Interview: GirlDM On Being A Gamer Catgirl And The Growing World Of VTubing
VTubers are taking over the world. Beginning with the arrival of Kizuna Ai in 2016, the streaming landscape has become more and more inundated with creators donning distinct avatars and stories to tell. Major agencies like Hololive and VShojo now boast dozens of idols and millions upon millions of active subscribers across platforms like Twitch and YouTube, helping to conjure up a cultural zeitgeist with no signs of slowing.
GirlDM is one such creator, an adorable mint-haired catgirl who has made a name for herself on Twitch and YouTube with PG-13 streams and a positive attitude towards the world around her. It’s a place to relax, chat with friends, and play games with a creator who is happy to communicate with her growing audience. I recently sat down with GirlDM as she approached 100,000 subscribers to talk about this journey into the world of VTubing.
Like a lot of stories like this, it all came from a place of curiosity. “Kizuna Ai was actually the first VTuber I watched, but one of my friends was on the indie scene where people were trying to figure out how to do this from home,” GirlDM tells me of the early days. “A lot of it started off using VR Chat trackers and a lot of homebrew apps, and then a friend of mine who was doing it kept telling me, ‘You should become a VTuber because we’re both anime nerds!’ but I didn’t have room for VR gear, I don’t have the money so I’m not going to.”
As technology matured, the idea of portraying an avatar with relatively primitive technology became a reality for so many people. Webcam tracking could be used to recreate facial movements while subtle rigs can track hand movements in similar ways. As these obstacles were surmounted, it was time to start thinking of a model. “Once I saw the regular webcam tracking and VRoid stuff that was starting to come about one of the artists I admire debuted her own VTuber, and I really loved the style of her model,” GirlDM explains. “That night I can still remember, it was like 3am in the morning, it was a work night, I was up late for some reason, and I just messaged this artist saying like I’d love to commission them for a model and it all got started from there. There was a moment where I was like, ‘Oh, I can finally do this!’ and I don’t need to have all the VR stuff, I don’t need all of this equipment because I have a webcam and that works just fine”
GirlDM’s approachable perspective on VTubing is rather ironic, given she exploded on TikTok after showcasing her model’s realistic capabilities. Like her streams and regular videos, these short clips are fun, informative, and just a little bit silly. “It’s probably not as high-tech as people think,” she tells me. “People think I have dots all over my face but I don’t have that or a full body tracking rig or anything. The model I currently use, the one that went viral on TikTok, is a custom made, custom rigged model that was made in Blender and the advanced face tracking is using an iPhone. It’s Face Emoji, the stuff with the dog where you make it follows your face, it’s using that exact same technology and applying it to my avatar through a program running on my computer.”
While there’s a handful of cables and other fun technical hiccups to deal with, it remains a simple yet engaging step into the world of VTubing, even if some problems can surface from time to time. “There have been times where I’m like, ‘My face has stopped working!’ and I’m sure Kizuna Ai has had tracking hiccups in the past, but her content is usually recorded first so she doesn’t have to panic when her tracking drops. Even now, I use hand-tracking with a device called an Ultra Leap. It has two infrared cameras with a fish-eye view and they just run software that does image recognition. So I don’t wear gloves or anything, it’s just my hands and I wear this device around my neck that notices my hands are there and translates it over to the model.”
VTubing began as a hobby for GirlDM, a fun distraction away from a normal working routine, but as her fanbase began to grow and several videos attracted viral attention, embodying this character became her main way of making a living, so the jump was made to become a full-time entertainer. From this past August, she’s fully committed to being a catgirl. “I was like, I’m gonna have fun with this avatar, the tracking, and create a positive space to do art and have fun,” GirlDM says. “But the numbers started going up with people following and watching and I kept being like, ‘Next month it’ll drop off’ and then I got raided by someone who is way bigger than me and that’s why the numbers are as big as they are now.
“Making the TikTok was a turning point. I had just got my model and was doing a celebratory thing with it and I had some friends telling me to make an account. Then it just jumped, and suddenly everything jumped, and I felt like there was a little moment where I had the opportunity to make a choice. I was streaming three times a week – Wednesday nights, Friday nights, and Saturdays in the daytime – because I was also working a full-time office job. It got to the point where I was making the same amount streaming as I was working. But there’s also the spooky thing of relying on success, like what happens if my channel gets banned? So I had a long discussion and a lot of deliberation before taking that foot forward. And here we are, I’m a full time streamer person. I just want to have a cute avatar and draw stuff as a catgirl on the internet.”
