Friday, September 18, 2015

On Conventions, Cosplay and Furries

Three years ago I moved to Montreal. One of the perks that comes with living in a big city is you get exposed to a wide variety of events. One summer evening, as I was walking back home from work I saw a man who was wearing what appeared to be chunks of bright red plastic.

When I asked him about it, he told me that he was cosplaying for a local anime convention called “Otakuthon”.

Being a game developer, I certainly knew about cosplay and anime conventions, but having never lived in a major city before I never had the chance to attend one. As I browsed the convention’s website that night, I figured it might be interesting to check it out. I wasn’t a very big fan of anime, but I did watch a few as a kid and I was curious to see what the convention was all about.

The next morning I walked over to the convention center. Here are some of my thoughts as I walked around:

“Hah, this one is dressed up as Skull Kid, I guess I’m in the right place”

“Are those girls dressed up as Dangan Ronpa characters? I didn’t think anyone else knew about that game”

“Holy shit, I don’t know what that is but it’s awesome”

“Is that a character from OFF?”

“Is there an entire contingent of people cosplaying as OFF characters???”

“OMG There’s the entire cast of Hunter X Hunter walking around”

“This is fucking awesome”

It’s one thing to look at pictures of cosplay on the internet – but to actually be there and see it is a completely different feeling. You’re surrounded by an endless stream of fictional characters come to life – all those people your brain had filed away as “not real” are now very real, and they’re standing right in front of you. Pyramid Head just walked past you, Morrigan is over there and there’s a pair of Journey characters just chilling on a nearby couch.

The only way to describe this experience is “magical”. Your mind intuitively knows the difference between fantasy and reality – it knows the cast from Team Fortress 2 aren’t real people, and you’re never going to meet them in the real world. To see all nine of them posing for a photo disrupts your expectations in a major way. Yes, they’re just nine regular people wearing costumes – they’re not actually mercenaries fighting to the death over an endless territorial battle. But you’ll find that the cynical parts of your brain will usually be turned off when you see good cosplayers – your disbelief will be suspended, and all you’ll be left with is the magical feeling of “Holy shit, I just met the Engineer.”

While your mind is struggling to make sense of the fact that all those characters you thought were fictional might actually be real, you’ll come to a pleasant realization: “All of these people here are like you.” As someone who grew up isolated and bullied with only the Internet for refuge, I had pretty much accepted the fact that I was all alone – or at least that there were very few other people who shared my interests. I thought for sure nobody had ever heard of Danganronpa or OFF – and here were dozens of people dressed up as characters from those games.

You aren’t alone.

For once in your life your nerdiness doesn’t have to be a badge of shame that you struggle to hide while the people around you discuss beer and football. This girl right in front of you is dressed up as a character from a highly obscure Gamecube game (Billy Hatcher to be precise), you get the reference and suddenly she’s your friend.

And to top it all off, the actual convention offers you a bunch of events, panels, game tournaments as well as an entire gymnasium’s worth of booths where you can buy cool nerdy things, like an actual steel replica of Frostmourne. I was never one for rampant consumerism, but I can’t resist buying prints of good art – and three years later my room walls are lined with prints I’ve bought at various conventions over the years.

Really though – the events and the dealers’ area are just the backdrop. The main attraction for me has always been the people – and the costumes. I discovered I had a major love for cosplay, and I wanted to be a part of it. But then, the question is: what do I cosplay as?

I never cosplayed – for years I just sat back and enjoyed cosplay as a passive observer. Whenever I thought of something I could cosplay as, the same issues always cropped up:

1. Quality. I hold myself to extremely high standards, and I refuse to do anything mediocre. If I were to cosplay as a Demon’s Souls character, I would want an actual suit of metal plate armor. Given that I’m not a blacksmith and I have zero experience making costumes, I have no idea where to start – and the whole project rapidly falls apart, especially when you consider how expensive such as project would be versus how much I would get out of it.

