Cosplayers: are they merely crazy fans or is there something else lying deeper beneath that compels them to dress up in such ostentatious outfits?
Cosplay has been recently been getting a lot of attention in the past 5 years or so with many more fans joining the hobby. Why is this phenomenon happening?
Before I begin this article, I should clarify what cosplay means. Cosplay is a combination of two words; costume and roleplaying. Cosplay can come in the form of portraying any character or fan versions from any genre, be it from western comics, movies, cartoons, anime, manga, games etc.
Cosplay is not limited to just Japanese characters nor is it a fashion-based subculture such as Lolita and Punk. It is also about embodying one’s favourite characters; from trying to look like them to portraying their personality quirks.
So who cosplays? Fans of course! These fans come in a myriad of sizes, ages, genders and races, etc.
Readers should be forewarned that this article is merely a brief analysis of cosplayers and that we have not done extensive research (aside from a massive survey conducted on 337 participants), hence this article only theorises why cosplayers do what they do.
I would also like to thank all participants who took the time and effort to contribute their thoughts on cosplaying in order for this article to be written. We here at Akiba Press truly appreciate your efforts and hope that this article can spread awareness and foster deeper understanding within and outside of the cosplay community as to why cosplayers do what they do.
So let’s get to it, why do these fanatic, fervent fans want to spend so much time, money and effort to play dress up as their favourite characters?
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
This hierarchy may be familiar as it may have been taught in school. To recap, the hierarchy of needs is a five tier model of human needs: physiological needs, safety needs, love and belongingness needs, esteem needs and self-actualisation.
Maslow states that in order for individuals to be motivated to attain certain needs, they need to fulfil the needs that take precedence over the others. Basically, an individual needs to fulfil the bottom tier(s) first before being able to fulfil the top tiers.
This model will be referenced in several sections of this article.
Positive reinforcement is under a field of Psychology known as Behavioural Psychology and is a form of operant conditioning.
Positive reinforcement is a reinforcing stimulus presented to an individual following a certain behaviour. This thus makes it more likely that the desired behaviour will continue in the future instead of extinguishing entirely. Think of it as you having done well in school and your parents give you some cash for it, this thus strengthens your behaviour in the future to get good grades.
Why is this relevant you may ask?
Positive Reinforcement is one of the core concepts of what fuels cosplayers to continue in this hobby; the reward. But what is this reward?
It can come in many forms; attention, the sense of accomplishment, a boost of self-confidence etc. But how do these rewards come about and how exactly do they work? We shall examine them further in the next few sections:
A huge number of survey participants answered that one of the most important reasons as to why they cosplay is because of the boost of self-esteem it gives them.
Self-esteem is defined as the gap between the ideal self and the actual self. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is also relevant in that self-esteem falls under the esteem needs tier.
It has been found that when we are able to demonstrate our abilities and attain certain levels of achievements in fields that are important to us, they help to bolster up our self-esteem. In cosplay, this comes in the form of when cosplayers go to events or photoshoots to display our skills in make up, wig-styling, posing, expressions or costume making etc.
It may even occur during competitions where cosplayers are pushed into the limelight. They then have an avenue to truly showcase to a live audience their capabilities as they portray their favourite characters on stage.
Cosplaying also helps ones self esteem through another outlet; by living out their idealised personas. More often than not, cosplayers tend to adore characters whom they can relate to and/or possess certain qualities that they wish to acquire. Such qualities can come in the form of physical and internal strength, beauty, popularity, confidence etc. As such, cosplayers are able to live out their idealised life as the person they admire and respect deeply by dressing up and emulating them for a brief period of time.
Flow is defined as a ‘state of absorption where one’s abilities are well-matched to the demands-at-hand’. For cosplay, it happens when relatively skilled cosplayers are able to craft or sew a costume which has a difficulty level that matches the skill level of said cosplayer.
Flow is then characterised by intense concentration, a loss of self-awareness, and a feeling whereby cosplayers feel neither bored nor overwhelmed, yet feel challenged by the task. As many cosplayers stated in the survey, for those who made/modified anything for their cosplay, they find it rewarding thanks to the state of ‘flow’ and engagement in the task that they have procured. Flow also helps cosplayers as they are able to upgrade their skills and achieve several goals, thus contributing to this sense of reward and thereby continue cosplaying.
A majority of respondents have stated that their friendships in the community are one of the strongest reasons for why they cosplay. It goes without saying that friendships are vital for an individual’s mental health regardless of who they are.
Friendships, intimacy, trust, acceptance and a sense of belonging fall under the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; love and belonging needs.
There have been a few respondents who recounted how being in the cosplay community gave them a sense of belonging as they were able to find people who accepted and welcomed them for who they were; even to the point of being able to relate to them on a personal level. Some of these respondents also noted that they did not have pleasant experiences in the past with regards to fitting in with fellow peers. Hence, this strengthens their appreciation and gratitude for finding their ‘people’ in this community and forging stronger bonds with them than with others.
Research has also found that humans have an innate need to belong and to maintain a minimum amount of lasting, significant, and positive interpersonal relationships. In order to satisfy this need, there needs to be frequent and positive social interaction amongst same individuals as well as engaging in these interactions in a manner that is stable and caring.
A lack of this sense of belonging irrevocably leads to undesirable consequences for an individual’s happiness, mental health, adjustment and by extension, their physical health.
Cosplayers tend to meet up with these friends through events, usual hang outs and even form cosplay groups with them. As such, given that cosplayers are able to satisfy their need to belong within the cosplay community, friends do have a significant impact on why they cosplay and stay in the community.
While we have simply touched on some of the theorised major reasons as to why cosplayers cosplay, there is definitely a myriad of other reasons, big and small, to explain this phenomenon. All in all, these reasons bring about enjoyment and pleasure for these cosplayers in various ways, thus serving to reinforce the behaviour of cosplaying.
I highly encourage other cosplayers or interested third parties to conduct further research, be it in the fields of the social sciences or beyond, so as to contribute to this small pool of knowledge. I also hope that this article is able to endow cosplayers and the rest of society with some insight and knowledge as to why these fans dress and act the way they do, hence fostering more understanding amongst the community and other third parties.
At the end of the day, cosplayers are still regular folk under all the costumes, make up and wigs. Irregardless of the reason(s) as to why they cosplay, these fans are here to have fun and we all shouldn’t take things too seriously.
- McLeod, S. (2016, September 16). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved June 02, 2017, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
- Ben-Zeév, A. (2014, March 11). Why We All Need to Belong to Someone. Retrieved June 02, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-the-name-love/201403/why-we-all-need-belong-someone
- Whitbourne, S. K. (2013, March 26). Fifteen Reasons We Need Friends. Retrieved June 02, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201303/fifteen-reasons-we-need-friends
- Csikszentmihályi, M. (1988), “The flow experience and its significance for human psychology”, in Csikszentmihályi, M., Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 15–35, ISBN 978-0-521-43809-4
- Smith, E. R.; Mackie, D. M. (2007). Social Psychology(Third ed.). Hove: Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1-84169-408-5.
- Nathaniel Branden. Cómo mejorar su autoestima. 1987. Versión traducida: 1990. 1ª edición en formato electrónico: enero de 2010. Ediciones Paidós Ibérica. ISBN 978-84-493-2347-8.