Haachama vs. Brian Pillman: VTubers and Evolving Gimmicks

“What do the virtual youtuber Akai Haato and the late pro wrestler Brian Pillman have in common?”

As I’ve continued to fall down the VTuber rabbit hole, I constantly find similarities to pro wrestling. When VTubers stream, they get immediate feedback from their live chats. They’re not static performers, having to respond to and reciprocate with a chat that’s eager to make their opinions known. “That applies to all livestreamers!” you might be thinking, but the added virtual layer changes the streamer’s relationship with their audience. 

While stream viewers might seek authenticity, the VTubers themselves are not expected to be “real,” and there are no illusions about it. In my eyes, there’s a real resemblance to the concept of wrestler gimmicks—especially in how varied they can be, and how they can be embraced to such different degrees. Some VTubers are like the Undertaker, leaning fully into their outlandish characters. Others are like Kobashi Kenta, a more down-to-Earth approach meant to convey a more personal connection to the audience.

And over time, these gimmicks can undergo changes both great and small as the performers, both VTuber and wrestler, adjust to the audience reactions and refine their craft. One common theme in stories about wrestlers, especially in the old territory days, is the need to figure out what keeps the audience coming back to pay good money while avoiding overstaying your welcome. Similarly, it is fascinating to look back at how VTubers behaved in their introductory videos compared to how they present themselves in more recent material. Rarely is there a VTuber who manages to stay perfectly within the original boundaries set for themselves. 

That brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning, and the answer is this: Both Akai Haato and Brian Pillman began as more conventional performers who found themselves in difficult times, and ended up reinventing their personas into larger-than-life yet authentic-feeling identities that pushed the envelope of what is possible and accepted in their respective fields.

Brian Pillman was once most famously known as Flyin’ Brian Pillman—an astoundingly athletic wrestler who could dazzle audiences with his acrobatic moves. However, after a car crash, Pillman had to drastically alter his style. Instead of emphasizing his now-compromised high-flying moves, he decided to blur the boundaries between the real and the fictional as a “Loose Cannon,”  culminating in an infamous moment where he seemingly tries to shoot “Stone Cold” Steven Austin.

Hololive’s Akai Haato, in turn, first introduced herself to the world as a traditional tsundere character, and was even used as a model of how a conventional idol-esque virtual youtuber should behave. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the person behind Haato was stuck in Australia for months. Unable to stream the way she normally would have, her conventional tsundere self gave way to the more chaotic and creative “Haachama” persona. From talking about smelling her own feet to cooking a tarantula to split personalities and time-distortion, Haachama has developed an even wider fanbase. She’s currently on hiatus, but fans await her return. 

Given the commonalities between pro wrestling and virtual youtubers, an important question comes to mind: what if there was a virtual youtuber tournament of some kind? Plenty of them will compete with each other in video games, but what if there were promos and smacktalk and the like? What if the PekoMiko War was more than a song and a Minecraft video, and lines were drawn in the sand, with tickets sold for the event?

In conclusion, VTuber pay-per-views are the future.

Superhero Fans Are from Mars, Venus, Krypton, and Everywhere Else

It’s the 4th of July, so here I am to discuss my ever-changing relationship with American superhero comics fandom.

I’ve been an avid comics reader since childhood, and having interacted with many fellow fans over the years, there’s one truth I’m often reminded of: there’s no one type of fan. It’s not just that Fan A might like Spider-Man and Fan B might be into Jimmy Corrigan, either. How people approach the very act of experiencing comics can be so fundamentally different that calling them both “comics fans” ends up being a gross simplification, and failing to understand that can stifle one’s own understanding of the power of comics.

I recall a conversation with someone who’s a big fan of the Batman franchise. The topic of spoilers came up, and they basically replied, “Oh, I don’t care about that”—not so much because knowing in advance what happens didn’t bother them, but because the actual story isn’t the biggest priority for them and their fandom experience. Rather, it’s the characters themselves (Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, etc.) and the values and traits they embody in and of themselves. It’s what allows these characters to be placed into alternate-universe fanfics. It’s also what allows them to be protected, in the eyes of such fans, from bad writers and plotlines. If Batman is written to be a racist, they can remember the perfect version of him instead. Japanese manga scholar Ito Go calls this kyara: the capacity for a character to be removed from their context and still exude a sense of identity, and superheroes certainly are iconic.

