-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Where there are games, there are conventions, and where there are conventions, there are people in character costumes – doing cosplay. The images of these devout fans in costume are part of gamer culture, especially online, where pictures of elaborate, pitch-perfect character clothing frequently make the rounds of blogs, forums and news sites. The people behind the pictures can be objects of wonderment, when the costume is good, or the butt of jokes, when it’s not so much. In either case, seeing a photograph of a person who has spent weeks or months preparing, through meticulous craftsmanship and hours of styling, to look – sometimes eerily – like a video game character can provoke plenty of curious reactions. Some wonder at the cosplayer’s efforts – despite spending hours and hours on gaming and game fandom ourselves, the level of detail on display makes some people wonder if the person’s quite well mentally. Have they begun to cross that line, beyond which fantasy and reality are becoming difficult to distinguish? Are they flagrantly attention-whoring, hoping to cash in on the attention and affection popular game characters receive? Are they high-strung detail-obsessives?

According to Adella, one cosplayer who’s earned a reputation in the close-knit hobbyists’ community, “there are plenty of psycho cosplayers.” But when she decided to do a series of Aeris costumes, it changed her life. And it wasn’t because of psycho cosplayers, but because of psycho gamers.

Expressing Fandom

Adella’s been doing cosplay for several years now, and creating outfits based on interesting-looking anime, game and comic book characters has become a favorite hobby for the conscientious 26-year-old design student, who hopes to work as a historical costumer one day. She adds, "The majority of cosplayers are just normal people having fun for a weekend... the crazy ones are definitely not the majority."

What appeals to her about cosplay? “I'm a really imaginative person, meaning I like things like role playing, reading books, drawing stories, et cetera,” she explains. “When I first heard about cosplay I viewed it as another creative outlet for me. A way to express fandom in a more involved way.” Since then, her image has become somewhat iconic among followers of the scene, and in associated internet communities. She’s been called "amazing," "the embodiment of Aeris," and an "inspiration," and she's also been accused of being an “insatiable attention whore,” a snob, a bitch, and much worse, in a tide of that particular brand of internet attention that makes it necessary for her to avoid reading about herself or making available her email address.

-Most of all, she’s known for the craftsmanship of her costumes, and for the detail in her self-styling – beyond the costume work itself, she’s also got a knack for getting the hairstyle just right, applying full-body paint to achieve the appropriate skin tone, using lenses to change the color of her eyes, even just a touch, for the full effect. Her photographs in Aeris cosplay are arresting in their likeness. But looking at her portfolio, it’s clear the costume design that earns her the majority of her online “fame” is not her best, most complex or even her most interesting one.

More Than A Passing Resemblance

Even Adella confesses, though, that one of the reasons behind her decision to cosplay as Aeris was the insistence of friends, who said she “resembled her a bit.” At the time, Aeris’ relatively simple pink dress and red jacket were accessible to Adella, who was still developing her sewing skills. So she did it, thinking it would be “funny,” even though back then she “hated Aeris.” When she first debuted her look, she says, “I made a bunch of friends with FF7 cosplayers and had a lot of fun. It was enjoyable seeing how many people liked my costume, and how many people I made smile, who in turn, made me smile.”

Still, she noticed something a touch off about the way some people reacted to her as “Aeris.” “A lot of the fans were really creepy,” she admits. “One guy, when I was walking back from the convention center in Long Beach to the Renaissance Hotel, tried to grab my arm and drag me over to the steps to ‘hang out’ with him. I hit him with my flower basket and ran! People kept running up, trying to jump on me, or grope me... like, because I was in costume, they had the right to just invade my personal space, or scream weird sh*t at me like ‘AERIS, BE MY LOVER!’ or whatever.”

Adella concedes that fans and other attendees often respond to people in costume by assuming they’re not quite ‘real’ people, or that because the costumed individual appears to be seeking attention, others assume that they can treat them however they please without consequences. But immediately Adella noticed that people reacted more strongly to Aeris – the beloved tragic heroine of Final Fantasy VII, whose death many define as a seminal moment in their gaming lives – than to any other costume she had done or would ever do. “[People’s reactions have] a lot to do with what costume I’m in,” she admits.

You Sucked, And You Died

For others, the character of Aeris represents a personification of what they feel is a distinct downturn in the focus of gaming as an era. She can be seen as the mascot of marathon cutscenes, of the story-versus-gameplay debate, the quintessential representative of the emo RPG aesthetic from which many, now that they’ve grown out of their stormy teens, are attempting to distance themselves. And when in costume, Adella began finding herself the object of that hostility. “I get a lot of rude comments from people,” she admits. “I've been pushed around a few times, and told stupid stuff like ‘you sucked and you died, bitch…’ stuff like that.”

