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CodeMiko will see you now

Chatting with Twitch’s newest virtual talk show star

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When I watch CodeMiko, I think a lot about unreality — though not for the obvious reasons. While Miko is a virtual creation, a punkish motion-captured digital avatar with a knack for performing her personality, I find myself more interested in the nature of her performance itself; she’s just magnetic, and I’m not sure I can describe why.

I could tell you that her streams are a combination of interviews with big-name streamers, fiddling with motion capture software, and bizarre interactions with chat. I could mention that since her start last March, Miko’s channel has amassed 640,000 followers and that she now streams to more than 7,000 viewers at any given moment she’s live. But I’m not convinced any of that contains the true nature of her gonzo appeal. What I am sure of is that Miko is here to stay, and whatever it is she’s up to is reshaping the Twitch landscape in her image — and giving everyone a healthy dose of the bizarre in the process.

Behind CodeMiko is a real human being — whose name is not Miko but who seemingly prefers to be called Miko — who plays a character referred to as The Technician in the fiction of the stream. The Technician keeps Miko’s hardware running, and it’s her I reached over video chat the other day to talk about the character’s appeal.

“Miko is a failed video game character. Her dream is she wants to be in a triple-A video game but she’s so scuffed and glitchy that she was unable to,” says The Technician, who is also Miko. “So she started trying to do Twitch streaming instead.” Miko The Technician describes Miko the virtual streamer as someone who fits the classic archetype of the struggling Hollywood actress — someone who just wants to be in a movie, any movie, except in Miko’s case, it’s literally any game. (Heads up, game devs.) “She’s kind of an NPC,” Miko (The Technician) says.

I should pause a moment here to note that yes, I am profiling a virtual creation — a streamer who, technically speaking, does not exist, at least not in our meat realm. Though she’s not alone in not existing and creating content nonetheless. By now, you may have heard of Miko’s counterparts, vtubers — “virtual YouTubers,” which is a term that’s now a catchall for a hugely popular segment of online entertainers who use digital prosthetics to obscure their faces and bodies. Miko isn’t a true vtuber, I don’t think, because the human behind the whole thing is widely known and regularly shows her face on camera. I am aware that this distinction may be considered splitting hairs.

In any case: at this point, CodeMiko’s reputation is beginning to precede her, at least on Twitch. In the early days, Technician-Miko would do everything, in her own words — all of the designing, programming, admin, and marketing work that goes into being a full-time virtual streamer. “When I was doing it by myself, I had a very strict schedule of going to sleep around 9PM, waking up at 2AM, and then devving until like 12PM,” says Miko of those early days. “And 12:30PM, I’ll stream, and I’ll stream to like 5 or 6.” And she used to do that every single day.

Now, however, she’s hired a team, and her schedule is different. Having thousands of concurrent viewers a stream will change a streamer’s life, if not necessarily their priorities. These days, Miko’s attention is split, she says, in a million different ways, and she’s mostly managing and supervising her accounts when she’s not streaming. That, of course, was a consequence of just how quickly Miko was growing on Twitch. “I think I went from like 200 to like 10,000 viewers in like a couple of weeks,” she says. The growth came from a single viral tweet posted at the end of November, which showed a side-by-side video of streamer Miko and Technician-Miko. “That tweet kind of went viral and that boosted me up to my first 1,000 viewers,” she says.

And that’s when things took off. Her clips began circulating on r/LivestreamFail, which acts as a kind of repository of Twitch drama; bigger streamers would see them there and then raid her, and then she’d interview them on her show. It was a virtuous cycle that catapulted Miko into Twitch stardom, which is also something it’s clear she hasn’t totally processed yet.

“When I was like 200, 300 viewers, I was like ‘When I hit 1,000 viewers, that’s going to be my goal, and it’s gonna feel so great. And I’ll be like, good,’” she says. “But I hit 1,000. And then the next day, I hit 2,000. And the next day, I hit 3,000.” She tells me she feels grateful, and that, yes, it’s awesome. But it’s only now, a few months since she was thrust into the limelight, that she seems to be coming to terms with the idea of being a prominent person on Twitch.

That makes sense; nobody blows up this fast on Twitch. Miko started her streaming career because she was laid off from the animation studio she worked at just after moving to Los Angeles last March — which, as you’ll recall, also happened to be the early days of the pandemic in America. She had to keep paying her $2,000-a-month lease in LA, which wouldn’t be up for almost a whole year. “And I thought, you know what would be the good thing to do right now isn’t to try to look for work,” she says. “Let me put down 20 grand and try to make it on Twitch.”

And that’s exactly what she did. “My suit was around 12 to 13k. And then I had my computer, my iPhone cam, my helmet, and then my software subscriptions as well. But the mocap software subscription is actually really expensive as well,” she says. She put the $20,000 investment on her credit card. “I told myself I’m not gonna have a backup. Because if I did have a backup, then I’ll give up,” she says. “If I don’t have a backup then you have to make it.”

And Miko has. She’s built up a world around herself filled with fascinating characters and extremely clippable moments. She’s been temporarily banned from Twitch a couple of times in the past — which, when I talk to her, she doesn’t seem very stressed about even though, each time, her livelihood has been on the line. As Nathan Grayson reports over at Kotaku, Miko’s bans thus far have seemingly been for small slip-ups that violate the letter — if not the spirit — of Twitch’s TOS. (Like the time she let her viewers pay to send her “D pics,” which were literally pictures of the letter “D” that would show up on her phone. Twitch did not appear to find the joke funny.) “Bans make your IP more interesting,” Miko says, laughing. “[It] gives a little bit of color.”

Whatever happens, it’s clear that Miko — the streamer or The Technician — is here to stay. And she’s planning new things for chat to try out, too. “I’m trying to make like a GTA Carpool Karaoke on crack. I’ll have the guests, we’ll be driving in a car,” she says. “And we’ll be going through the city, trying to get to our destination, while chat obstructs the road with various things.”

Chatting with her, I get the distinct impression that Miko — whichever Miko you prefer to imagine — has an inexhaustible well of ideas for her channel. It’s like talking to someone at a party in the wee hours of the morning, when the world feels slightly tilted, in just the right way. It just works, though saying that obscures just how much effort goes into her channel. A successful performance is about finding what works for an audience, and Miko is dedicated to trying anything she thinks might delight her fans.

“I’ll make it and then if it works, keep it,” she says. “If it doesn’t work, throw it away.”