I’ve noticed more and more fans like this, and I believe their passion is real and wonderful. At the same time, this is not the type of fan I grew up with, and their interactions with both one another and with their comics are not the kind I cut my teeth on. Instead, I’ve generally been more accustomed to textual analyses, plot speculation, and the classic “who would win in a fight?” I caught up with an old friend at New York Comic Con 2019 two years ago, and their explanation of the ambitious nature of Marvel’s House of X and Powers of X stood in stark relief from the Batman fan’s way.

In his book Comics and Narration, French comics scholar Thierry Groensteen writes about a generation gap he feels with younger comics fans:

“For readers of my age…comics has always meant being exposed to a certain type of fiction, divided into genres and series, and being hooked on adventure stories. It went without saying for us that comics…was a “narrative type within the narrative genre.” Of course, we have to acknowledge that comics…arouses among certain groups of younger readers different expectations…. [O]ne needs only to consider the phenomenon of “cosplay”…to realize that these young people who dress up as their favorite hero have little interest in the story—what they are seeking…is the hero or heroine with whom they identify. The emphasis is on the characters themselves, their costumes, their attributes, possibly the values that they incarnate, but not at all the context in which they appear or the adventures that they have had. The phenomenon of identification is difficult for readers of my generation to understand…[W]hat mattered to us was how they gained hero status through their actions and how they swept us up in the excitement of their adventures.”

Unlike Groensteen, I feel I can relate to both his perspective and the “cosplayers” he finds inherently difficult to connect with. Still, I myself have noticed that when I talk with people from different groups about comics, the gears in my head turn in ways to accommodate the type of fan I’m talking to. Understanding their priorities also means understanding the kinds of questions that will bear fruitful responses. I don’t mean that I am constantly making intensely conscious decisions as to what to say or ask, but that talking with the Batman fan and the HoXPoX fan almost requires a different frame of mind.

While we all have our own ways and preferences, I think failing (or refusing) to acknowledge these differences creates tension among comics fans. People can even like the same comic but have very different ways of deriving their enjoyment. Trying to reconcile them (in the sense of trying to judge then with the same parameters) may be a fool’s errand. Recognizing that perspectives can be incongruous but appreciating them all the same lends strength to comics fandom as a whole, and all its possibilities.

Kazuya Mishima in Smash Ultimate: I Sensed This Coming

I’ve been going a little hog wild with the Smash Bros. DLC posts lately, devoting entries to Goro, Kerrigan, and Nightmare just in the past couple weeks. But one thing I’ve felt for a while is that Smash was lacking a representative for 3D fighting games. It’s why I tried to come up with a moveset for Akira Yuki from Virtua Fighter before he was revealed as an Assist Trophy in Ultimate. Now, we have our answer: Kazuya Mishima from Tekken.

While I never made any formal blog posts about it, I did entertain the notion in my Min Min analysis. I also made a couple of tweets last year arguing in favor of Kazuya:

Over time, what I’ve wanted to see out of Smash more than even my dream character picks (NiGHTS is the only one remaining, really) is to have it reflect a greater breadth of gaming: genres like the beat ‘em up and the RTS, and even influential consoles like the Atari 2600 and the Commodore 64. This includes 3D fighters. While 2D and 3D fighting games look similar from a distance, they’re actually two very different gameplay experiences. I’m glad for the inclusion of Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter and Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury, but I found it odd that one side of the fighting game genre was so lopsided in Smash

I know very little about Tekken other than having a general sense of how the game plays at a casual level, as well as familiarity with most of the characters through pop culture osmosis. From what I’ve seen of people’s initial reactions, Kazuya in Smash comes across as somehow having been transplanted straight from his source games into this new environment. We don’t have any detailed gameplay explanations to reference (the Kazuya showcase will air on the 28th of June), but if it was challenging enough to convert Tekken characters into 2D for Street Fighter x Tekken, I wonder how Sakurai and his team have made Kazuya work. It feels harder to translate Tekken moves to Smash compared to Street Fighter or Fatal Fury/King of Fighters.

