You’ve seen them at every convention, on your computer or television screen, on reality shows like SyFy’s Heroes of Cosplay, and in larger cities you may have even stumbled across a photoshoot or two. It seems like cosplayers are suddenly everywhere. Lately, cosplay has become more socially acceptable, with companies like Bioware releasing detailed character kits for their upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition so that cosplayers can replicate the game’s characters in detail – and celebrities like Nathan Fillion and even Madonna getting in on the action.

Now, with cosplay suddenly thrust into the public eye, there has been a lot of speculation as to why somebody would spend their time on what many would consider a fairly unusual hobby. As a cosplayer and con attendee of nearly fifteen years, hopefully I can shed a little light on the subject.

Cosplayers Do it For the Love of Media

First and foremost, cosplayers wear these costumes because they’re fans. They love a particular piece of media—whether it’s a comic book, movie, video game, book, or adaptation—and they want to express their enthusiasm for this media by dressing up as a character from that series. Truthfully, it’s not much different from a football fan wearing their favorite player’s jersey and painting their face in their team colors, or a KISS fan wearing a band t-shirt and KISS makeup to a concert. Contrary to what many people seem to believe, however, cosplay is not roleplay, and cosplayers don’t pretend they are the character while dressed in that character’s costume.

Cosplayers Do it For the Challenge

Most cosplayers have a healthy DIY attitude. They look at a prop or a piece of clothing a character is wearing, and immediately begin to plan out in their head how to make it. Even cosplayers who source (read: commission or purchase) their costumes instead of building them from scratch spend exhaustive hours studying each piece so that they know the exact cut of blouse to buy when they go to the thrift store, or which kind of gambeson to tell the armorsmith to forge when they’re having armor made.

Most cosplayers approach each new costume as a challenge to be overcome, and often learn new skills along the way. Many cosplayers teach themselves how to sew, and a large number develop talents such as resin or latex casting, maskmaking, wig sculpting, makeup application and millinery. Each new project is a brand new experience, and cosplayers are always learning new and interesting things to add to their creative arsenals.

Cosplayers Do it For Attention?

Over and over again I see this phrase pop up whenever the conversation turns to cosplay, and I think it’s something of a misnomer. It would be more appropriate to say that cosplayers do it for recognition. Cosplayers want the hard work they’ve put into their costumes to be recognized. As with any project that has taken hours until completion, they want others to help them celebrate the end product. This is why you see cosplayers out there getting their pictures taken: it’s less “look at me,” and more “look what I’ve done.”

In the end, cosplay is a celebration—of a particular fandom, and of the hard work and creativity it takes to bring a piece of that fandom to life. When you put it that way, I don’t think cosplay is that difficult to understand.