Unlike regular streamers, VTubers are normally characters with their own established background. Hololive English features Gawr Gura, a shark girl under the sea, Amelia Watson, a private detective inspired by Sherlock Holmes, or even Takanashi Kiari, a phoenix girl who runs a popular chain of fried chicken restaurants. Some creators chain themselves to this developing fiction, while others, like GirlDM, use it as a more confident expression of their own personality, since it comes without the pressure of living up to one’s internal narrative. “I think that’s both a blessing and a curse that comes with VTubing because you can set up that storyline, you can set up that narrative with your character and it’s super duper cool,” GirlDM tells me. “One of my friends is Lord Commander Chaos, and he’s a supervillain, that’s his whole schtick, that’s his whole thing. He’s even in character when he’s tweeting, but of course, he works within the role of that super villain. He’s got a voice modulator which makes it sound like he’s speaking through the mask of his character.
“But with mine it’s a little more free form because GirlDM started off as a meme between friends which I transitioned into a positivity twitter account, and then I thought why can’t positivity just be a catgirl? I did create a narrative for what kind of being she is, but not necessarily a whole storyline of where she came from, what’s going on, or things I need to follow. There’s another hiccup where I’ve had friends who have that narrative, and they’ve made a concept they think they will really enjoy but when they get into the practice of it things feel awkward, they feel disjointed, and despite having this concept that you feel so passionate about, when you’re actually trying to fulfil it feels like something’s missing.”
GirlDM’s focus on positivity is also a way to channel the personality of its creator, but even that idea comes with its own distinct expectations. “For me, the main thing with GirlDM is positivity and having fun, and in general I am quite a positive person, but I do have times when I feel pretty down – I call it the brain worms,” she explains. “Sometimes you get the brain worms and you’re just like, ‘Whoa, everything sucks’ and when it comes to that I’m grateful for the persona I have. I can tell everyone that I’m not doing my best right now during a stream or if I’m getting really frustrated can we take a break or move over to something I enjoy doing. One of the things I’m good at is taking a step back and saying that things kinda suck right now and something needs to change.”
This honesty with her audience is a wonderful thing, but due to VTubers feeling so real, charismatic and drawing in fans who relate to them, it can be awfully easy for a parasocial relationship to form that simply isn’t grounded in reality. “The parasocial aspect of it kinda sneaks up on you because you don’t start thinking about it when you start streaming,” GirlDM tells me. “Like I’ve watched YouTubers like Markiplier for ages and ages, and like I always joked when I was younger that one day I was gonna marry Markiplier but that would never be anything I would ever express towards him, that was always just pure mental fantasy. I had a good barrier in my mind because he’s an individual, he has his own life, and my interpretation of who he is based on the videos he has edited and curated online is not based in reality.
“When I started streaming I realised there are people who are unable to make that distinction which is scary. I keep my streams at a PG-13 level, and never address members of my community as friends, because for me, friends is a specific label for somebody that I know and trust, and I have had enough back and forth with. The majority of people I communicate with online I would put into the acquaintances sphere, so when I’m addressing chat I call them either ‘chat’ or my ‘Cheer Squad’ which is my community name, because I do believe we are a community that works and enjoys similar things together. But I have definitely had people DM me, or emailed my business email requesting to be friends because they’ve watched my content or they believe we’d get along wonderfully. Getting some of those has made me take a step back, because you probably wouldn’t walk up to someone in a grocery store and say, ‘Hey! I like your t-shirt, let’s be friends.’ Maybe if we’re at a convention for a specific video game you’d have a conversation with them, but I won’t call them my friend.”
In reality, GirlDM describes herself as a rather anxious person. Fulfilling this VTuber fantasy is a meaningful detachment from the real world, and should be treated as such. But given how the culture draws heavy comparisons to the Japanese idol industry, sometimes that isn’t so easy. “It’s a unique situation with VTubing, especially with Hololive, because it tends to take a more idol industry approach where each girl is an archetype,” GirlDM explains.
“You have the sassy girls, the quiet girls, the tomboy types and such which fit into the idol industry in Japan and tend to work heavily on parasocial relationships. With my streaming I’m very lively, outspoken, and energetic, but when I’m out with my normal friend groups and stuff – I’m not. I’m quiet, like if I’m going to go out, especially by myself to do shopping or anything specific, I’m generally quiet. I had a big fear of public speaking for a long time, and when I was in school if I needed to talk to the teacher for any reason, like if I was sick, I forgot homework, or I didn’t show up, I’d just start to cry.”
VTubing is not without its downsides, and parasocial relationships are a constant threat even in wholesome online communities like this, and a delicate balance needs to be struck as GirlDM's popularity continues to grow. Yet the confidence streaming has given her outweighs any negatives she has experienced – that and who doesn’t love being a cute cat girl on the internet kicking ass at Sekiro?
We’ll be delving a little further into the culture of Virtual YouTubers with GirlDM in another piece later down the line, so keep an eye out for that!
Source: Read Full Article