Speaking of adapting fighting game characters to Smash, I realized a huge distinction between them and most of the roster: A lot of characters come from singleplayer games where the goal is for them to be relatively simple to use, and Smash movesets are designed relative to that. Not so with Kazuya and pals. In fact, Kazuya and the other Mishimas are generally considered among the hardest characters to master in Tekken. I think it’s why they can be so polarizing when in this crossover context.

Incidentally, the Kazuya trailer begins with Kazuya tossing Ganondorf off a cliff. Kazuya has a move called the Demon God Fist, or Majinken. Ganondorf’s neutral special, Warlock Punch, is actually also called Majinken in Japanese, albeit with a slight kanji difference. In other words, it was a battle of Demon Fists, and Kazuya won.

Welcome to Kazuya, and remember: the most important thing to come out of this is that the Banjo & Kazuya Mishima gag is real now.

Nightmare (Soulcalibur) for Super Smash Bros.

A Truly Flagship Video Game Villain

Villain characters have been a great addition to the Super Smash Bros. franchise, starting with Bowser in Melee and more recently with the inclusion of Ridley, King K. Rool, and Sephiroth in Ultimate. In anticipation of E3 and the official Nintendo Direct scheduled for June 15, I’ve been making blog posts about possible antagonist characters I think would fit well. But as cool as Goro and Kerrigan would be, what occurred to me is that neither is necessarily the unquestioned face of the video games they represent. Mortal Kombat is Scorpion and Sub-Zero. Kerrigan can make a better case, but she’s not necessarily the first character people think of.

However, there is a particular case I think could fit my self-imposed criteria of being a bad guy while also being a game franchise’s most iconic mascot character: Nightmare from Soulcalibur. Not only does he wield Soul Edge, the demonic weapon that is the primary catalyst for the game’s story, he’s also literally in the logo of the Soulcalibur development team, Project Soul.

Another Swordsman, But…

One potential strike against Nightmare is Ultimate is a game that sometimes gets criticized for featuring too many swords. But Nightmare has so much going for him aesthetically, as well as in terms of possible gameplay mechanics and features that he could successfully fill a space that’s only partially covered by the likes of Ike and maybe Ganondorf: a true superheavy swordsman.

Nightmare’s Soul Edge is like a combination of Ike’s Ragnell and Cloud’s Buster Sword, only bigger. It’s this massive hunk of evil energy in the form of a two-handed blade, and it looks menacing in a way that even Sephiroth’s Masamune can’t quite compare. The menacing march of a character clad in armor who’s not as slow as one might expect could also add a quality of intimidation ideal for heavies. You know his dash attack would be that hilarious dropkick.

Potential Gameplay

Moveset-wise, it’s harder to establish what’s a “special move” vs. a “normal move” compared to 2D fighting game characters, but I think Nightmare could bring a lot of Soulcalibur mechanics to Smash. While the Soul Charge boost could be nice, Nightmare in Soulcalibur VI has a unique mechanic called “Terror Charge.” A mode that enhances his attacks in different ways, Terror Change can be activated either independently like a powerup on command, or it can be triggered by having the opponent hit Nightmare during specific armored moves. 

The two things Terror Charge might most closely resemble are 1) Incineroar’s Revenge (a counter that absorbs a plow to power up the next attack) and 2) Lucario in Project M, who could power up its aura during combos. Rather than being a comeback mechanic or even a snowball mechanic, Terror Charge would be a strategic tool that is fully controlled by the player and can apply to a variety of situations. Other folks more intimately familiar with how Nightmare plays can give a more in-depth moveset idea:

Who Else?

Nightmare isn’t the only villain who’s also the key figure in a game series—fellow Namco character Heihachi Mishima from Tekken could also make the case. Are there any other truly flagship villains out there?

Sarah Kerrigan (Starcraft) for Super Smash Bros.

As E3 and the next Nintendo Direct get closer, I find that I want to see two things in Super Smash Bros.: even more villainous characters like Sephiroth and a representative of the influential real-time strategy genre. I’m attracted to the idea that Smash Bros. is a celebration of video game history, albeit one intentionally skewed towards Nintendo. The inclusion of Starcraft would not only bring in another country/demographic (older South Koreans who grew up with the game), but would implicitly call upon the game franchise as one of the biggest esports phenomenons of all time. League of Legends might have been the current big thing in Korea over the past ten years, but Starcraft is a foundational Korean esport.

