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In computing, a skin (also known as visual styles in Windows XP) is a custom graphical appearance preset package achieved by the use of a graphical user interface (GUI) that can be applied to specific computer software, operating system, and websites to suit the purpose, topic, or tastes of different users. As such, a skin can completely change the look and feel and navigation interface of a piece of application software or operating system.
Software that is capable of having a skin applied is referred to as being skinnable, and the process of writing or applying such a skin is known as skinning. Applying a skin changes a piece of software's look and feel—some skins merely make the program more aesthetically pleasing, but others can rearrange elements of the interface, potentially making the program easier to use.
Common skinnable applications
Some platforms support changing the standard interface, including most using the X Window System. For those that do not, programs can add the functionality, like WindowBlinds for Microsoft Windows and ShapeShifter for macOS.
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Skinning is typically implemented with a model–view–controller architecture, which allows for a flexible structure in which the interface is independent from and indirectly linked to application functionality, so the GUI can be easily customized. This allows the user to select or design a different skin at will, and also allows for more deep changes in the position and function of the interface elements.
Pros and cons
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The benefit of skinning in user interfaces is disputed. While some find it useful or pleasant to be able to change the appearance of software, a changed appearance can complicate technical support and training. A user interface that has been extensively customized by one person may appear completely unfamiliar to another who knows the software under a different appearance. Some usability practitioners feel that this flexibility requires interaction design expertise that users might not have.
Many websites are skinnable, particularly those that provide social capabilities. Some sites provide skins that make primarily cosmetic changes, while some—such as H2G2—offer skins that make major changes to page layout. As with standalone software interfaces, this is facilitated by the underlying technology of the website—XML and XSLT, for instance, facilitate major changes of layout, while CSS can easily produce different visual styles.
In video games, the term "skin" is similarly used to refer to cosmetic options for a player's character (including color schemes, costumes, and accessories) and other in-game items. Often skins are awarded as unlockable content for completing specific goals or reaching specific milestones of the game (such as the Batman: Arkham franchise and the 2018 Spider-Man game, which both feature alternate costumes based on various incarnations of the title character in their respective franchises).  The Destiny franchise similarly features cosmetic items known as "shaders" that are used to apply color schemes to armor pieces and weapons. Skins may sometimes constitute purchased downloadable content (DLC).
In the 2010s, skins increasingly became deemed a virtual good in video games as a monetization strategy, especially within free-to-play games. In microtransactions commonly known as "loot boxes", a player can earn a random selection of in-game items, which may include skins and other cosmetic items of varying rarity. While often defended as being similar in practice to booster packs for collectible card games, researchers have deemed loot boxes to be "psychologically akin to gambling", and their inclusion in full-priced games have faced criticism from players for being an anti-consumer practice. Via the Steam platform, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2 also allow players to trade these items, which has led to communities devoted to bartering them for real-world money, as well as gambling.
- Theme (computing)
- Computer wallpaper
- Look and feel
- User interface engineering
- Industrial design
- Windows Aero
- Windows XP visual styles
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