Rundown (12/20-12/26) Christmas Cyber Waifu

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  • Reading time:13 mins read
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Wherein I discuss the waifu of the new decade, a massive success amidst a massive failure, and child abuse.

The week of Christmas never has any noteworthy news in it, and I don’t particularly feel like musing about how artificial this holiday is, so let’s talk about something more real and tangible. Let’s talk about… VTubers!

Since the introduction of commercial face capturing and overlaying software, people have been making their own models to present themselves behind the guise of an avatar. A novel idea that was taken to its logical extension back in 2016 when one group decided to use this technology to create a virtual idol, Kizuna AI. She quickly took off in the Japanese-speaking market and, thanks to fan translations, was able to garner some popularity in English-speaking markets. 

As others noticed this character’s success, many others began following this trend, creating a cottage industry of virtual YouTubers, who primarily created content that involved scripted antics, chatting, chilling, playing video games, or just goofing off. It was all strongly based on existing and growing trends in the streaming industry, except this time with a 2D or 3D anime girl (or boy) instead of a flesh person or a mere disembodied voice.

I have been aware of this for quite some time, noting the characters’ growing popularity and noticing more kawaii 3D anime girls with weird animations popping up in my recommended video feed, but this past year it has really exploded. With copious amounts of fan art, an influx of people making their own VTuber personas, and existing companies starting branches for the western market by bringing on new VTubers with English voice actors.

At first, I thought this was just a cute concept, but now that it is cementing itself as something big and substantial, I’m becoming aware of certain… issues I personally have with this concept. VTubers are (for lack of a better word) content creators whose success is largely derived from their personality. From their reactions, words, charisma, and humor. Having a good voice and an appealing avatar help quite a lot, but if you follow a VTuber, it’s probably because you think they are a likable person. And for VTubers who have an existing online following and have been doing stuff for years, that much is fairly easy to determine.

But with these new corporate-owned VTuber personalities, such members of the Hololive group, I feel that there is not a… personal connection. Because these are ultimately actors who are being paid to play characters by a company, and while they appear to put a lot of their own personality into these characters, it can be difficult to judge what is them being genuine, and what is them playing up a character for the sake of retaining a larger audience and appealing to their employers. 

You can say that their live reactions are evidence of their personality enough, but that still does not fully convince me. There are some incredibly good actors and psychos out there who know how to play up an assigned persona on the fly, especially if they have a mask on, and especially if they are working for a company and not truly selling themselves as a brand they 100% wholly own.

Now, this entire issue of mine is basically non-existent when I know what is acting/scripted and what is not. Or when I know of the personality of the person behind the mask. But when I don’t know that and am introduced to this persona through a character backstory, then I find it hard to view them as anything more than a corporate spokesperson. Especially if they are sitting on just shy of 1 million YouTube subscribers.

…But even if they are a bunch of spokespersons, I will give these corporate VTubers this:

  • Their designs are excellent, and I like how the anime aesthetic is continuing to invade and conquer the internet.
  • Their voices are beautiful, I love listening to them, and I wish there was a VTuber podcast, even if that is completely antithetical to the point of a VTuber.
  • The VTuber clips that have popped up in my feeds are nothing short of adorable.
  • That MoriCalliope Dead Beats EP is pretty dope. Not “I’ll pay $10 for 12 minutes of music” dope, but dope regardless.

Moving onto the actual news, the Cyberpunk 2077 outcry naturally continued, but in an unexpected way. In a recent… letter to investors, I guess, CD Projekt Red disclosed that even when factoring in the mass refunds for their title, the game still managed to sell over 13 million units across physical and digital as of December 20th. This number makes the title one of the biggest launches in the medium’s history and shows just how much clout, anticipation, and furor was truly around this game ahead of launch, and how many people bought it despite the controversies and ability to refund it. 

Seriously, this is the sort of performance you only expect from Call of Duty and Rockstar Games, and I think the main takeaway from this is that the controversy around this game… really didn’t matter. CD Projekt Red lied to people, mishandled the work of hundreds of people, forced their workers through crunch time, and caused widespread anger and discontent throughout the broader gaming community due to how they over-hyped and under-shown the game. But they are still making immense sums of money, their executives will inevitably get disgusting bonuses, and their investors will probably receive some sort of distribution or dividend to share in their success.

