Kara Chung on Virtual Freedom
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Kara Chung is a visual artist, musician and player. She co-runs the @animalcrossingfashionarchive Instagram account with stylist Marc Goehring and was behind the first Animal Crossing show. In this interview, we dive into the liberating elements of the game and what that means for us in the real world.
Tell us a bit about your personal history with the game.
Kara Chung: I have always loved video games. I was based in Hong Kong for the last few years and ended up diving into video games again because we couldn’t get out too much. There was so much political turmoil, so many of us were staying indoors 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 leave Hong Kong and came back to Manila to stay with my family. Everyone was sure Animal crossing. I couldn’t see some of my friends here in town, but everyone had a Switch, so they were like, “Oh, why don’t you hang out? Animal crossing“And then it accidentally became a source of most of my projects last year, which is really weird. Like it’s not something I take too seriously. It started out as a joke. It’s like that kid’s game, you know, hyper-simplified outfits and brands kind of got bigger, because I have a relationship with the brand and the writing of my photo work.
Why are people so interested in this space between play and fashion? Money to be made, isn’t it?
Not in the traditional sense. In the game, everyone can download the clothes for free. I feel like what the brands really liked was that people could feel like they were wearing the clothes 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 folks, they’re such huge fans of the game, and they don’t really have to spend their savings to be one of those few people known to be connected to the brand – now they’re wearing something associated with logos and that’s pretty limited.
I wonder what you think of brands creating authentic products versus people creating their own versions.
It’s cool if brands validate these versions. I feel like if people were to elect elements of what made the brand personality, what gave the brand its essence, then the question would be how to reduce a brand to a few pixels? And, in a way, that’s what people had to do when we were building video games on very rudimentary consoles, like the Game Boy Color, which I grew up with. When you play games like dragon warrior [and] Pokemon, they create all of these archetypes of these different characters, create different muscle builds, and create different genres using these tiny squares. It’s just distillation, and it’s valid. You need to use colors and patterns to get your point across.
So you’re talking about an almost concentrated version of what the aesthetic of this brand could be?
Yeah, but it’s also that sense of humor and understanding that it’s not really something to be taken too seriously. Because when I got to talk to brands, they also had this sense of self-awareness that it wouldn’t be perfect, and that’s what I found interesting. Traditionally, many of these brands have very strict public relations guidelines. Even when shooting editorial or content photography, there are rules. I feel like the marketing boost for them came from people reposting and modeling the clothes in the video game – creating their own content with that. We make wishlists and put things in them that we love, and that’s what people do Animal crossing.
Do you think part of this is about the people who follow things and archive them? For example, people see the items they want, and it becomes a way of keeping a different register from traditional clothing possession and that kind of materialism?
Yeah, 100%. And I feel the reason why a game like Animal crossing has become so popular that there aren’t a lot of video games that let you customize things. I feel like the player’s personality has really changed over the past year. Fashion people don’t really understand the game. A lot of them think it’s this geek stuff. People will spend $ 200 to $ 300 just to buy in-game items. Sometimes those items cost more than what people would spend on real clothes.
It seems that in general people prefer the payment model for cosmetics than the payment model for electricity.
This is also true. I spent on game skins, but not like $ 200 or $ 300.
Do you think part of the appeal is that when you play each of these games you get a different character?
I think that’s the allure of having control over the character that you become. I actually know people who play with their gender identity by Animal crossing, which they don’t do in real life. I know someone, for example, who wanted to express more feminine qualities in person, but who was not able and was able to do so in the game. It’s a safe space for people. He wanted to try and wear a skirt in person, but he only did so in Animal crossing. It got us thinking, if we dressed more like our Animal crossing avatars, maybe we would be happier in person?
It’s like a proving ground.
The players are the stylist and the model, all in one. Instead of taking selfies, it’s their way of bringing it all in and seeing themselves in that concentrated form in the third person.
What do you think the fashion ecosystem can learn from the gaming ecosystem?
It’s definitely a conversation. It’s not necessarily about spending money on clothes. It is not a question of physical clothing. It’s about the emotional point of view, the stories and how people feel about the brand’s message. A lot of people participate in fashion without necessarily owning things. Fashion wasn’t always about owning things. Sometimes it’s about enjoying things. I grew up in the Philippines and we got magazines from overseas, but not all of us will be able to see the clothes in person because fashion is only related to some big cities. People want to go out and participate in fashion by seeing catwalks. With video games, it’s a flatter space. Games are a space where everyone is equal and where geographic location no longer matters.
Do you think there is an appetite for more high fashion clothing in video games?
Yes, 100%. If brands have created something for a video game, they should be doing something in the video game business. If it’s not something like Animal crossing, if it’s a very lore-based video game with an established audience, you know? I think [that’s] which worked with the incredible designs of Death Stranding and Acronym, but it wasn’t a brand. Their designs translated into what they would see if it was strictly in this post-apocalyptic space.
What about personalization?
Games with customization features allow us to cosplay as the version of ourselves we’d like to be. I am Chinese and Asian households are very strict, especially for young girls. I had piercings a few years ago and people in my family panicked. Even something as simple as this sometimes people, especially women, don’t feel like they own their bodies. So video games can become a powerful tool… just have that sense of liberation, although, you know, limited. Basically everyone 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 themselves, it can help people explore.