At the 2023 Game Awards we didn’t just have Alan Wake the Musical, Jordan Peele coming out of an ominous door and surprise God of War DLC. We also had confirmation that VTubing is taking over the world of livestreaming, and for good reason, as Twitch’s most subscribed female streamer (with an additional 1.87M followers) Ironmouse took home the award for Content Creator of the Year.
The term ‘VTuber’ originated in Japan, meaning ‘Virtual YouTuber’ as coined by Kizuna Ai back in 2016, and it has steadily gone from niche to mainstream.
To the uninitiated, I can only imagine how confusing Ironmouse might look. For all intents and purposes, she is a two-dimensional, cutesy cartoon girl. But behind that pink-haired anime character is a strong-willed, disabled Puerto Rican-American woman who has combated an array of struggles with common variable immunodeficiency, resulting in her often being bedridden and requiring 24/7 oxygen.
The technology behind becoming a VTuber has reached a level of accessibility that now anyone with a half-decent PC and internet connection can become one. Ironmouse has proven that VTubing can allow disabled content creators to thrive, but it also has perks that can benefit a wide array of people, especially if you don’t feel comfortable showing your real face.
Ironmouse, like Lashaila Rose shown here, is an example of a Live2D, or 2D, VTuber. It’s a two-dimensional hand painted model that has then been separately rigged to allow for face and/or motion capture, typically with a piece of software like VTube Studio, that allows you to move and react with a webcam or phone camera, and your model reflects your movements.
Some people use 3D models which are often still anime in style but have a bit more movement capability simply by the nature of being 3D. Some are created in 3D modelling software, or using something designed specifically for VTubing such as VRoid Studio. Some people use VRChat models, and some VTubers stream with full body motion capture devices that allow their entire body to move on screen, such as Filian who is known to do literal backflips.
When I began to dabble with VTubing for the first time, I also created low cost 3D models on Fiverr for folks who wanted something custom but simple that wouldn’t break the bank (a typical Live2D model can cost in the region of $1500-2500+, though free assets are available.). Through my customer base I realised something that I was shocked hadn’t really dawned on me before, a lot of VTubers are trans, non-binary or gender diverse.
Logically, it makes sense. You don’t have to show your real face, you can look however your heart desires. For someone who may feel that they don’t yet look how they’d like, or are simply battling with the effect of years of dysphoria-induced low self esteem, being able to express yourself with full fluid movement and audience interaction without having to worry about how you look can offer incredible relief and freedom.
Voice dysphoria can be a serious issue for a lot of trans people, especially with how limited access to healthcare and services like vocal training can be, but many VTubers (cis, trans and otherwise) use voice changers and filters either to feel more comfortable or to better match their persona, such as Elara who suffers from vocal dysmorphia. Some VTubers don’t even speak at all.
Some people use models that are an idealised version of themselves, but many people create fantastical characters with their own backstory and lore. For example I am someone whose face is out there and I can’t keep a secret to save my life so I don’t have anonymity as a VTuber like many people do, but at the same time the model I use is a completely different character to me as a person. It may be shocking to learn, but I am not actually a white-haired, pink-eyed Incubus called Fero Pheromone.
For me, having that character allows me to take a break from this niche I accidentally created for myself through being an activist, where it often feels like I am Professionally Transgender™ and can’t talk about anything other than trans issues. I can take a breather and just play ridiculous indie horror games, scream a bunch, and despite using a mask I get to actually feel like I’m truly being myself.
With advancements in motion capture, and more VTuber model artists than ever taking on commissions, the amount of marginalised folks feeling safer and more comfortable live streaming without the pressure of having a face cam is only going to increase. Especially if cis VTubers become more vocal in their allyship, such as in this clip of Lashaila Rose getting angry about misinformation spread by anti-trans campaigners regarding Sexual Assault Referral Centres.
I reached out to a few VTuber pals, to ask for their thoughts on what it is about VTubing that appeals to them.
“VTubing is a great way to express yourself in a cute format without feeling the pressure of a camera on you as much. It’s a great way of self expression.”
“As a transfeminine streamer, VTubers are extremely appealing in expressing an identity that you can’t necessarily express via physical means, but it is also useful in allowing me to feel comfortable streaming.
Transfeminine people often feel like they need to be hyper feminine or to express their gender identity physically to feel comfortable streaming via a face camera. VTubing and other means allow myself in particular to continue streaming while my dysphoria is heightened or when I don’t particularly feel like exaggerating my physical persona in order to feel comfortable streaming.”
“The nice thing about VTubing is that it’s allowed me to express femininity that I’m unable to do while being closeted. It’s a thrill to be able to change my model, to wear the things I wish I could wear. If people get a kick out of what I play (on stream), even if I don’t get many viewers, it’s fine, but the fact that it allows me to express myself is really what I love at the end of the day. It allows me to be me.”