This post is not explicitly about LARP — it’s about my first cosplaying experience at a sci-fi and fantasy convention, Arisia 2014, and cosplay is not the same thing as LARP, despite what the writers at Saturday Night Live seem to think. (This is a clip from the most recent episode. Around 1:30, the actors make a resolution to “cosplay less” while showing clips of them clearly LARPing, riffing off the Lightning Bolt! video. My resolutions are to bring more LARP into my life this year, not less.)
But I think it’s tangentially related to LARPing, because the experience provided some interesting insights for me into the effect costuming has on our social behavior.
Though I’d be very interested in attending more large-scale, general geek cons, I’ve been to very few. Arisia 2005 was actually my first large geek con (and it’s one of the smaller ones, at around 3,500 – 4,000 attendees)… and arguably my only other con, unless you include about an hour or so at New York Comic Con on a vendor’s pass borrowed from a friend, or Harvard University’s Vericon.
The brief look around Comic Con and memories of the Masquerade costume contest at Arisia 2005 (as well as stories and pictures from friends who attended other cons) inspired me to try cosplay, but I needed something quick and easy, since the decision was rather last minute. I had a yellow hoodie in my closet from a previous aborted intention to make a pikachu costume, so I pulled it out, bought some brown and yellow fleece and put it together in a few hours. (I’m thinking about throwing together a quick tutorial… this kind of costuming could easily be useful for some kinds of theater LARPs, but then again, nothing I did wasn’t anything even a beginner couldn’t guess just by looking.)
The makeup on my face, by the way, is actually red lipstick on my cheeks and black eyeliner on my nose. I couldn’t find face paint. What kind of self-respecting LARPer can’t find face paint in her home?
The effect the pikachu costume had on my social interactions was quite astonishing. Lowering my hood made the costume considerably less obvious, and the difference between walking around with the hood up and walking around with the hood back was quite distinct. With the hood up, and the ridiculous ears on display, strangers clearly felt quite comfortable approaching me. It wasn’t just compliments on the costume or requests for pictures, which are not uncommon in any context with any costume. (Notably, the requests for photos were much more frequent while in this costume than any other; of course, being at a convention has a lot to do with that.) Tons of people made pikachu noises at me (“Pika, pika! Chu!”) Two strangers asked me for hugs. On the dance floor, some guy grabbed my tail and flipped it up as he passed before I even realized he was there. And someone took pictures of me without asking, which has never happened to me before. (It actually made me very uncomfortable, even though I always posed for pictures when asked.) And there was something less tangible going on, too. I’m not sure, but I think people were inclined to stand slightly closer and talk to me a bit longer in a slightly more personal manner.
I realize that wearing a pikachu costume is a conversation starter — it’s a clear indication of a mutual interest (though I picked pikachu more because it’s — he’s? — a character in the Super Smash Brothers series, and not really because of the pokemon video games.) But people wear t-shirts indicating their interests and favorite pieces of media all the time, and it doesn’t have this effect, not even close. It’s gotta be something about the costume. (It’s also about the context of the convention, but if it were only about that, I think I would have noticed people treating other con-goers in fan t-shirts the same.)
By contrast, when I attend parties or events where people who are somewhere between acquaintances and friends are freely exchanging hugs, people generally don’t offer them to me, or do so with significant hesitation and awkwardness. I don’t mind hugs from people I know well enough, especially when people ask first, but I think I might give off I-prefer-not-to-be-touched vibes… but those vibes, if they exist, clearly vanished when I put on the pikachu sweatshirt and pulled up my hood.
I don’t think I know enough sociology or psychology to really analyze what was going on, but I can speculate. Of course, the assumption that people who cosplay welcome attention is probably fairly common. And obviously, my costume has a very playful, friendly, even cuddly impression. The costume is brightly colored and has pieces that are soft fuzzy fleece stuffed with padding. It makes me seem like a much warmer person. Younger, too (I was carded when I entered a panel for 18+, and I didn’t see the bouncer card anyone else.) People felt more welcome to engage with me; social barriers were more relaxed. I can imagine how other sorts of costumes also reduce social barriers, but in different ways. I don’t think anyone asked for a hug from two girls dressed in sexy female Loki and Black Widow costumes, though clearly strangers were engaging with them more than usual, too. (Only now do I have a clear idea of just how important it is to make cons safer with efforts like spreading the “costumes do not equal consent!” slogan.)
This experience, of course, reinforces my belief in just how important costuming in LARPing is. Not only can we look like our characters and improve our own immersion and the immersion of others with costuming, but we can use it to influence how others treat us. We can look at our costume designs and ask ourselves, “if I make the costume this way, what impression will I give? Should I use soft textures like fleece and felt in bright colors to seem more approachable, even huggable, or do I dress in dark colors in clothing with severe angles in order to appear more professional or stand-offish? It’s very hard to plan costumes with this level of specificity before reading the entire character sheet — and many costumes I make are made while all I have is a very short costuming hint that often lack even an adjective or two about the character’s personality, but maybe I should ask GMs for it before beginning a costume.