2. Body type. Good cosplay has to be faithful to the character’s body type – you can’t be a believable Kratos if you’re skinny or overweight. Being a tall, large man with red hair and pale skin, there are very few characters that I could portray well. I’m too large to pull off the “anime pretty-boy” and not muscular enough to pull off the “Diablo 2 Barbarian” look. Sure, I could shave my head, put on a good business suit with a red tie and be a decent Agent 47, but that brings us to problem number 3.

3. There’s not really any characters that I love enough to want to spend hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours to bring to life. Yes, God Hand was a pretty cool game, one that was criminally underappreciated – but I don’t care about it enough to want to dress up as Gene. The one exception might be Rez, but if anyone ever figures out how to do proper Rez cosplay, look me up.

So I never found a character that I could pull off convincingly and loved enough to motivate me to spend the time and money necessary to do so. And as the years went on, the magic of cosplay faded – it turned into a stream of “another Joker”, “another League of Legends character”, “another girl in a skirt from some anime I’ve never heard of”. And I began to see all the downsides of it:

1. Cosplay is exclusionary – if you don’t get what the costume is referencing, you don’t really appreciate the costume. As someone who has never really cared for Doctor Who, the multiple Daleks I saw wandering around did not impress me. I can see that the person put a lot of work into the costume, but since I’m not familiar with the TV show, I don’t really see the appeal. Sure, most people can appreciate a Spider-Man costume – but if you’re cosplaying as Yorda, I’d wager 95% of people won’t get it.

2. Cosplay is about performance – and a lot of cosplayers don’t get that. If I see Arthas Menethil wandering around, I’ll pull out my best Tirion Fordring impression and call out “Arthas!” I might expect The Lich King to whip his cape around, point Frostmourne at me and boom “Insolent mortal” in a gravelly voice. What happens instead is that the dude stops in his tracks, shuffles awkwardly to face me and lets out a high-pitched “huh?”. Suspension of disbelief is pierced, and you’re instantly reminded of the fact that under all the badass armor, it’s just a nerd who probably plays way too much World of Warcraft.

3. Cosplay is about shilling other people’s commercial products. While your Mad Moxxi costume is cool, you’re still effectively doing Gearbox’s marketing for them – for free. You’re spending hundreds of dollars of your money – and dozens of hours of your free time – so you can advertise the product of a company that has never even heard of you. Borderlands is a pretty cool game, but is it really worthy of that kind of devotion?

At this point, you might be asking “what does any of this have to do with Furries?” I’m getting there.

Some one or two percent of the cosplayers you see at an event like Otakuthon are fursuiters. A fursuiter is someone who wears a fursuit. Fursuits are costumes that look like this:

Fursuits are a product of the Furry community. While not every Furry owns a fursuit, anyone wearing a fursuit is almost assuredly a Furry.

Growing up online, I was surrounded by Internet Culture – trolls, memes, lulz, drama, all those things. In Internet Culture, Furries do not have a good reputation – the narrative propagated by 4chan is that Furries are despicable weirdoes who should be exposed, named, shamed and ostracized for their interest. The more extreme contingents recommend physical violence. All this rhetoric is eerily similar to, say, the rhetoric of racist or homophobic hate groups – but having grown up surrounded by it, I never questioned it.

Which is why I was terrified of potentially encountering Furries in the real world. As I was waiting in line with a few friends at Otakuthon one year, I noticed a handful of people in the parking lot across the street – they were changing into their costumes for the convention. But their costumes were full-body suits made of fur – oh god, Furries. Look away – don’t make eye contact.

Being a good Internet denizen I didn’t want anything to do with Furries – I certainly didn’t want to be seen with them, and I didn’t want my friends to think less of me for associating with them. So I stayed the hell away from them, and all was well. But I was curious.