Sure, this could result in them developing a bad reputation, but if they do ultimately fix their game of its bugs, improve the performance on consoles, and make the game look real nice on Next Gen systems, then at least some portion of the audience their games appeal to will wind up forgiving them because it ‘all worked out in the end’ and ‘CDPR listened to us gamers.’ 

I’d say this raises the question of whether this is all just so incredibly pointless, that no matter how much furor exists around a game, if it is big, if it is well-known, and if the message is clearly controlled by the publisher, then it will succeed. This has happened so many times, will continue to happen, and is a very good reason to just ignore the discordant discourse that crops up from time to time. Financially, it did not hurt The Last of Us Part II, it did not hurt Pokémon Sword and Shield, and it did not really even hurt No Man’s Sky.

…Yeah. In the end… it just doesn’t matter how much you screw up, because if you are big enough if you are desired enough, success is a guarantee.

Speaking of unfavorable truths in the games industry, do you remember loot boxes were under fire after EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II (2017) was called out by the mainstream media for being a virtual casino? Yeah, that was a big deal at the time, but it didn’t kill off loot boxes or microtransactions. If anything, they’ve become more accepted over time. Games continue using these mechanics, the existing gaming audience has grown accustomed to them, and an entire generation has grown up playing games with predatory monetization methods. 

I have been curious about the large-form ramifications of this for quite some time, and I wanted data on just how many players have been financially harmed by this approach, just so I can tell how unscrupulous these mechanics are. Thankfully, I don’t need to wonder any longer, as a study by the Gambling Health Alliance of the UK-based Royal Society for Public Health found a plethora of juicy figures showing just how loot boxes have financially harmed many “young gamers” ages 13 to 24.

To offer some highlights:

  • 34% of the respondents purchased a loot box before age 13.
  • 79% of the respondents who played the FIFA series said that loot boxes negatively impacted their experience.
  • 31% struggled to keep track of how much they were spending in-game.
  • Nearly 10% spent £11 to £20 every week on loot boxes. 
  • 13% are in debt due to loot boxes.
  • 15% took money from their parents without permission to purchase loot boxes.
  • 9% borrowed money they couldn’t repay to buy loot boxes.
  • 44% claimed that loot boxes brought them frustration and anger.
  • 24% said they felt addicted to loot boxes.

GHA concluded this article by stating that they are campaigning for loot boxes to be legally classified as gambling and be banned in games for minors due to their proven negative effect on young gamers, both mentally and financially. A sentiment that I naturally agree with wholeheartedly. 

From a design and ethical perspective, loot boxes are outright atrocious. They are leaving progression up to luck and probability, and are deliberately designed to extract money from those with a poor understanding of their finances or bad spending habits. They are used to exploit those with a low resistance to addiction, and far too many games coast off of the financial hardships of others. 

I infinitely prefer monetizations that offer players a predetermined in-game resource, equipment, or characters, avoiding all unscrupulous chance and allowing them to purchase what they want outright. From resource packs, boosters, new characters, cosmetics, or better gear. They can be implemented poorly and everything is subjected to the design quality of a given game. But if one is engaged with a game and wishes to make it more fun, this is a far more ethical way to approach things as, even if it is exhortative or overpriced, it is honest, and players know what they are getting.

This is why, of the $40.34 I have spent on my mobile game of choice, Dragalia Lost, this past year, I have only purchased in-game goods that give me additional materials, resources, and characters. I have not used any of the premium currency received for a chance of obtaining anything, as I believe that is fundamentally wrong due to the probabilities present in the game. 

However, I view things this way because I am an accountant. I am somebody who manages financial records, tracks expenses, and has been managing her own finances since she started her first job. I know many people are not this capable, that they were trained by advertisers and marketers to spend frivolously, and that their educational systems failed to instruct them the importance of finances. 

Loot boxes and the like are praying on these individuals, and if these numbers can be expanded over a full population of game players on a global scale, the question becomes precisely how many millions of people in this world are financially struggling due to these blasted things. Hearing studies like this gives me hope that this current model will be outmoded, by legal means or otherwise, in favor of something more direct, honest, and not directly profiting off of minors stealing money from their parents. 

Seriously, I get that loot boxes are old enough to be a part of gaming culture, but that is just deplorable. 

Header image is a bootleg-looking-ass photoshop of Calliope Mori’s Dead Beats EP but with a Cyberpunk 2077 yellow background and some santa hat PNG I found.