It gets worse. “When I was at Anime Central, I think in 2004, maybe earlier... I was standing in the lobby of the hotel and talking to someone I had just met,” she remembers. “And some girl ran up behind me and grabbed my braid and just yanked, as hard as she could. My head was jerked back and my neck had this awful pain wrench through it. I whirled around and screamed, ‘don’t touch me!’ And she just goes ‘I... I just hate Aeris...’ and ran off. Like because she hates some fictitious character.. it's okay to physically assault someone dressed up like that character?”

-Muses Adella, “I think people obsessively hate her, or love her. I mean, you can really say that about any anime or game character – but Aeris instills a particular breed of passion in people. I've met a lot of fans in all the costumes I've made and in all the circles I've hung out in, but Aeris fans seem to be particularly... particular.

Adella began to expect the occasional odd reaction from her Aeris cosplay, but when pictures of her began circulating online, the attention she received from people who had the veil of anonymity to hide behind became far more extreme. Though her online costume portfolio has expanded to include a number of other characters and costumes that evolve in their complexity – DOA 2’s Helena, Castlevania’s Maria, Zelda’s Malon – it all began with the Aeris look. She’s received marriage proposals from men in foreign countries, and some “have just... walked up to me and hugged me because they ‘needed to hold Aeris,’” she says. “I usually just smile and let them do it because everyone needs hugs, I guess. If it makes him feel better to believe I am Aeris and hug me... that makes me happy. But it's still kind of creepy, because... well, I’m not Aeris!”

Not That Kind Of Person

With all the attention she was receiving – so much she couldn’t possibly reply in-depth to every piece of fan mail, field every cosplay question, or meet everyone who hoarded her photos on their hard drive – many people began to assume things about her personality. Says Adella – whose real name is actually Sarah – “I've gone through phases where I don't want anybody to contact me because I get fed up with all the fan mail and crazy sh*t that people send me… and then after a while, I'll be like, ‘okay ,maybe it won't be so bad now…’ and put my contact info up... then deal with it for a while, and then take it down again.”

She gets accusations of “[thinking she’s] cooler than sh*t”, being an “extreme suck-up” who “obsesses about stuff to the point of being creepy,” or “[looking] like a bitch in her pictures.” Adella explains that, when people don’t receive the reaction from her they wanted, they can become enraged. “Years ago, when I first started cosplay, I probably would have started talking up a storm about anything, but I'm so over people forcing themselves upon me that I just get nervous, I guess. And they post about how I ‘blew them off,’ or something. I'll say right here and now... I have never once blown someone off. Never. I am not that kind of person.”

-She quickly became a polarizing figure on online cosplay forums and related communities, even those she had never herself visited. Her friends would send her links to sites where she was being viciously lambasted by strangers. “When it first started happening, I was pissed,” she said. “I couldn't understand what I had done to people to deserve such asinine treatment. I would cry, and get sick, and be furious. After it just kept happening over and over I was like, ‘whatever.’ …I mean, I didn't do anything to people. I just went online and made a website so I could have fun and maybe share what I've done with others.”

It's Just A Hobby, People

For Adella, the pinnacle of her frustration happened when a former male friend, apparently upset that she’d chosen another boyfriend, tossed a nude picture of her modified in Photoshop (“the head, hand and belly button are me,” she admits, but says the rest of it is not her) into a firestorm of forum discussion surrounding her. People spammed that image across Adella’s own site. “It finally got to me,” she says, recalling how she spent a Thanksgiving holiday crying upstairs to her mother and aunt.

All of this not because of Adella, but because of Aeris Gainsborough, and the wave of fan sentiment the character still commands, a decade after the release of Final Fantasy VII. Adella says that people who meet her in real life after hearing about her online are surprised at her temperate personality. “[People say], ‘you’re so much cooler than everyone says!’ That’s because everyone has no idea what they’re talking about!”

“My enthusiasm for cosplay is deeply dampened,” she admits, although, with her seamstress skills greatly improved since the Aeris days, she continues working on convention costumes of other game characters. “I really have become jaded by convention people and con-goers, though. I get nervous and freaked out by anybody who approaches me for more than just a picture. It's just… after so long of so much, you get kind of jittery.”

So what would she say, to those inappropriate fans and cruel detractors? “Don't get your panties into a twist if someone online doesn't respond to you with all the vigor you had hoped. I'm not perfect, but I have never gone out of my way to hurt anybody or purposely defame someone's character, yet people are constantly driven to do it to me. Do unto others, is what I say. IT'S JUST. A. HOBBY. PEOPLE.”

She adds, “I'm not some majestic being. I'm just a dork named Sarah who wanted to play dress-up one day.”

And finally, flatly: “I am not doing Crisis Core Aeris.”

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]