Our new White Paper is dedicated to the gaming of reality — for access to our complete findings, enroll in our new six-part email thread that will unpack the results of our polling data, surveys, and interviews directly in your inbox over the next six weeks. In collaboration with Civilization, the New York experimental newspaper by Lucas Mascatello and Richard Turley, we’ll explore the ongoing collision of gaming and fashion and provide exclusive insights on the future of the metaverse.
Kara Chung is a visual artist, musician, and gamer. She co-runs the Instagram account @animalcrossingfashionarchive and was behind the first Animal Crossing fashion show with the stylist Marc Goehring. In this interview, we dive into the liberating elements of gaming and what it means for our selves in the real world.
Tell us a bit about your personal history with gaming.
Kara Chung: I've always loved video games. I was based in Hong Kong for the past few years, and I ended up getting deep into video games again because we couldn't go outside so much. There was so much political unrest, so a lot of us were staying inside long before COVID. I feel like video games have become this way for me to meet people and interact without having to leave my house, which is great.
Last year, I had to get out of Hong Kong and came back to Manila to stay with my family. Everybody was on Animal Crossing. I didn't get to see some of my friends here in the city, but everybody happened to have a Switch, so they were like, "Oh, why don't we just hang out on Animal Crossing." And then it accidentally became a source of most of my projects last year, which is really strange. Like it's not something I take too seriously. It started as a joke. It's like this kiddie game, you know? We get all these hyper-simplified outfits and somehow brands caught on, because I have existing brand and editorial connections from my photo work. I guess they thought, "maybe we can have her produce content in the game."
Why are people so interested in that space between gaming and fashion? Obviously money to be made, right?
Not in the traditional sense. In the game, everybody gets to download the clothing items for free. I feel like what the brands really liked was people could feel like they were wearing the clothing made by the brands, except they didn’t have to shell out so much. You have all the kids and you have all these Gen Z people, they're such big fans of the game, and they don't really have to spend their savings in order to become part of that select few acknowledged to be connected to the brand – now they’re wearing something associated with the logos and it’s quite limited.
I'm wondering what you think about brands creating authentic stuff versus people creating their own versions of it.
It's cool if the brands were validating those versions. I feel like if people had to elect parts of what made the brand have personality, what gave the brand their essence, then the question would be how do you reduce a brand into a few pixels? And, in a way, that's what people had to do when we were building video games on very rudimentary consoles, for example the Game Boy Color, which is what I grew up with. When you play games like Dragon Warrior [and] Pokémon, they create all these archetypes of these different characters, create different muscle builds, and create different genders using these tiny squares. It's just distillation, and it’s valid. You have to use colors and patterns to make your point.
So you're talking about an almost concentrated version of what this brand's aesthetic might be?
Yeah, but it's also this sense of humor and understanding that it's not really something to be taken too seriously. Because when I did get to speak to the brands, they'd also come out with this sense of self-awareness that it's not going to be perfect, and that's what I found interesting. Traditionally, so many of these brands have very strict PR guidelines. Even when shooting editorial or shooting content photography, there are rules. I feel like the marketing boost for them came from the fact that people were reposting and modeling the clothes in the video game - creating their own content with that. We make wish lists and we put things that we love in them, and that's what people are doing in Animal Crossing.
Do you think part of that is about people keeping track of stuff and archiving? Like, people see items that they want, and this becomes a way of keeping a record that's different from traditionally owning clothes and that kind of materialism?
Yeah, 100 percent. And I feel like the reason why a game like Animal Crossing became so popular is that there aren't many video games that allow you to customize things. I feel like the persona of the gamer has really changed over the last year. People in fashion don't really understand gaming. A lot of them feel like it's this geeky thing. People will spend $200 to $300 just to buy in-game items. Sometimes those items come out to more than what people would spend on real clothes.
It seems like generally people are more into the pay-for-cosmetics than pay-for-power model.
That is also right. I've spent on game skins, but not like $200 or $300.
Do you think that part of the appeal is that when you're playing each of these games, you get a different character?
I think it's the appeal of having control over which character you get to be. I actually know people who are playing with their gender identity in Animal Crossing, which they don't do in real life. I know somebody, for example, who wanted to express more feminine qualities in person but hasn’t been able to and was able to do that in the game. It's a safe space for people. He wanted to try wearing a skirt in person, but he only did it in Animal Crossing. It made us think, if we dressed more like our Animal Crossing avatars, maybe we'd be happier in person?
It's like a testing ground.
Gamers are the stylist and they're the model, all in one. Instead of taking selfies, it's their way of bringing all of that and seeing themselves in this third-person concentrated form.
What do you think the fashion ecosystem can learn from the gaming ecosystem?
It’s definitely a conversation. It's not necessarily about the clothes spending money. It's not about the physical clothes. It's about the emotional standpoint, it's about the narratives and what people feel about the brand's messaging. A lot of people participate in fashion without necessarily owning things. Fashion was not always about owning things. Sometimes it's about appreciating things. I grew up in the Philippines, and we would get magazines from abroad, but not all of us will get to actually see the clothes in person, because a lot of fashion we see on luxury ads is connected to major cities. People want to go out and participate in fashion by seeing shows. With video games, it's a more flat space. Games are a space where everybody is equal and geographic location doesn't matter anymore.
Do you think there's an appetite to have more high fashion clothing in video games?
Yes, 100 percent. If brands created something for a video game, they should do something within the realm of the video game. If it's not something like Animal Crossing, if it's a very lore-based video game with an already established audience, you know? I think [that’s] what worked with Death Stranding and Acronym’s amazing designs, but that wasn’t branded. Their designs translated into what they would see if it was strictly in that post-apocalyptic space.
What about customization?
Games with customization features allow us to cosplay as the version of ourselves that we would like to be. I'm Chinese, and Asian households are so strict, especially for young girls. I got piercings a couple years ago, and people freaked out in my family. Even something as simple as that, sometimes people, especially women, don't feel like they have ownership over their bodies. So video games can become a powerful tool… just having that sense of liberation, albeit, you know, limited. Essentially, everybody has a physical body and they have a digital body. They have many digital bodies. And the digital body is what helps people heal, it can help people transcend, it can help people explore.