If you’ve never felt the irresistible urge to pretend you’re a Final Fantasy character, you might find it ironic that people pick up cosplaying – dressing up as a videogame or anime character – out of a desire to fit in. But that’s how it began for Jean.
“I was going to my first convention and found photos with all the costumes people wore,” Jean, who declined to give her last name, says in an email interview, “and I thought that if you didn’t show up in one you’d be the only person wearing ‘normal’ clothes.” The hobby has had lasting appeal: Four years later, Jean is still a keen cosplayer who recently appeared in an issue of COSMODE – Japan’s premier cosplay magazine.
Fitting in with one group might mean standing out in another, but the responses of people Jean meets are positive, if sometimes puzzled: “I’ve walked around in public in cosplay before and have never gotten any negative reactions. People are just curious. From what I’ve seen, people are actually pretty open to the idea once you explain it to them.”
Within the community, however, it’s an instant connection between participants. “It’s actually my favorite thing about cosplaying: getting to meet people who share your interests,” says Jean. “The medium of cosplay provides an immediate familiarity between you and a stranger. It’s really, really easy to make friends in the community.”
Jean’s motivations go a long way toward dispelling the stereotype of cosplayers (and gamers in general) as social loners, but they’re not uncommon. Author and game studies scholar James Newman, who has researched widely into cosplay for his latest book on videogame fandom, sees the hobby as intensely social. “These creations are designed to be seen by an audience and are created with the help and guidance of the collective intelligence of the cosplay community,” he says.
“This social aspect of fandom is almost invisible within the popular and even academic community, as most people tend to focus on the game itself or maybe how it is played. It is only when you start to look at games as things to be played with – as resources to be used, reused, recycled, reinvented – that you realize the poverty of the idea that videogaming is a solitary pursuit.”
Garry Kline, one of the administrators of CosplayLab.com, a site which hosts a community of over 40,000 cosplayers from around the world, also sees the hobby as a social outlet. “We get together to work on costumes, or watch anime,” Kline says. “Some of us like to work in secret preparing to unleash our next greatest creation at the next convention, but I don’t think that makes them a hermit crab. Cosplay is a way for people to break down the walls of difference and develop bonds of friendship by discovering similar interests.”
It’s not just the community that draws people into the hobby, however. Newman believes that cosplay is a logical extension of what happens in videogame play. “If the mechanics of a videogame see a player virtually stepping into the shoes of a character, embodying them as they perform as them in the gameworld, then it isn’t a huge leap to more literally embody these same characters and step out of the virtual world. The cosplayer breathes life into the character in a way that is often impossible in the context of the game.”
Jean has cosplayed as characters from videogames such as Soul Calibur, Xenosaga, Final Fantasy, and Kingdom Hearts, and agrees that there is something more personal about cosplaying videogame characters. “I think the appeal of cosplaying from videogames is that there’s so much inspiration drawn from having played as the character. So you’ve already kind of become them in a way even before you cosplay them!”
Some cosplayers even go as far as constructing elaborate photographic montages that replicate still images from games down to the poses, facial expressions, backdrops and scenery. “There is a desire to fuse oneself with the virtual character,” says Newman. “This is mostly about getting inside the game, not about attempting to bestow the characteristics of the character upon themselves.”
Others, however, are more interested in plucking the game characters from that virtual world and place them in commonplace real-world settings. Pictured on the cover of Newman’s latest book are Katamari Damacy cosplayers; another photo in the same series shows the Prince kicking back in a hotel lobby. “This all makes the character rounded by fleshing out details that aren’t made visible in the games and by relocating these usually extraordinary characters in mundane, ordinary locations of everyday life.”
It’s a common misconception that cosplaying requires the knowledge and skills to make your own costumes. Some choose to buy readymade costumes or order them from highly skilled members of the community, known as commissioners, who often work on a one-to-one basis with their customers. There is no stigma against buying costumes, and Jean says that the real charm and fun of cosplay lies in getting into the role of your chosen character. “I often find that after cosplaying a character, I grow to appreciate and like them more when I go back and re-watch the series or re-play the game. You start to feel somewhat of a bond to them!”
Kline agrees. “Some people relate to the character’s personality or quirky behavior, others see cosplay as a creative outlet, while still others are drawn to cosplay by the fun of it all. Prancing around in public or on stage in front of a captive audience has a sublime effect when fans of your character are shouting your praises.”
Regardless of what attracts them to cosplaying, most people who do so regularly spend huge amounts of time and money on the hobby. Kline himself has spent over 100 hours creating one of his award-winning costumes. “I’ve heard it said that cosplay is more expensive than a drug addiction,” Kline says, “so unless you have good job or parents with deep pockets, most people won’t spend more than 5 hours on their costumes.”
Kline isn’t just unique in the amount of effort he makes on his costume – males in general make up just a fraction of the cosplay community. Kline says that for every 100 girls, there are only two or three guys who are serious about cosplay. “Gender isn’t the determining factor in which character to dress up as, though. It’s how they relate to the character’s personality. It’s not uncommon to see girls cosplaying both male and female characters, and on occasion a guy dressed as a female character, but it’s all in jest.”
For Newman, cross-dressed cosplay is inevitable. He explains that gender experimentation is common in videogame play. “Sometimes this is about identity play and exploration while sometimes this is … driven by the desire to succeed in the game.” It’s accepted and even encouraged for players of either gender to play as both male and female characters.
Even the act of costuming itself is built into the mechanics of many videogames, Newman says, making cosplay a very natural activity for videogame fans. Equipment functions as both a status symbol and a way of rewarding the player in such apparently different games as World of Warcraft and Soul Calibur. “Costume is not just adornment; it is linked to achievement, success and proficiency,” he says. “The best characters have the best armor and garb just as they have the best weapons. The best players can unlock the full range of outfits for their characters, and these become very visible indicators of one’s skill and prowess.”
Jean puts it more succinctly: “Everybody likes playing dress-up. If you’re creating your own character, equipping whatever you like to them, changing their appearance to suit your tastes … and then you play as them, that’s a form of cosplay.”
She adds, “It might inspire you to try the real thing.”
Alice Atkinson-Bonasio writes for games™ and 360 magazines. She was research assistant for the recently published book Playing With Videogames and is involved in the groundbreaking film project The 10 Pound Horror Film.