Symbolizing All Three Starcraft Races

Much like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there are three in-game playable factions in Starcraft, and it can be difficult to think of a character in Smash who can represent them all, and there really isn’t a primary “player character” like Three Houses’ Byleth. Jim Raynor is basically the protagonist of the Terran campaigns, and there are numerous Protoss characters who make significant impacts—Tassadar, Zeratul, Artanis—but I think it’s Sarah Kerrigan who would be best for Smash because she possesses elements of all three races.

Kerrigan begins Starcraft as a Terran before being captured by the Zerg and transformed with both Zerg attributes and Protoss-esque psychic abilities. It would be most plausible for her to incorporate attributes from each race into her attacks, such as non-permanent Cloaking from the Terrans, Psionic Storm from the Protoss, and Burrowing from the Zerg.

RTS Gameplay Mechanics

But if you’re going to have a Starcraft representative, it would be great if the character could incorporate aspects of the real-time strategy genre, and I could see Smash doing something really creative. Perhaps you could have the ability to summon different types of Zerg units to accompany you Luma-style depending on certain conditions met. Perhaps it could be like how Villager plants trees, except Kerrigan could spawn a single Hatchery which produces Zerglings. Maybe she could also induce it to upgrade into a Lair and then a Hive, allowing for stronger and stronger units, e.g. Mutalisks and Ultralisks. It might be overly complicated this way, but that also feels in line with the Starcraft spirit. Like Villager’s Tree, Hatcheries would be vulnerable to damage and could be eliminated. Essentially, think Jack-O’ from Guilty Gear Xrd, but with the amount of room to maneuver that a platform fighter provides.

If there was a way to give an advantage to players with high APM, that would also be true to the RTS genre, but that might be a little excessive.

While the intense demand of the original Starcraft games on players to excel can be somewhat incongruous with Smash, I think there could be a happy middle ground. Kerrigan (or any Starcraft character) would have both the gameplay potential and the notoriety to make Smash Bros. proud. 

Miss Nagatoro and the Teasing Girl as Goldilocks Archetype

The anime adaptation of Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro has put the “teasing character” back in the spotlight, and what I find interesting is how strongly this archetype draws fans in. I see the teasing character as a sort of middle ground between different preferences (and fetishes), and this positions it to hit a variety of targets simultaneously.

In a sense, the “teasing character” can be viewed as the grandchild of tsundere and the direct offspring of the yandere. The tsundere is all about the prickly personality, often portrayed as a character who tries to deny their own feelings or reluctantly develop them. They might attack the love interest, but they’re typically built as reactive or passive characters in the realm of romance. The yandere, however, is the twisted mirror image of the tsundere: an obsessive and dangerous love whose thrills border on horror. The teasing character, then, is a sort of a compromise between the two by being more aggressive than the tsundere but lacking the morbid violence and emotional intensity of the yandere. They actively pressure their possible love interest, throwing them off their game and rendering them helpless. Any romantic feelings are covered in layers of snark and smugness, but unlike the tsundere, the power resides primarily in the teaser. 

If tsundere is too tepid and yandere is too scalding, then the teasing character might be just right. Even then, it should be noted that there are differing degrees of teasing characters. Nagatoro’s bullying isn’t quite the same as the heroines of Teasing Master Takagi-san or Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out, who are more prankster and brat, respectively. 

I also find that the “Goldilocks”-esque nature of the teasing character extends beyond the tsundere-yandere spectrum and into other territories. So much like how the teasing character is like “tsundere but more aggressive” and “yandere but without the obsessive physical/psychological violence,” you can describe the archetype in similar ways relative to other fetishes. It’s NTR (a form of cuckolding, for the unfamiliar) but without the betrayal aspect—the powerlessness of the audience character is there, only not in as soul-crushing a manner. It’s S&M but primarily emotional and without cold contempt, meaning that all the pain and pleasure isn’t in the realm of physical pain—and it’s not the Blend S-style distanced masochism. A lot of relationships in storytelling are about power dynamics, and the teasing character is right in the thick of it.

