Seeing Critically: Skins and Palate Swaps in Video Games

© Copyright 2020 Philip Dennis, Ryerson University


As society has progressed so has technology, and where technology progresses entertainment follows. One of the more recent developments in entertainment technology is the video game industry. As video games are becoming a major part of society it is necessary to look at how the social world is shaped by them. Many video games allow for the player to customize their experience. These customizations can come in terms of a change in gameplay, however in this essay I will focus on the customizations that do not affect gameplay. These items or customizations are usually used to affect the look of a game or character and are called cosmetics. Cosmetics come in many different forms and they mean different things depending on the game and its respective community. However the cultural capital is also gained from respect within gaming culture. Dedication is one of the main factors to people gaining these alternate visual styles and so the dedication of a player is what is respected. These cosmetic items are sometimes rarer than others, and so this paper will be looking at the use of cosmetic customization in video games as a form of cultural capital.

Cultural Capital

In order to understand this subject matter one must first understand cultural capital. Cultural capital is the idea of objects having social value. While financial capital is the money that one accrues, cultural capital refers to the objects that one acquires and how they align with the style of the given time. It can also refer to the credentials an individual has, however the more useful portion of it for this study is the prior. As Baudrillard points out, there was a difference between the household objects such as the tables of royalty and peasants, even though they served the same purpose (5, 6). This means that how they were made and how they are accepted by society changes their value to that society. If the rich enjoy a certain lifestyle then that lifestyle becomes the ideal. The pushing of this boundary is cultural capital. By owning the things that are stylish an individual acquires cultural capital. As society has progressed into the industrial age, mass production has allowed for easier access to these objects. However this was a retroactive fitting of the concept to our world. The term was first used in France in the 1960s to look at how parents’ affluence and cultural knowledge affected their children in school (Prieur and Savage, 247-249). As time has gone on the idea of culture has become more widespread and varying the idea of cultural knowledge changes depending on the subcultures that the individual inhabits. It also skews the idea of what is considered High culture (Prieur and Savage, 247). Within the age of industrialization it allowed for a wider variety of people in on what was considered high culture, and now within the digital age it allows for everyone to achieve higher forms of culture within their own personal cultural subsections.

Shiny Pokémon

Within video games items such as skins or alternate colours are in infinite supply. Many games rely on RNG, or random number generation, to spawn these items. Within games such as Pokémon there are alternate colour schemes for each of the almost 900 Pokémon. These alternate colours have changed rarity throughout the games with specific methods to lower the chances in each game, however no matter the game the rarity is quite high. These alternate colour schemes, or palate swaps, do not change the gameplay in any way and serves more as a way to show off your luck and patience. These alternate colours are colloquially known as “shiny” Pokémon due to the sparkles that appear when they are found in the wild. Some shiny Pokémon change drastically, swapping all of the colours on their bodies, some have more subtle changes, and some barely change at all making them almost indistinguishable from the normal version of that specific Pokémon unless the player is knowledgeable in the shiny differences of that particular species. Pokémon such as Umbreon

Normal and Shiny forms of the Pokemon Umbreon
Philip Dennis. “Umbreon.” Screenshot, 2020. Philip Dennis. From the article “Seeing Critically: Skins and Palate Swaps in Video Games” (Figure 1)

(Figure 1) are known for having a small yet easily distinguishable change. Within the most recent addition to the series, Pokémon Sword and Shield, there is a new kind of shiny Pokémon that enters battle with square as opposed to star shaped sparkles, which is at an even higher rarity. Within the community there is a certain respect given to people who own these Pokémon. Actively seeking out shiny Pokemon, or shiny hunting as it is called, takes immense time and patience or luck. From my own experience with the pastime it can take hours with no results while other times you may find one without even trying. This is such a high accolade that there are people who make a living streaming this activity on platforms such as in an attempt to create a “shiny living dex” which means having one of each Pokémon in their shiny variant at the same time (SmkGaming05). As a form of cultural capital, shiny Pokémon are respected within the Pokémon community. This respect is due to the dedication required to acquire the Pokémon.

The difference between this and older forms of cultural capital is the availability. Cultural capital is related to style and being considered stylish. In the past this was limited by class, and therefore production (Baudrillard 5, 6). However Kim and Kim see cultural capital as an inclusion in cultural experiences that they see of value (297). Kim and Kim’s definition is good, however as they wrote in 2008 they did not see video games as an important part of society. As Kim and Kim are more modern writers than Baudrillard they recognized that cultural capital can be acquired at a larger scale than before. Cultural capital continues to be more readily available as time progresses, however some games use events to feign the idea of exclusivity and therefor create more cultural capital as a result.

Skins in Overwatch

Games such as Overwatch use skins and events to give people a bigger sense of social power around the skins they own. Skins are a cosmetic option that changes how your character appears in game (Figure 2, 3).

