Several times a week, hundreds of people log into Amazon’s Twitch service to see a Betty Boop-esque cartoon character named Pumpkin Drink. She wears a dress with a spider web pattern, plays the piano and talks to the public for up to seven hours about what is happening in her life.
She chooses tunes from video game franchises like Zelda and Pokémon and sometimes sings along. Fans respond with request numbers, virtual applause and commentary. In nine months, Pumpkin has attracted more than 15,000 followers.
The person behind Pumpkin, Rachel Gravelle, is a virtual streamer, also known as VTuber. Derived from “virtual YouTuber”, such people use avatars or images to portray themselves online, while keeping their offline identities largely hidden.
Some adopt avatars that resemble themselves. Others appear as digital animals, anime characters, or vintage cartoons. “Realistically, we are puppeteers,” says Ms Gravelle, who has not disclosed her identity to her audience so far.
The growing interest in posing as an avatar raises the question: why be famous and anonymous at the same time? Some did not find an audience streaming like themselves, or found it exhausting in front of the camera. Some have a disability or chronic illness that prevents them from looking or feeling ready for the camera all the time.
Some choose to remain incognito to avoid the harassment or negativity that many popular creators face.
People who have done well online find their once-pleasant social networks increasingly toxic. One solution is to migrate—from Facebook to LinkedIn for example. Another example is putting on a virtual mask: VTubers say they can have a large online presence without the unpleasant side effects.
“In interacting with the audience, my words and actions are truly Rachel,” says Ms. Gravelle. “It’s me, but with an old-fashioned coat of paint.”
The former community manager of a video game company says streaming is now her full-time career. She monetizes her Twitch platform, merchandise sales, sponsorships, and YouTube clips. Mrs. Gravelle has commissioned a 3D environment for Pumpkin, where she can move her legs, get up from her chair and more using body-tracking technology.
VTubing has been popular in Asia for several years, but has only recently gained popularity in the US. One of the biggest VTubers in the West, Ironmouse has 1.3 million followers. Through a talent representative, she refused to be interviewed. She didn’t want to give her real name.
Viewership for the VTubing category on Twitch, which includes live and on-demand streams, more than quadrupled from January to August this year compared to the same period last year, Twitch says. Earlier this month, the platform hosted a VTuber-only tournament for the popular fighting game “Fall Guys”, attended by 24 different characters and watched by approximately 100,000 fans.
A barrier between streamer and audience
Tiffany Witcher, is a voice actress and streamer who has lupus, an autoimmune disease that can cause skin rashes. She started streaming in 2018 and played video games in front of the camera. Ms. Witcher – who is black – switched to VTubing in 2020 because it meant she no longer had to apply makeup when a rash appeared.
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She chose as her character a witch – a nod to her real name – dressed in purple clothing with butterfly ornaments, symbols of lupus awareness. Her avatar is joined by Sir Cognelious, a butterfly-winged Corgi who moves across the screen using “sparkling farts.” (Mrs. Witcher doesn’t have a dog in real life.)
When she streamed for the camera, she didn’t get much attention. As a cartoon witch, she now has more than 10,000 followers.
VTubing can provide income for people with disabilities, Ms. Witcher says, because it doesn’t require people to physically look or behave a certain way. Streaming has become her main source of income, she says, leading to accessibility consulting, speaking engagements and other opportunities.
Yet her streams, even as an avatar, are the target of “hate raids,” when a stream of anonymous viewers join a stream and post hostile messages. (Regular “raids,” where Twitch streamers ask their followers to join another stream, can be a good thing.)
Ms. Witcher says the hate attacks started shortly after she started streaming in 2018. “It was shocking, but I wasn’t scared because I had heard of it before,” she adds. The most recent hate attack happened this month, during the Twitch “Fall Guys” tournament.
She believes some of the harassment stems from racism. The avatar helps her shake off the comments, as viewers can’t read her real facial expressions.
“There will always be someone in the shadows who wants to see you fall,” says Mrs. Witcher.
Twitch says it has taken legal action and developed policies, resources and tools for creators to combat hate attacks, including a feature released in July that allows streamers to warn others about malicious users they’ve banned.
Protect their health
Some streamers say avatars help them maintain mental well-being.
Elizabeth Sweet has been creating digital content for over a decade and amassed over 97,000 followers on her YouTube account, Miss Shadow Lovely. The videos feature her role-playing as various characters and sharing updates about her life. Although she was mostly off-camera, she showed her face here and there.
She started VTubing in 2020. She developed a interactive redhead anime character accompanied by a black cat who occasionally wakes up from his nap and greets the viewers.
Ms. Sweet has been in therapy for the past three years for body dysmorphism, a condition that causes people to become obsessed with minor or imagined physical defects. She says the avatar helps her to think less about her appearance.
“Being able to create a projection or an image of myself that’s not my real physical me, and that people don’t judge me on my physical attributes, is a huge problem — like a huge weight off my shoulders,” she says. they.
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