I’m actually not that into the teasing character type (or everything I’ve mentioned beyond possibly tsundere), so my observations are limited by my lack of personal connection. If there’s more insight to be had, I’m interested in hearing from the true fans. 

The “Essence vs. Fill” Priorities Tier List in Smash Bros. Ultimate and Beyond

Tier lists are a staple part of discussions in any competitive gaming community. No matter the approach or philosophy, they’re an attempt to make sense of a game’s elements, and a well thought out tier list can be an opportunity for fruitful discussion. A few months back, I watched a video by Super Smash Bros. Melee player/commentator Toph, in which he goes over a Melee “tier” list by another player named Ginger. Much like how it blew Toph’s mind, I found it really fascinating myself. 

Ginger ranks the characters not by how strong they are, how likely they are to win a tournament, overall matchup spread, or any of the standard conceptions of tier lists. Instead, it’s about where characters fall on a spectrum between what he calls “essence” and “fill.” The video mostly explains what those terms mean, but they’re not obvious upfront. Actually, they’re pretty obtuse, but I’m sticking with them so as not to further introduce new vocabulary. 

Basically, “essence” means characters who mainly play by aiming towards certain central win conditions or moves, whereas “fill” means sort of “throw the kitchen sink at ’em” characters who try to use smoke and mirrors to win the day. In the context of Melee, Ice Climbers are considered a “pure essence” character because chain grabs (be they infinite or otherwise) are so fundamental to their play. Falco is considered “all fill” at the highest levels of play because he really has to rely on his entire kit to win, but at lower level is considered an “essence” character because his fundamental tools (his power short hop laser and his down b being a combo starter) are so difficult for less skilled and experienced players to deal with. Other terms used to describe this difference used in this video (as well as a follow-up) are essence = meat and potatoes, and filler = smoke and mirrors.

It’s also worth noting that just because a character is more “essence” or more “fill” doesn’t mean they’re only good at one or the other. Fox can do well in both (which is probably why he’s arguably the best character there), but he’s simply even better at “fill” stuff. It also doesn’t say which characters are stronger overall, with top and bottom tiers being strewn throughout each category.

With that in mind, I made a quick chart for how I think characters fall in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, roughly in order within tiers. Due to fundamental differences in the games, I think there’s a higher percentage of “essence” characters in Ultimate than Melee, but I will be the first to admit that I don’t have the experience to speak for most characters. These are built on my perceptions playing against them here and there, as well as watching many tournaments.

Framing characters along this spectrum has helped me think about why certain characters might appeal to certain types of players regardless of competitive viability. A player who finds more satisfaction out of forcing their opponents to play around a specifically potent and efficient attacks of an essence-based character may not enjoy the constant mix-ups and obfuscations that fill-based characters thrive on. Different match-ups might become more frustrating for some people than others because it might require switching from fill to essence-based play or vice versa. In a way, it could potentially be less of a tier list and more of a psychology test.

The spectrum vs. fill contrast can also help explain how characters may have changed in the transition between games. For example, I consider Mewtwo to be a “mostly fill” character in Ultimate because while it has certain kill confirms and reliable go-to attacks (Shadow Ball), Mewtwo generally has to focus on trying to slowly build up its wins using the full range of its tools. However, I think Smash 4 Mewtwo is more of a “mostly essence” character because its down tilt could combo more easily (thus making it the de facto tool in neutral), the nair into footstool into disable could net KOs so easily, and its powerful air dodge made reversing situations fairly simple.

This way of thinking about characters and players can extend beyond Smash into other competitive games, and even beyond gaming into other areas. For example, I find it to be a great way to categorize different professional wrestlers in terms of their in-ring styles. Who is more “essence” than Hulk Hogan, who famously won most of his matches with a combo of Hulk Up into Big Boot into Leg Drop? On the flipside, AJ Styles is the definition of “fill” because while he has no one devastating move that all but guarantees victory, his character is portrayed as someone who has developed a variety of finishers that can be adapted to virtually any situation.