If you’re familiar with Internet Culture, you know about the negative reputation of Furries. But if you dig a little deeper and read about people’s actual experiences of visiting a Furry convention, you read that Furries are “very welcoming and friendly”.

“Furries are the nicest nerds and geeks I’ve ever met.”

A few adjectives come up over and over – friendly, welcoming, artistic, diverse, fun.

As I said, one of the perks of living in a big city is being exposed to all sorts of events. One google search revealed that Montreal has an actual, honest-to-god Furry convention. And since I was working independently at the time, I had no problem taking a day off to go check it out.

I went incognito, of course.

This is what I discovered:

Furries take cosplay and elevate it to a whole new level. Fursuits bring about the same magical feeling as cosplay does – your mind knows that the character is fictional, but the character is standing right in front of you. The contradiction here is even stronger – meeting the TF2 Heavy in the real world is certainly unexpected, but it’s still just a human with a big gun; it’s still something that is grounded in reality. Meeting a six-foot tall walking talking wolf is as surreal as encounters get.

Now imagine you step into a place where you’re surrounded by giant, walking breathing living plush toys. That one is pink. That one is a dragon. That one has huge purple antlers. That one is a giant raven wielding a battleaxe.

If being surrounded by cosplayers for the first time is magical, being surrounded by living impossible fantasy creatures is indescribable. You may be in your late twenties, bitter, jaded, cynical and depressed – none of those things matter. For a moment, you go back to that state of child-like whimsy where anything is possible and unicorns are real. Because one just walked past you.

Now, what might you want to do if you were to meet a six foot tall living plush toy? If your answer is “hug it”, then you’re in luck: Fursuiters are always happy to give hugs if you ask them nicely. It is entirely kosher for you to go up to a fursuiter, tap them on the shoulder and hold out your arms to request a hug. In most cases the fursuiter will playfully jump into your arms and squeeze you against them affectionately. And it feels as nice as you would expect – hugging people is the most common use-case for a fursuit, and the fake fur fabric is designed to be extremely soft and pleasant to the touch.

You’ll soon discover that the entire Furry community runs on hugs. The standard polite greeting at a Furry convention is not the firm and brief handshake – it is the heartfelt, full-body bear hug. It doesn’t matter if you met five minutes ago, it doesn’t matter what gender you are – people hug.

This is my favorite crocodile.

If this sounds like a welcome break from the “never-touch-anyone” rule enforced in modern society, that’s because it is. I love to touch and be touched – massage is one of my favorite things – but in today’s world, as a straight male, there are very few instances where touching people is okay. If you’re not in a romantic relationship, you basically don’t get to experience human physical contact on a regular basis. If you have a kinesthetic bent like me, that’s a very unfortunate situation.

Furries have this kinesthetic bent and completely embrace it. If you’re interacting with a fursuiter, it is perfectly okay to pet them – it’s a giant Husky, petting them is the point. It’s also perfectly okay to position yourself in the middle of three fursuiters and motion for a group hug – the resulting experience is warm, soft, fuzzy and will erase any trace of cynicism you may have.

Pictured: the cutest thing you’ll see all day

The Furry convention is just like the anime convention – you get to encounter fictional characters in the real world, but the effect is ten times stronger due to the fact that:

a. The fictional characters aren’t human. They’re impossible creatures that your mind relegated even further down in the “fantasy” category.

b. You get to interact with them much more closely. Fursuiters are playful, and you have not lived until you’ve received a piggyback ride from a giant plush toy.

And just like the anime convention, you’ll come to realize that all of these people are like you. Furries are just another slice of geekdom, and they like nerdy things like games, anime, comics and whatever else. Pokemon is a perennial favorite, and you’ll find no shortage of people glued to their 3DS. But you’ll also find an impressive number of artists – a huge chunk of Furries draw, some write and others make arts and crafts. Furries will awe you with their skill with a sewing machine, especially when you realize that in many cases, fursuiters make their own fursuit by hand.