Junkrat in his Default skin
Philip Dennis. “Junkrat Default.” Screenshot, 2020. Philip Dennis. From the article “Seeing Critically: Skins and Palate Swaps in Video Games” (Figure 2)

Overwatch is a first person shooter where players can choose to play as one of many different unique characters, each with their own abilities and look. When the game was released each character had many different cosmetic options, out of all of them the 10 skins that each character had were considered the most wanted by players. These cosmetics are acquired from lootboxes that can either be bought with real money, or acquired after every time the player levels up. After the game had been out for a few months the creators put out an event in the summer to celebrate the Olympic Games. This event brought new cosmetic options for each character. These new cosmetics could only be acquired during the event and once the event was over they were locked from being unboxed until the next year’s event of the same type. This forced slowing of the acquiring of skins, and allowing them to only be acquired for a short period of three weeks for each of the six different events each year, gives those skins in particular a different social standing. There are three rarities of skins within the game and the rarest, legendary which is marked by orange wording, is quite difficult to come across. While the events are active they do not guarantee that you can get event cosmetics either, the event cosmetics are just added to the pool. This exclusivity is reminiscent of the past with what Baudrillard mentions about the first forms of cultural capital (5, 6).

These skins allow for people to show style. The common skins change the character’s colours slightly, while the rarest completely change their model (Figure 2, 3).

Junkrat in his "Beachrat" skin
Philip Dennis. “Junkrat Default.” Screenshot, 2020. Philip Dennis. From the article “Seeing Critically: Skins and Palate Swaps in Video Games” (Figure 3)

These skins are very noticeable within gameplay, both by other players and the player who is using the skins. This small amount of style that can be shown off by players within Overwatch and by having the skins, depending on the time of year, it can show seniority and dedication. These personal styles that players theme their play around varies wildly. Many of the skins are styled with how the character looked before the game’s story and many are just interesting designs. It allows for the player to take their own style. Style is very important for cultural capital. Aligning your style with what is popular gives massive social status, and being a frontrunner of that style can increase it more. The skins are often shown off immediately after they are acquired. In my own experience with the game I have seen players play characters they never had before in order to show off the new skin that they just received. Another piece of cultural capital within Overwatch revolves around the existence of Golden Guns. These are cosmetic options that a player can get after playing the competitive game mode a lot. These are used to show off prowess with a certain character and the player can achieve greater levels of respect by having one of these weapons. It shows dedication to the character and the game.

Outfits in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games

Many games allow for personalization with things such as character creators in Role Playing Games, and games within the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) allow for the player to express themselves to all other players through their visual style. At the start of games such as Blade & Soul players can create their own avatar that other players will see them as. MMORPGs are a different kind of game in that when playing the story of the game you can see the other players at the same time. This allows for the players to show off their character to the world, and in doing so show off their style. MMORPGs are the most like older forms of cultural capital in comparison to other games, especially if they are free to play. Free to play games need some way to monetize themselves, some do it by advertising, and some do it by in game purchases. Blade & Soul monetizes itself through the sale of outfits for characters in game. This means that people will pay money in order to buy expensive outfits for their character. These outfits can be customized as well. According to Baudrillard in order for something to have high cultural capital value it must be personalized (6). The personalization of changing the colours of the outfits in order to better match the character would fit Baudrillard’s definition of cultural capital needing to have differences in order for the value to show. This is one of the few cases where dedication is shown in a different way, by spending money in order to change your appearance in game it shows dedication. This dedication is shown by the player valuing their social standing within this one game over their own finaces and what could be a more traditional form of cultural capital.


Dedication is a huge part of what constitutes cultural capital within video games. If people work hard they are respected and the cosmetics that they receive as proof of their dedication is seen as a symbol of their prowess. While the old forms of cultural capital that focused on high society are fading as societal lines continue to blur, the new forms of cultural capital that sprout up within different social groups thrive. Within the community for each video game the cultural capital landscape differs. In the ones that I have explored they all revolve around cosmetics. Both colour swaps, skins, and outfits allow for customization within one’s own experience of a game and the more someone is dedicated to any given game, the more likely they are to have these cosmetics to show for it. This dedication to their game of choice shows to other people within the community how much they work for these items and in return they do not gain anything physical or monetary, what they gain is respect and cultural capital.


Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “The System of Objects: Models and Series.” Art Monthly (Archive: 1976-2005), no. 115, 1988, pp. 5-8.

“50 Shiny Pokemon Live Reactions! | Shiny Living Dex #101-150 | Pokemon X and Y – Pokemon ORAS” Youtube, uploaded by SmkGaming05, Oct 22, 2016,

“Junkrat Beachrat Skin.” Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment, 2020. Screenshot by author.

“Junkrat Classic Skin.” Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment, 2020. Screenshot by author.

Kim, Seoyong, and Hyesun Kim. “Does Cultural Capital Matter?: Cultural Divide and Quality of Life.” Social Indicators Research, vol. 93, no. 2, 2009, pp. 295-313.

“Normal and Shiny Umbreon.” Pokemon Sword & Shield, Gamefreak, Nintendo, 2019. Umbreon, Serebii, 2020. Screenshot by author.

Prieur, Annick, and Mike Savage. “Emerging Forms of Cultural Capital.” European Societies, vol. 15, no. 2, 2013, pp. 246-267.