You can also apply it to the differences between visual artists. A “pure essence” artist would be one who can fully imagine the finished product and then work towards that image, while an “all fill” artist would be one who doesn’t have it fully formed in their mind’s eye but slowly builds up towards something. It doesn’t say anything about skill, talent, or hard work—it’s a difference in how one perceives and interacts with the world on a creative level.

So whether it’s Smash or something else entirely, I think the essence vs. fill spectrum is a useful thought exercise. It’s something I might come back to in the future.

Minmaxer Fiction: The Intersection Between Dungeons & Dragons and Isekai

I saw a tweet recently from someone complaining about isekai series that introduce and highlight stats and numbers the way an RPG would despite ostensibly being set in non-game fantasy worlds. 

In response, I  wrote the above tweet to give my two cents on the appeal of such an approach. However, it also got me thinking in another direction that takes this RPG fantasy game genre all the way back to one of its roots—good ol’ Dungeons & Dragons—and I realized something: these game-esque light novels feel like they’re written by what tabletop RPG players call “minmaxers.”

I was introduced to playing D&D thanks to Alain from Reverse Thieves, and after years of playing with him, I’ve come to learn firsthand that roleplaying is a very different experience compared to prose fiction or a television show. Essentially, it’s more like collaborative interactive storytelling compared to other mediums, and one aspect of this nature is that many different people with different goals come to the same table. You might have someone who’s more into exploring the world. You might have someone who wants the glory of slaying the monster and saving the day. You might have someone who wants a dramatic narrative. Because this dynamic is so important, many people have devoted many hours to categorizing the various D&D player types and thinking about how to best cater to them or even deal with their worst excesses.

Among these player archetypes, a common one is the minmaxer: the person who’s all about designing strong characters from a statistical perspective by minimizing certain scores and maximizing others, often prioritizing power over all else. There are also less extreme versions of this, such as someone simply interested in game systems and how different stats interact with one another, but it falls in the same general space. However, whereas a Dungeon Master running a game might have to take into account all the potentially different priorities of their players, a web novelist or light novelist can write the stories they want without necessarily taking into account an audience composed of varying tastes, and instead tell a story where the “game mechanics” are front and center. Adding to this intentional rigidity is the fact that many of the light novels that fall into these minmaxer worlds are clearly more inspired by video games such as Japanese RPGs and MMORPGs, where mechanics mastery is often highly valued and encouraged by the games themselves—sometimes even over storytelling.

When you look at the typical trends of protagonists within these game-style fantasy worlds, this angle becomes all the clearer. Many isekai heroes are able to peer deeper into the inner workings of the world (So I’m a Spider, So What?), have some kind of special ability that lets them defy stat restrictions (Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?), or just know that there are game-like qualities to their world (My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!). What these features have in common is that they “break” the rules, and it’s even easier when the rules are just numbers and calculations. If you’ve ever been or seen someone who wants to be praised for an interesting build or stat investment in a game (“Check out how I combine Helmet A with Sword B to deal with Situation C!” “I gave my monster 248 speed instead of 252 so I could add 4 to defense!”), it’s that same energy. When you combine it with the glory-seeking player type, you get the overpowered perfect light novel protagonist who masterfully exploits the mechanics, defeats the villains with ease, and gets the harem.

A picture of the four personalities of Kumoko from So I'm a Spider, So What? All of them are excited in different ways.
So I’m a Spider, So What?

Which isn’t to say that the minmaxer approach to writing stories is inherently bad or incapable of making for good stories. Rather, where I think the disconnect between those who want more classical fantasy stories and what light novels are offering today is that the minmaxer is traditionally very much not the kind of person who gets into writing or reading fantasy novels. To be that way, you have to come from an environment where numbered stats are even a thing in the first place, and that can only be the result of a world where Dungeons & Dragons popularized the notion of codifying fantasy-genre elements into stats with pros and cons for the purpose of gaming—a quality that then became the basis for many of the JRPGs that have influenced a generation of Japanese people, among them the writers of web novels and light novels. It’s a far cry from Lord of the Rings.