Dance is a big thing in the Furry community – most furry conventions hold a dance competition, and the fursuit performers are genuinely impressive:

Just like cosplay, I discovered I have a major love of fursuits, and I wanted to be a part of it. And this time I didn’t encounter the problems I did with cosplay – fursuits, for me, fix all that is bad about cosplay:

1. Quality: The road to quality cosplay is extremely nebulous, since cosplay tends to be DIY amateur work. The road to a quality fursuit is extremely clear – there are dozens of professional fursuit making studios out there. Do some research, pick your favorite, pay the necessary amount and wait to receive your costume. The main obstacle here is cost – a good fullsuit will run you at least $2,000 USD, and it’s not uncommon for them to reach $3,000 or more. Fursuits are extremely expensive, but in all cases you get what you pay for. When you commission a studio of professional costume makers, what you get is a beautiful one-of-a-kind work of art.

2. Body Type: Whereas cosplay is highly dependent on body type, fursuits pretty much do away with your body type. In most cases you can’t tell the gender of the person inside a fursuit, so minor details like your build, skin color or hair color have no relevance to the quality of your costume. Your face is completely hidden and your entire body is covered.

3. Original Characters: Cosplayers pick from a limited pool of pop-culture characters. But when you fursuit, it’s usually as a character of your own design. Part of the process of getting a fursuit made is designing your character – deciding what the character is, what it looks like, how it should move, how it should act. There’s no limit to what you can do, no one to tell you what you should look like. The only limit is your own creativity and artistic ability. Your cosplay represents your appreciation of some existing intellectual property – your fursuit represents an artistic endeavor in bringing to life something completely new, something that is yours and yours alone.

4. Universal Appeal: If you haven’t played Halo, you won’t really “get” a Master Chief costume. But with fursuits, there’s nothing to “get”. It’s not a reference to some TV show. It’s just what you see, and it has to stand on its own. Anyone can appreciate a giant talking dog, be they five or fifty years old. As a fursuiter, you have the power to make everyone smile, laugh and make people’s day brighter.

5. Character Performance: Cosplayers tend to be unable to do anything other than pose for pictures. Fursuiters understand performance, and the best ones bring their character to life flawlessly. Good fursuiters don’t break character. In all cases, they’ll act as the character they’re portraying, and you can interact with that character freely. When you see a fursuiter, it’s not “a guy in a suit” – it’s the character brought to life, with the human temporarily abstracted away. This is what it might look like:

6. Self-Expression: Cosplayers ultimately serve as advertising for some commercial product that they’re a fan of. But when you’re fursuiting, you’re advertising yourself. Your character functions as a sort of avatar, as a sort of extension or representation of yourself – it’s something you invented and brought to life using your own artistic ability, your own creativity. Fursuiting is a way to showcase yourself, your own art.

And that is why I got involved in the Furry community. Say hello to Nitram:

My fursuit. If you see this guy wandering around, that's me.

1 comment:

  1. Dawn that's a nice story. Having gone through a similar experience, I started with cosplay but genuinely struggled w/ finding characters worth the time and effort, and ulitmately being upset at the result or not knowing what to do, I grew discontent.

    I always stayed wary of furries at first. The internet ridiculed them and some of my "friends" would accuse me of being one b/c of my love for characters with tails, Rocket Raccoon, Sonic, and the FNAF characters. But with some research i grew to love them and am glad to be a part of the community. I've yet to visit a furcon but i plan to attend a local one in may which has me very excited /)w(\

    I did want to make one minor comment. While i agree that you often need the right body type to make the cosplay believable (and I'm sure that's all you really meant), anyone should be able to dress up and portray whatever character they want to, regardless of weight or gender. What matters most is that they're enjoying themselves, and no one harks them just because their cosplay isn't up to par with others. But, as i said, I'm sure you only meant it as them being believable and surreal. ^^

    lastly, cute fursuit ;3c