Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
In 2016, there's an increasing number of gaming apps geared toward women, especially those that use fashion and/or celebrity as a jumping-off point. And regardless of what came first — the women or the games explicitly made for women — the gender gap on mobile and tablets has nearly closed. According to consumer tracking company Nielsen's latest report, the split between gamers on phones and tablets is 49% women and 51% men.
Even more interesting, women are buying what these games help to sell.
CrowdStar and Glu Mobile are two of the most prominent developers right now. The former's explicit goal of making mobile games for women is working: Its most popular title, Covet Fashion, regularly sits on the leaderboard for app performance rankings, including a "most addictive" list: It's number eight, under Facebook, Snapchat, Timehop, and a few others. The latter is behind a rash of roleplaying games built around the lives of the absurdly famous, including Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and the sisters Jenner. A Britney Spears game launched yesterday, and Taylor Swift's title is scheduled to debut later this year.
Each game is different, but what they do share is a shoppable element that allows users to "buy" in-app clothing, as well as the potential to send users directly to the real world clothing on which the virtual versions are based.
Any one of the thousands of Kendall and Kylie players will know what that looks like, but for those that don't, one recent example is Nour Hammour, a Paris-based brand that makes custom leather jackets for celebrity wearers like Blake Lively and Will.i.am. Nour Hammour (the person) and Erin Conry Webb, the brand's designers, partnered with Kendall and Kylie's mobile game (by paying Glu Mobile, though the company declined to disclose the deal terms), so that the brand is incorporated into the users' virtual world: Players can access Nour Hammour's virtual store, receive push notifications alerting them to the availability of specific virtual jackets, and acquire them for their virtual wardrobes.
The virtual experience also crossed over into "real life": Users interested in moving one step closer to the brand's $1,600 jackets can be redirected to the brand's Instagram page, and from there, check out Nour Hammour's actual online store where they could buy jackets to wear in real life.
For Kylie, Kendall, and Glu Mobile, incorporating a brand gives the game an element of realness (and a nice paycheck).
"We took a look at the brands Kendall and Kylie Jenner actually wear in their daily lives," Glu's CEO Niccolo de Masi told Racked. "A unique authenticity is added to the game as players engage with these brands naturally as they progress through gameplay."
For the brands, the benefit is even clearer. "We have an enormous amount of new followers from Instagram and a lot of their fans who have purchased and pre-ordered leather jackets," said Erin Conry Webb. A couple of the pieces designed in conjunction with the game also made it into the brand's summer collection.
Hammour's not the only brand to enjoy a serious spike in followers with post-celeb game inclusion. Karl Lagerfeld's collaboration with Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is a gold star in Glu's portfolio. Lagerfeld's eponymous brand launched ecommerce in November 2015 through the app, and Hollywood drove over 2.5 million individuals to the Lagerfeld site, Karl.com. The benefits were reciprocated as the weekend events (in which a Karl caricature searched for his "next new face" for a campaign) became one of the most engaging events the app has seen. Players spent an average of 50 minutes interacting with the game over the month-long promotion, and over 200,000 players bought a virtual Karl Lagerfeld item with their "K Stars," the game's currency. It was a success for Kim, it was a success for Karl, and it was a success for Glu.
If acquiring virtual jackets as you role-play a celebrity-adjacent life doesn't pique your interest, there's Covet Fashion, an app that's turned dress-up competitive. Launched in 2013, it currently services 2.5 million monthly users according to Blair Ethington, its SVP and general manager. Players complete style challenges with digitized versions of real pieces from 180 brands' lookbooks, then the community votes on the looks. This is not your little brother's video game.
Actually, don't even call it a game. Ethington says that, in her conversations with designers and brands, she's renamed it "‘interactive entertainment' because I know if I say the word ‘game' [brands are] going to turn around and stop listening." She adds that clothing brand's apprehension is often born out of misunderstanding. "The most common misconception is that the audience isn't their audience. A lot of brands just assume women don't game," she explains. When we — and fashion brands — think of gamers, too many of us still picture the proverbial gross guy in the basement.
Ethington credits Kim Kardashian: Hollywood with changing a lot of the conversation. It acted like a multi-million dollar bullhorn spreading the news that women + gaming isn't some unicorn equation. Together, Hollywood and Covet "show there are an enormous amount of women out there that want to be entertained on their phone, but up until now, they haven't been catered to. It's not that they weren't interested; it's that no one was building them games," she said.
Brands don't always have to pay to reach the female gaming audience. Covet doesn't charge brands to participate; it instead employs this sort of mutually assured marketing. "We award our users in game diamonds — our in-game currency — for purchases made on our brands' websites," Ethington explained. "For example, if you shop at Halston Heritage right now, we'll give you 100 diamonds for every $1 spent, that's equal to 30% cash back in currency. This creates a really nice feedback loop."
Glu employs similar perks. Karl.com was made available to Hollywood players before the rest of the public and Nour Hammour designed new styles (or new versions of already popular styles, like the Erin jacket) specifically for the Kendall and Kylie game before introducing it into a later collection.
For Covet, the celebrity angle is just another layer. They started introducing "hosts" to the game back in December with Emma Roberts. Since then, Gabrielle Union and Nina Dobrev have signed on, creating challenges based around their style preferences and anything else they're personally promoting. And just as these games allow users to interact with brands to a heightened degree, they get to interact with celebrities. As Ethington puts it, "Social media opened up celebrity's lives to users, so you can get an inside look at a celebrity's life and what they're doing from their eyes. With gaming, it brings you that, but at a deeper level because now you have interaction."
Ethington recalls a moment Dobrev posted a look that a gamer created for her next to a photo of her wearing the outfit on Twitter. "That user actually got to dress Nina in real life," Ethington said.
Yesterday, Covet announced its fourth celebrity collaborator, Vanessa Hudgens. From now until mid-June, Hudgens will challenge users to dress her avatar for date nights and wine-and-cheese parties. She'll tweet about Covet and post user's picks. She'll bring her fans to the app and the app's fans will get to know her — her likes and dislikes, tastes, and what looks good with her digitized dark hair and eyes.
Covet's versatile approach — introducing multiple celebs and their unique personalities within one game — uncovers a potential weakness in the roleplaying celeb games as a marketing tool for brands: They're only as successful as their titular character. Kim's app is still out-performing the newest iteration, though it debuted nearly two years ago. A first quarter sales call revealed that Hollywood grossed $12 million (about a quarter of what it brought in when it initially hit the market).
Glu reported $9 million gross for Kendall and Kylie after three months on the market. Though it's a fraction of Kim's game, it's not a small amount, and for a brand like Nour Hammour, which has goals like increasing brand awareness and social. For them, and potentially many others, the smaller-than-Kim win is still a massive win.