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  1. OOOoooOOO000

    I find your comments on corporate vtubers like Hololive really interesting! I think that I’d agree with you that if I believed the people were just skillfully playing characters that were designed by the Cover Corporation, I think I would be put off and not really follow them much, but I actually think that isn’t the case, at least for Hololive, I’m not as familiar with other corporate vtuber groups.

    I actually think that Cover is partially so successful because they actually do seem to give their streamers a lot of freedom to do what they want, and I think this is pretty evident to me based on the history of the company and the streamers. Since Cover was originally a tech company that only created a virtual idol as a kind of tech demo for their facial capturing software, they didn’t come in with a big expectation about forcing all of their streamers to be very idol-like, as is expected in the typical idol industry in Japan. And if you look at the early streams from some of the girls, they tend to be really different from their more recent content, and the early streams tend to fit an assigned character much more.

    For example, Haachama, aka Akai Haato, was originally a cute tsundere character and she did fit that role for a while as part of gen 1 of Hololive, but over time she really flexed her own creative muscles and for many fans of hers it’s funny to imagine her trying to fit a character who’s name literally means “Red Heart”. Her more recent work includes cooking videos in the style of How To Basic (Haachama Cooking, though that also includes things like eating tarantulas and scorpions), reviewing lewd fan art of her character, and extremely surreal animations involving her character, such as my favorite video of hers “INSANE HAACHAMA VIDEO”. And as far as I can tell, these were primarily created by her and she even edited many of her own videos when she was isolated in Australia, unable to return to Japan for pandemic reasons.

    Similarly, other members have spoken about how they do things that management is explicitly telling them not to do, or that management gives them advice which they can simply choose not to follow. For example, during Kiryu Coco’s 3d model premier she was doing some dance moves live and she later talked about how her manager was repeatedly telling her “Don’t do that one. Don’t do that one.” as she was doing certain dance moves that she liked that the management didn’t consider good ideas. I think the fact this happened shows that for most things the girls are able to make the final decision on their content, even though they do work for the corporation. Similarly, some other girls have spoken about how they initially tried to follow their character pretty strictly, but over time became more comfortable just being themselves on stream and how viewers seemed to enjoy that. I suspect that the viewer’s experience of an authentic personality is actually real, given how most of the girls had initially roles they played that they did break (implying that they were not simply amazing actors who never broke role), and that now they do not really slip “out of character”.

    On the other hand, there are of course things where the corporation influences them and their behavior, such as when 2 members were suspended for mentioning Taiwan on stream and Chinese fans became enraged. The corporation suspended them for 3 weeks, then eventually withdrew from the Chinese market entirely closing their Chinese branch, but if they were independent then they would not have needed to be punished at all. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the girls were more careful about stating political views than they would be if independent, though I suspect they’d also try not to mention politics much if they were independent.

    At this point though, I think that Cover is content to hire talented people and let their entertainment skills do the majority of the work drawing in an audience, as opposed to the corporation creating a plan and assigned characters that people follow to achieve success. So while I can understand the concern about authenticity or lack thereof for corporate-affiliated vtubers, I actually think that is not a significant issue for Hololive (beyond the fact that people have “streamer personas” that are different from their everyday personas, but those would exist for anyone who is an entertainer regardless of corporate affiliation).

    Anyway, sorry for this really long post, I just thought I might as well think about why I perceive them as being mainly independent creatively and see if I could write some of it down. Somehow I actually feel like I have a lot more I could say, but I think it might be a good idea to end it here.

    1. Natalie Neumann

      When I wrote the preamble to this Rundown, I was not particularly knowledgable about VTubers beyond small snippets, and most of my reaction to them was more of a conceptual one. I’ve since dipped my toes in deeper and realized that I was perhaps a bit too quick to express doubt over how genuine they are. Most of them are just people being themselves, but with the support and protection of a corporation, and while they have a marketed backstory and personality type, they are typically at the best when they are just being themselves, and everybody involved in the industry seems to realize that.

      Still, I prefer following entertainers with no true corporate oversight and find people the most endearing when I know they are being themselves. Even if it is a teensy bit exaggerated. It’s part of the reason why Nyanners is easily my favorite VTuber around, because I’ve known of her since 2015-ish, and I can tell that she’s being 100% genuine when streaming.