This contrast actually reminds me of an episode of the sitcom Home Improvement, of all things. In it, the mother character, Jill Taylor, is asked by her father (a retired colonel) to review his autobiography manuscript. But try as she might, Jill finds it incredibly boring and sleep-inducing because her father mostly writes about battle strategy and military formations, as opposed to dramatic exploits or anything emotionally resonant. Her father clearly values the mechanics of war, but what he wants his book to convey is not appealing to those with little interest in such things. Given this example, it’s also worth noting that D&D itself is descended from a miniature wargame called Chainmail, and one of the ways that D&D would eventually expand its audience was by adding elements that would appeal to those who care about things other than combat.

So while fantasy traditionally caters to those who want to witness a world of swords and sorcery where the sense of the mysterious and unknown is paramount, the minmaxer fiction that is so ubiquitous in fantasy light novels over the past decade or two is almost the opposite. In these worlds, all surprises can be overcome with deeper or prior knowledge. It’s no wonder why the latter approach can be so bothersome to those who seek the former, and there’s no Dungeon Master who can try to cater to both in real time.

Thoughts on Anti-Asian Racism in the US

The recent mass shootings at Asian-owned massage parlors in Atlanta brings to the forefront of our consciousness the increase in hate crimes and violence towards Asians in the United States since 2020. As an Asian-American myself, I have been thinking every day about both the anti-Asian racism that has always been around and the current crisis we are seeing. It forces me to realize how easily sentiments toward people who look like me can flip, as if the respect I’ve experienced has always been paper-thin.

A lot of the attacks against Asians have been against women and the elderly, and it’s clear why: they’re presumed to be easier targets. While there have been stories of Asians fighting back, including a 70-year-old woman who beat her assailant with a cane, the fact that she was assaulted in the first place is cause for concern. I am lucky to be a fairly large cisgender man, and thus not an ideal target for those looking to exact some vague sense of revenge on Asians for supposedly bringing COVID-19 to the US, but I do remember what it was like to be small and a victim of bullying. Before I hit a growth spurt in my teen years, I was perpetually one of the smallest kids in class while living in a neighborhood that was not predominantly Asian. I don’t think the kids who picked on me back then were filled with the exact same mix of emotions as what’s going on today, but it’s pretty close, and I do think that the bullying mentality is still a significant factor in what we’re seeing now. Ultimately, it’s a form of control, and rarely have we seen times where people feel less in-control than during a pandemic that has altered how we go about our lives. That’s not to excuse such behavior, of course.

The rise in anti-Asian crimes also has me thinking a lot about that veneer of respectability that Asians in America supposedly have, and how easily it seems to fall away—as if it’s something granted to us by those in power rather than something we own ourselves. I’m not so naive as to think that courtesy and genuine compassion and love can’t exist in those who are racist. To do so would be to ignore the racism that exists within Asian communities against outsiders, let alone the racism inflicted upon us. But what all this has made me realize is how quickly a little bit of fear of the unknown or an act of othering can quickly swell into a full-blown hatred. Star Wars is not exactly the go-to entity for robust philosophical discussion, but Yoda’s classic line seems to ring true here: ”Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” That small negative feeling is just looking for an excuse to burst forth, which is why all evidence to the contrary that Asians are somehow primarily or uniquely responsible for COVID-19’s spread can be ignored, and all it takes is a simple association of “China = Chinese = Asian” to trigger deadly violence.

It’s not so much that fear is inherently bad, but even the small amount of fear in one’s heart, especially towards another group, has dangerous potential if that fear is fed a steady diet of scapegoating. And lest it be assumed that I’m primarily criticizing individuals for not behaving well or daring to have negative thoughts, I place much of the blame on both the systemic racism that affects all people, Asian and non-Asian, as well as the foul rhetoric of the previous bigot of a president who sought to give his supporters a target to direct their hatred. His stubborn insistence on referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” is largely responsible for inflaming anger and resentment in people, and the result has been both tragic and clearly intentional. Hate is a potent unifier, and those in power are insulated from the price we all pay for encouraging it.

If you’d like to learn more about what you can do to help, go to Stop AAPI Hate.

