Cao Fei's "Golden Fighter (COSPlayers Series)," 2004.

Cao Fei’s “Golden Fighter (COSPlayers Series),” 2004.

The Economist has a short piece about the state of cosplay in China. “Cosplay” is a neologism from Japan, short for “costume play,” and it refers to dressing up as your favorite characters from anime and manga. This is a familiar practice in the West, when fans of movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter and even The Matrix dress up as characters from the films. It’s not necessarily called “cosplay,” but the idea is the same.

The Economist reports that the Hong Kong Ani-Com & Games Convention (香港動漫電玩節) now hosts 1,100 people, triple from 1999, with 170 exhibitors. They’ve recently expanded into mainland China, with Guangzhou in the south (it’s the third largest city in China after Beijing and Shanghai) and Shenyang in the northeast.  Of course, working in the mainland has its own set of challenges:

Censorship is stricter (so there is less sex and violence). Cartridge-style computer games are illegal, a rule that conveniently shuts out Microsoft’s Xboxes. Even games sold over the internet are limited — a few big portals have a lock on the Chinese market. That leaves only toys and comics.

The web site features a photo essay, but I wish they had dived more deeply into the sociology of cosplay. The photos feature mostly scantily-clad women happily posing in cutesy outfits. But I find that the act of cosplay, whether in China or elsewhere, is much more interesting than that. I’m reminded of a recent article about the work of Guangzhou artist Cao Fei (曹斐), titled “The Gamification of Everyday Life”:

Playing out their inner most fantasies of having certain magical powers be the ability to fly or being a skilled ninja, these youth turn to the world of the virtual, the world of play, because that is the world in which they find comfort, understanding, and empowerment. The characters played often are violent or power-hungry, reflecting the fact that in real life, these youth are powerless. The world of the game or gamescape becomes a space in which the youth can exert control over their own destiny, their own lives. In this gamescape, the youth feel like they have worth in society, a feeling that they do not have in the real world. Not only is the gamescape a vehicle for escapism, but also creates a platform in which to reflect on feelings of “alienation from traditional values as well as the sense of loss, disaffection, and melancholy felt by a large number of China’s urban youth. It is in this gap between the realistic cityscapes and the fantastic havens these young people find their heroic alter egos.”

A photo I took recently in Tianjin, a city near Beijing. Seeing this moment helped me understand Cao Fei's work on a new level.

A photo I took recently in Tianjin, a city near Beijing. Seeing this moment helped me understand Cao Fei’s work on a new level.

It’s easy to look askance at cosplayers, the height of nerdery and escapism, but cosplay is just one end of the spectrum of the “gamification” of every day life. Sites like Foursquare and the Huffington Post feature badges and points for daily activities, and even the American military now puts out a game for recruitment purposes. Cao Fei’s cosplay series, which I’ve written about before, touches on some of the motivations behind gamification, especially in China. So continues Charlotte Miller in her essay:

It is the cycle of construction of deconstruction that causes the rift between the youth generation and of that generation of the elders. The worlds in which the youth generation and their parents grew up in are two extremely different worlds due to shifts in economic, political, and cultural issues in the Post-Cultural Revolution era. Cao captures this inability to relate and understand one another in her piece COSplayers. As night falls, the cosplayers return home to the domestic/private sphere in which their lives are not understand by the elders.

After spending some time here, seeing the country’s rapid development and the resulting generation gap, I’m starting to understand her work on a new level.

Want your taste of cosplay in America? I’d love to see more art addressing cosplay and gamification in America. New York Comic Con is coming up in a couple months. Sign up!

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.