The team behind Covet Fashion, the mobile styling game, recently realized it had a serious problem.
Users of the app, which has 2.5 million active users and is one of the top 100 grossing iOS apps, were reporting that racial biases were growing pervasive on the game, which pits user-designed ensembles against one another to score points. Blair Ethington, vp and general manager at Covet Fashion, said users had started to misuse the skin tone feature, which allows players to select the hue of their model avatar. Rather than serve as a celebration of diversity, players were leveraging it to sway more points within the voting community by selecting lighter-skinned models.
“Unfortunately, what happened was selecting skin tone became a strategy, and people started theorizing over what skin tones led to better scores,” Ethington said. “That was heart-wrenching, and we wanted to remove those biased strategies and hurtful messages.”
Covet Fashion operates by tasking users with styling virtual models for a series of destination-based challenges, ranging from movie premieres to travel looks, and integrating real products from more than 200 designers. Participating users vote on the best outfits, and top-scoring players are incentivized with rankings, in-app cash and rewards points to access different garments. The app also includes an e-commerce element, in which users can click the links to featured products and buy them on the sites of participating brands.
However, the team was alerted that its system was going awry. In 2014, on an online gaming forum called Chapter Cheats, a user named Maggie asked if other players were noticing that when they entered black models into a challenge, they were scoring less than caucasian counterparts.
“After I while, I got discouraged because black models didn’t do as well as my caucasian blonde models, so I started posting just that, and my scores went up. I’m wondering if there are a lot of others out there who would really like to post more black looks but are afraid their style scores will suffer?” she posted.
The question garnered several responses, all echoing similar challenges. Another user named Laura wrote: “I used to use the darker skin tones all the time, until I realized I was repeatedly losing events with them while I always won with the lighter skin tones.”
Ethington began receiving personal messages, as well — including an email from a mother who said that while she and her daughter were both avid players of the game, they were frustrated with the skin-tone feature as black women. In response, Covet Beauty launched a survey of the player community to better understand their grievances, and 30,000 responses later, they found a solution.
Today Covet Fashion is debuting 50 new models that are diverse in both skin tone and size. For each challenge, users will be presented with the same model, a preventative measure to remove any bias based on skin. Players will still be able to customize hair and makeup, but the body itself will stay the same. “When you see a lineup of the models we’re using, we have great variance. We feel really strongly that people learn by doing, and that’s a more powerful way to learn by change.”
Images of two of the new Covet Beauty avatars.
The discrimination points to the continued widespread issues around diversity within the fashion industry. While several designers have made a concerted effort to feature models of color in runway shows and advertising, fashion shows, in many cases, are still alarmingly comprised of white models. The revelation of Covet Fashion demonstrates how the anonymity of technology can play a role in advancing prejudicial practices in the industry.
In addition to promoting positivity and inclusivity around race, Ethington said she hopes that the range of body sizes will help educate brand partners, many of which do not offer plus-sized clothing. She said that the effort is intended to both nudge fashion retailers to expand their offerings and bring new brands onboard who are continuing to design for plus-sized women.
As part of the relaunch of the app, Covet created an accompanying video titled “A Beautiful Perspective: How Compliments Can Empower” that features testimonials from women sharing their insecurities and their hopes for society’s perception on beauty. Each of the women is styled by the Covet Fashion team and then asked to meet with another woman they’ve never met, who shares her observations of them.
“There are still too few fashion brands that are being more diverse in their advertising, marketing and shows,” Ethington said. “The way that we do it should have a larger impact.”