The Perfect Storm of Virtual Youtubers

As the days go by, I increasingly find myself looking into the world of Virtual Youtubers. I watch the clips and highlights that go around, and I sometimes tune into the live streams of my favorites. I wouldn’t consider myself a devotee of the whole concept, but I’m entertained. I know I’m not alone, as the increasing success of VTubers is a sight to behold—Gawr Gura, one of the first members of the Hololive agency’s push into English-language streaming, hit one million subscribers in just a little over a month and has since surpassed two million.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the success of Virtual Youtubers shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re in many ways a perfect storm of things that appeal to people on the internet, bringing together different groups who tend towards obsession and converging them onto this amalgam of elements.

The first group is weebs. I generally avoid the term, preferring things like “anime and manga fans,” but I feel that its usage is accurate here—it’s not just about being into the media but being into that strain of Japanese pop culture. With few exceptions, Virtual Youtubers go for that anime aesthetic, recruiting famous artists and character designers to create these avatars. In a sense, they’re anime characters come to life, and that gives them a certain charm and universality that comes with being less realistic in terms of appearance. And while VTubers now exist across the world, they’re firmly rooted in that anime/manga/light novel realm, and expectations derive from the tropes found there. 

The second group is gamers. While streaming has had some presence on the internet for decades now, gaming has become one of its absolute pillars. Between the transformation of Justin.tv into Twitch, the prevalence of esports, the enduring popularity of Youtube channels like Game Grumps, and the rise of speedrunning as a spectator activity, there’s no denying the draw. Live streaming your play session is just an easy and reliable way to connect with potential fans, and while streamers usually need some kind of physical or personal charisma to get things going, the sleek designs of VTubers help bridge that gap.

The third group is idol fans. While it’s like every one of them eventually gets their own original songs, what attracts people to idols is that they feel somehow distant yet accessible, and Virtual Youtubers greatly exaggerate both sides of the fantasy by their very nature. The use of character avatars means there’s no mistaking their visual appearances for being the “real” individuals, but that also means being able to project onto them an idealized version. At the same time, unlike Hatsune Miku, they’re real people interacting from behind the curtain. Depending on what level of performativity vs. seeming authenticity a viewer wants, or popularity vs. obscurity (what’s more exciting than seeing your favorite personality grow from small-time to wild success?) there’s probably a VTuber for them. What’s more, the concept of superchats on YouTube allows fans to get instant gratification by giving money to have their messages read and acknowledged.

The fourth group, and there’s plenty of overlap with the other three, is those who are into celebrities. This is a more vague and generalized group, but it’s the same energy that fuels people to follow the goings-on of their favorite movie stars and singers.

A weeb might love all things anime-adjacent but dismiss Western-style game aesthetics. A fan of first-person shooters might love watching anything and everything related to their favorite games but think anime stuff looks weird as hell. But then a Virtual Youtuber who looks like an anime character come-to-life might play Apex Legends, and so now the weebs get their real-life anime girl and the Western-focused gamers get to connect to her through their favorite game. At the same time, even if she isn’t particularly good at what she’s playing, that gives her a kind of element of relatability that an idol fan might be drawn to. And even if someone isn’t an idol fan, seeing someone suffer through a game has an established history of bringing in eyeballs. The crossover appeal is hard to deny.

Thus, when the VTubers branch into areas other than gaming, they can bring all those different groups together. It’s why they can karaoke Japanese, English, and even German songs, all to praise and fanfare. When they do something completely out of the realm of entertainment, like cook, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary even if the results can range from bizarre to horrifying. The fact that their fans don’t just come from one place also gives the VTubers the flexibility to try new things and see what sticks. Non-virtual streamers who get popular because of one game can sometimes have a hard time playing others because they might not get the viewer counts they normally would, but what makes people want to see Virtual Youtubers goes beyond specific games or titles. 

I think the concept of the VTuber allows it a certain degree of freedom that flesh-and-blood streamers do not. By virtue of their virtual natures (pun intended), they invite viewers into a kind of alternate reality. From there, the ability to take that anime character identity and apply it to various domains or interests means that even activities that normally might not appeal to a person can suddenly seem interesting. It’s a lot like how manga can make certain topics more appealing to those who are unfamiliar, but with Virtual Youtubers you get both the slice-of-life hobbyism and the gutsy competition at the same time. And unlike in manga, the wins and losses are real—even if everything is ultimately made up and the points don’t matter.