Why Cosplay?

Gen Con Star Wars Thor

I love that Thor got into this photo. Marvel/Star Wars crossover movie?

This past weekend I experienced something unexpected at a massive gaming convention called Gen Con: I found myself among more people in costume than ever before in my life, even on Halloween.

Cosplay, as it’s called, is apparently very common at Gen Con. It might be the best people-watching event ever. You will see what Princess Leia looks like if she were a man with a potbelly. You will see Bob Ross. You will see random characters from video games you played when you were 8. And you will see a masked man on stilts who continues to haunt you in your dreams.

I’m fascinated by this whole idea of cosplay. I rarely get into Halloween as an individual, but I’ve enjoyed a good group costume from time to time. I couldn’t see myself walking around a convention in costume, though…at least, not until now. Now I’m kind of curious.

I’d really like to better understand what drives adults to dress up en masse in public at an event like Gen Con–I want to know the psychology behind it. I have a few theories:

  1. You’re treated like a celebrity. Seriously, if you’re in costume at Gen Con, you are a celebrity. I saw Wil Wheaton–an actual celebrity–talking to people in a gaming booth, and people were more interested in taking a photo of the skinny guy in green Hulk body paint than of Wheaton. Hundreds of strangers will want to meet you, take your photo, and take a photo with you if you’re in costume. Perhaps this is a geek’s way of enjoying the spotlight for once. It’s not the same on Halloween when you’re competing with a million “sexy” costumes (not that there weren’t sexy costumes at Gen Con, but they weren’t like “Sexy Nurse” or “Sexy Cat.” They were more like “Sexy Character that Peter Parker once talked to in a 1978 Spider-Man comic book”).
  2. The challenge of looking exactly like a fictional character. It’s a creative puzzle to build a costume to make you look exactly like someone else, especially someone who doesn’t exist in real life. I could see people really getting into that challenge, especially when the payoff is people recognizing you, no matter how ecclectic your character is.
  3. Escapism. I think all of us have wanted to be someone else at some point in our lives, no matter how happy you are with yourself now. Maybe you wanted to be the popular kid or the person who could always make everyone laugh. I think it’s that element of escapism that draws people to fiction–you get to escape into a book for a while and be a part of that world instead of the real world. Among the people who dress up in costume at Gen Con, I would guess that a large percentage of them need that escape. That’s a big reason why they’re drawn to games, and the same appeal is there for the costumes. Be someone else for a weekend.
  4. Acceptance. This ties into escapism. You could wear a costume to work tomorrow if you wanted to, but you would probably be laughed at. Not so at Gen Con. At Gen Con it’s the norm to wear a costume–it’s a culture that’s embraced there. You don’t have to be self-conscious about your desire to escape if everyone around you is doing the same thing.
  5. It’s fun. I don’t want to leave out this factor. It’s dependent upon all the other theories, but when it comes down to it, people have fun dressing up. We did it as kids, and here’s a chance to do it as an adult. Why not take the opportunity?

What do you think? If you were to bring a costume to Gen Con, what would it be? I would be tempted to wear my Dharma Initiative costume from Lost. No one got it when I wore it to Halloween a few years ago, but I bet tons of people would get it at Gen Con. Plus, I rarely get to wear outfits that consist of one piece of clothing.