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Experimental Dress-Up Game Breaks Gender Norms

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

Dress-up games can be traced back some 300 years to simple European paper dolls. For centuries they’ve remained gender specific, but Femmepocalypse, is taking traditional dress-up games in a new direction.

Most dress-up-style games on the web are overwhelmingly pink. They depict girls wearing lipstick and bows, generally posing in floaty skirts, bikini outfits or evening gowns.

In more advanced dress-up games, like The Ugly Princess, players are asked to help solve skin problems with a pimple popper and moisturizers, before hopping in a sequin-studded, pink limo.

Occasionally, games offer a “Hunk Dress Up” or “Boyfriend for You,” but these games are targeted at young women, too, or at least festooned in the traditional signifiers of femininity.

Like a lot of video games, the dress-up genre is partitioned by gender stereotypes, but there is an increasing number of doll games that are not gender restrictive and invite everyone to play, regardless of their cotton candy color preferences.

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One such game is Femmepocalypse, created at the Feb Fatale game jam in Toronto in February. Instead of flats or high heels, players pick the lips, blush, eyebrows and even skin tone of a world-conquering entity. There are no pinks, tans or browns.

Players select between green microchip skin, a blue zigzagged Tron skin, chrome, a binary skin with ones and zeroes, and one that looks like Wall-E’s love interest.

Game designer Alto Punk, who identifies as gender neutral and asked to be referred to as “they”, said the face is a “cyberpunk person,” not necessarily female, or male. “Whatever helps the player relate to that character, then that’s the gender.”

A properly made dress-up game should be accessible to all genders, said Alto, which may be why the pixelated dress-up doll lacks a body. It makes it easier for females, males, and people who don’t think of themselves in those terms to click with the game.

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Instead, the focus remains on the face. This is part of why Femmepocalypse includes a mask. Using a piece of acetate and some tinfoil for conductive material, Alto jiggered together a controller that the player wears on his or her face.

This setup allows a player to touch different parts of their face (cheeks, eyes, etc.) and see the corresponding parts of the image on the screen change shape, which falls in line with the game’s minimalist plot.

The script has players uploading their consciousness into a computer, then subjugating the world’s networks. Naturally, it’s important to tweak the neon glow of cybernetic eyes just right to fit the artificial intelligent being the player wants to portray.

Alto said there’s no intentional message baked into Femmepocalypse, and that they think girly dress-up games such as the Korean Candybar doll maker are pretty cool.

If there is a deeper message, it’s that fashion is something that is universal, which means everyone should be able to enjoy this template for games.

“I think a lot of boys are secretly (or not) playing these games,” Alto said.  Nintendo’s massively popular Animal Crossing, for example, appeals to boys and girls, young and old.

Choosing your character’s shirt, hat and facial appearance has always been a big draw for game players. Even in a macho shooter like Counter-Strike, the hat makes the man.

Femmepocalypse shows that dress-up games for all genders are part of the collective gaming culture.

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