How can streaming be made a safer space for women? VTubing could be the answer.
When it comes down to it, there is one typical constant in the majority of online gaming communities; the rampant harassment of women. I can say with confidence that if you’re a woman who engages at all socially with video games, you will have experienced some form of abuse based on your gender whilst gaming. It ranges from microaggressions such as the inherent infantilization in the oft-leveraged term “gamer girls” to disgustingly sexual comments made purely because their perpetrator has caught on that your voice is a tad higher than his cisgender male peers. Coupled with the rest of society’s haunting disregard for women, identifying as female in the male-dominated (not by number, but by behaviour) spaces that are modern-age gaming communities feels deeply disconcerting.
If that’s how it feels to be a casual female consumer of video games, it must be a million times worse for those who need to engage with the community actively as their main source of income. I’m talking, of course, about Twitch streamers; live streamers who show off their skill in various games for a living. Men generally dominate the streaming scene, with some of the most recognisable names including Ninja, Tfue, and Shroud. However, one woman crops up consistently in the roster of the most famous streamers – Pokimane (Imane Anys), a 24-year-old Moroccan-Canadian who has garnered a healthy following of around 5.6 million on Twitch throughout her seven-year career. Pokimane recently took a month-long hiatus from streaming, a move suggested by many to be because of the incredible amount of vitriol hurled at her based on suspicions that she had a boyfriend. On her return to the platform, however, one of her initial streams opened not with an overlay of her face, but with a cheery wave of an anime-style avatar modelled after her likeness.
VTubers, shorthand for Virtual YouTubers, are virtual avatars that usually utilise some form of facial recognition and motion capturing technology to semi-realistically represent the movement of their usually faceless users. The VTuber that leant this specific brand of online entertainment personas their widely-adopted moniker is a Japanese character known as Kizuna AI (with AI being both a typical Japanese name and a play on the acronym for artificial intelligence), whose popularity skyrocketed on YouTube after her debut in late 2016. Vtubers have thus progressed to garner notoriety throughout online pop-culture circles, so much so that Kizuna and her cohort now boast a wide range of merchandise and appearances throughout more mainstream media.
Compared to the majority of popular VTubers, Pokimane’s avatar design is charmingly low-key, capturing her bubbly personality without going too over the top. It’s fitting to her streaming style, and genuinely doesn’t feel at all abnormal as far as portraying her movement and facial expressions go. The concept of anything trying to capture a human likeness can easily stray into the uncanny valley, but VTubers’ usage of typically very anime-style designs allows for their motion mismatches to appear more endearing than freaky. To put it shortly, Pokimane’s avatar is harmlessly cute. But, as is typical of the Internet, its debut was met with a mess of backlash. Fans of the VTubing community blamed her for “ruining VTubers,” whilst her more long-term fans reprimanded her for not turning on her webcam. A collection of YouTube videos discussing the situation popped up a couple of days after the initial stream.
It’s a shame, as Pokimane seems comfortable with the avatar, expressing her glee over it in the initial moments of her first stream VTubing. But thankfully, despite the hate comments, she’s continued to use it in recent streams, which raises an interesting question; what if more female Twitch streamers aiming towards audiences outside of Japan began using virtual avatars to accompany their gameplay instead of their webcams?
Commenting for NBC News in 2019, streamer Quqco mentioned that she “felt very sorry for existing” after a group of trolls harassed her across social media for accidentally tilting her camera down at her thighs for a brief moment during a stream. Another female streamer, Nikatine, discussed in a Polygon article that, despite her increased sense of comfort streaming when her webcam is turned off, it resulted in not only decreased views but harassment from her chat for her not using a face cam. Using a VTuber model could help women like Quqco and Nikatine feel more comfortable streaming, and hopefully, help to discourage negative comments based on their gender – which can often make up the majority of a stream’s live chat.
However, it’s important to remember that adopting a virtual avatar does not and will never solve the cyclical issue of female harassment present not only in Twitch streams but throughout wider gaming communities across the Internet. It shouldn’t have to be necessary for a female streamer to use a VTuber to feel at all secure whilst streaming at all.
But, at least for right now, Vtubing can serve at least as some sort of band-aid. And, hopefully, if it picks up more traction in western communities, more female streamers will be able to find a little bit more joy in the job – because, despite the harassment, the profession has the potential to and can be a wonderful and fun space for women to partake in.
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