Love Nikki: Dress Up Queen is a great game - and no one should be ashamed of liking it.
I’ve recently become addicted to a game. Allow me to describe it to you: You must collect items with a variety of traits, and make strategic decisions to win fierce competitions with other players and with the game system.
This summary could apply to any number of titles, but the one I am specifically referring to is Love Nikki: Dress Up Queen. Despite only being available for a couple of months on mobile devices, Love Nikki has already established quite a following.
In some ways, this game is almost exactly what you’d expect from its title: you have to dress up a girl called Nikki, and enter competitions in order to become a stylist queen. But it’s also a lot more than you might imagine. There are multiple modes - including a narrative arc where you go up against AI, stylist challenges where you and other players are judged by the game system, and competitions where other users vote on their favourite player-designed looks. There are hundreds of collectible items, from clothing pieces, ‘suits’ (complete outfits), crafting recipes, and achievements. Love Nikki is intense.
But although thousands of people have downloaded the title, it’s one of those apps people use while hiding their screens or feeling like it’s not a ‘real game’. Love Nikki has many of the traits that ‘real games’ have - strategy, competition, collectables, achievements, and a narrative - so what is it about games like these that earn them the title of ‘casual’ at best and ‘worthy of being mocked’ at worst?
"you have to dress up a girl called Nikki, and enter competitions in order to become a stylist queen."
Well, Wikipedia lists three key differences between a ‘casual’ game and a ‘hardcore’ game: the simplicity of the rules, the demands on playing time, and the amount of learned skill required to play. I can see how this includes many mobile games, which are designed to be picked up and put down without much notice as people wait for their bus, kill time in a waiting room, or play a little before bed. But this definition also applies to all sorts of games that are rarely called ‘casual’ explicitly - racing games or sports games, for instance, have simple rules, potentially short playing times, and require about as much learned skill as Love Nikki.
So, what’s the real difference between racing games and dress-up games?
As a kid, I played with cars and dolls in equal measure. In fact, I often played with cars and dolls simultaneously, despite Barbies being incredibly oversized for Hot Wheels. Despite this toy equality in my house, and my parents always telling me I was allowed to pick the ‘boys’ lucky dip at the fair if I was sick of receiving jelly bracelets, it wasn’t hard to notice the distinctive pink and blue aisles in the toy store.
My favourite part of playing with Barbies was the mixing-and-matching of different clothing items to create the perfect outfit for whatever scenario I’d imagined. However, I lacked the dexterity to tug tiny sleeves over inflexible elbows, which led to a lot of ‘Muuuuum, can you please put this dress on my Barbie doll?’ moments. Thankfully, primary school introduced me to ‘Dollz Mania’ - a website dedicated to online drag-and-drop dollmakers and dress-up games, based on paper dolls.
Girls gathered around computers in labs during their lunch breaks, designing the perfect outfits for school proms or - if you were me - midnight witch gatherings. Meanwhile, boys played flash games and scoffed at us. Sadly, not much has changed.
I had a surprisingly similar experience in late 2015 - more than a decade later - when I became addicted to Covet Fashion - yet another mobile dress-up game, that essentially takes the character creator in The Sims (because we all know that’s the best part of The Sims anyway) and makes a user-to-user voting competition entirely around how good people are at using it. If you win competitions, you get more money and more stuff so you can make more outfits and win more money and more stuff, which goes on forever until you die (or until Covet Fashion changes its user interface so much that it frustrates you into quitting). For about six months, I played Covet Fashion every day, and was mocked for enjoying it, particularly when people found out that I had paid money for in-app purchases. I was being mocked for having fun and using my own money to support that fun.
Why is a dress-up game seen as a trivial use of time and money by the gaming community, when other games are just a different arrangement of pixels and in-game currency?
Is it because dress-ups are supposedly for girls?
Love Nikki seems to think so, as they aren’t shy about their target audience. Their official Facebook page makes announcements addressed to ‘ladies’, ensuring any man who does decide to branch into the dress-up game genre feels immediately unwelcome. This is apparently seen as a space for women by people both inside and out - and while that’s the case, nothing changes.
Enjoying the experience of dressing up is not a women-only trait. People of all genders are just as likely to have fun putting together outfits and strutting their stuff. But buying clothes is expensive, trying on clothes is annoying, and getting dressed in the morning takes more effort than playing a mobile game in bed. So why doesn’t masculinity allow men to feel comfortable playing dress-up games? And why are women mocked for enjoying themselves by playing games that are considered to be made for ‘ladies’?
Nowadays, I shamelessly enjoy dress-up games. I love the outfits I get to choose from, and the models I get to put them on (which is one of the many benefits of being queer). I love the gender-bending fashion options in Love Nikki and the body diversity that was introduced in Covet Fashion (despite recent updates seemingly removing it again, hopefully only temporarily). I love that I’m essentially still just playing versions of Dollz Mania years later, but now with strategies and objectives.
But I guarantee that there are plenty of people out there still hiding their screens as they test out Love Nikki, and who are less willing to share their enjoyment of it than they are to talk about the latest triple-A title. There are people who aren’t willing to test it out at all because they don’t think they are allowed to, or they think that - for some reason - dress-up games aren’t worthy.
I think it’s well and truly time for that to change.