Ardyn Uzunia, chancellor of the Nilfheim Empire.
Just as Time Crisis did not invent the idea of uniforms denoting rank and ability, this use of clothes as a conduit for information about people is simply a reflection of the way they are already used in the real world. Celebrities sport outlandish and unique pieces of fashion on the red carpet to emphasise their transcendence of the ordinary and the rich use clothes as a means to display their wealth and social status, denoting their “importance” in the same way a developer does when dressing a virtual character they want to stand out.
Hiding In High-Vis
The idea that clothes contain symbolic power has been taken by videogames and transfigured literally via the phenomenon of bonuses and status buffs. A jacket in Cyberpunk 2077 can make you more evasive, a pair of gloves can make you more resistant to poison in Bloodborne and a hat can give you more authority in Disco Elysium. When we get dressed in the morning, we don’t typically assume that wearing a particular pair of trousers will allow us to jump higher, or that a certain shirt will make us more intelligent (unless you are particularly superstitious). However, the idea that clothes can enhance our abilities is not a complete fantasy, but rather, an abstraction of a very real phenomenon.
Let’s dress people in five sets of attire in our minds eye: an expensive suit typical of a wealthy businessman; an old jacket and jeans, worn and weathered; a short black dress; the uniform of a fireman; and the archetypal spiked leather jacket, ripped jeans, and black boots associated with punk culture. How are these four individuals likely to be treated by a security guard in a private building should they try to gain access? Who is more likely to be hassled by police in a public space? How might they be received if they tried to move into a squat? Who will be at greater risk when walking alone? Who is more likely to be taken seriously when making a complaint in a shop? We all know that the reactions to the five individuals wearing these clothes will be vastly different. The relative power these clothes grant to the wearer are dependent on context – our businessman is likely to be less well-received at the squat than the punk, while the fireman is likely going to be assumed to be there for a reason related to their profession – but we also know that anywhere that we encounter systems of power, being dressed relatively conservatively and in relatively expensive clothes is likely to be an advantage. To put it in videogame terms, we can award the business suit stat buffs to charisma and authority. These clothes allow you to perceived in a way that will likely grant you more freedom, autonomy and respect in the realm of work, in public spaces, when dealing with the police, as a customer in a shop, and so on. Again, it wouldn’t be wrong to call this superficial, but the advantages these clothes can grant can be very real and tangible.
The symbolic power of clothes is perhaps nowhere better explored in videogames than in the Hitman series, where Agent 47 makes ample use of the associations we have with particular outfits to pass unseen through streets, public buildings and private residences to assassinate targets with a minimal amount of fuss. Waiters, military officers, dentists, postmen, security guards, cooks, mechanics and gardeners are among the roles he assumes by donning the clothing associated with each. In contrast to our previous examples of clothes being used to stand out or make a display, in Hitman, we see clothes being used for the opposite purpose: to become invisible. Agent 47 uses clothes in combination with context, dressing as a chef when he’s in a kitchen, as a waiter when he wants to wonder a lavish party, as a doctor when he wants free reign in a hospital. In each case. he finds himself ignored by others, who barely register his presence, treating him as part of the background. This shows us that the symbolic power of clothes is ripe for subversion (indeed, high-vis vests are a popular piece of kit among urban explorers, used to avoid attention when prying open a manhole, for example, the public assuming they are doing maintenance work).
However, Agent 47’s effective use of disguise also draws our attention to another facet of clothing in our lived reality: they way they can be used to suppress individuality and empathy. What makes Agent 47 a master of the art of disguise is precisely his lack of individuality. He is not only literally not an individual, in that he is a clone, but is featureless, expressionless, emotionless and has close to zero personality. Agent 47 is as close to a blank slate as possible,allowing him to fully embody the symbolic role of whatever uniform he puts on.
Where Agent 47 is exploiting the fact that clothes carry a symbolic power to his benefit, the reverse is usually true in reality. When we are dressed to wait tables, we are not supposed to be a person with desires, but an agent who lives to fulfill the desires of others. When we are wearing the uniform of a retail store, we are not supposed to act as if we are human beings that are equal to everyone else around us, but as subservient to both management and customers, for the worst of whom the uniform is a signal that they can treat you as such (anyone who has worked in retail or the service industry will have experienced this). In a uniform, or the formal address explicitly or implicitly required by your employer, you are not supposed to speak freely or represent yourself. You speak as a representative of the company and must censor yourself accordingly. Uniforms are both an expression and tool of systems designed to encourage subservience and self-censorship, and naturalise ideas of hierarchy.
Here, we must question how uniforms that it could be argued do the opposite fit in. Do police uniforms, judges' gowns, security vests and the like not imbue the individual with an extra dimension of power they would otherwise lack? To a degree, yes. Wearing a police uniform allows you access to places that you would otherwise be denied, to issue orders to other people that would otherwise be ignored, and helps provide insulation from consequence to racists who wish to enact violence on people of colour, among other things. To be allowed to sport the uniform that grants you these powers, however, you must still suppress your individuality when the system demands it, and accept the explicit and hidden ideas of hierarchy that the organisation protects. Even in a hypothetical situation where the institutional racism rampant in the police force doesn’t successfully indoctrinate a “good” cop through the bias and common practices of colleagues and processes, it ensures that when, for example, a Black Lives Matter protest happens and the order is issued to break it up, that “good” cop must do it, regardless of how violently it is done and regardless of whether they personally support the protest or not. The will of the institution the uniform represents will be enforced through you irrespective of how that corresponds with your personal beliefs. You are only allowed to continue to wear and harness the symbolic power of the police uniform so long as that is the case. Disobey direct orders and you will be fired, resist the culture and you will be hounded out; as whistle-blowing former Chicago Police Officer Sharon Spalding once said: “it’s no secret that if you go against the code of silence, and you report corruption, it will ruin your career”.(ii)
If we’ve established that clothes that are a conduit for power, then we’ve also established that they matter. The idea, common in conversations around selling clothes as microtransactions, that they don’t because they are “only” aesthetic, should be resisted. Not just because they are mechanically important, or effective devices for storytelling, or an interesting element to play with, or a lens through which to reflect on and critique real-world uses of clothing (and hopefully we are now in agreement that they can do all those things), but because we should value aesthetics too. They are part of the art. This does not mean replicating the logic of real-world fashion, built on manufactured obsolescence, rampant consumerism and exploitation of the global south. Videogames can resist those impulses with their virtual clothes, leaving them free to play with them as a powerful means of expression. Rather than product placing sunglasses in Metal Gear Solid V, or using Final Fantasy characters to sell Louis Vuitton handbags, let’s have clothes that are creative extensions of a character’s personality, clothes that tell us stories about cultures. Decommidify virtual clothes. Let them carry meaning and beauty. At the very least, stop pretending that they don't matter.