First there was Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Then there was Johnny Carson. Then came Larry King, David Letterman, and Oprah. Now, joining the list of renowned interviewers is CodeMiko—though her talk show doesn’t air on TV like those of her predecessors. Also, she’s not strictly human.
CodeMiko is a 3D virtual game character who streams on Twitch, the Amazon-owned platform that serves as the home for many of the world’s most popular live streamers. Most broadcast themselves playing video games like Fortnite or Call of Duty to their legions of fans. Others just hang out on camera, answering viewer questions and talking about what they ate for breakfast. But CodeMiko, who’s controlled via motion-capture suit by an anonymous performer, hosts a live interview show and chats with some of the streaming community’s biggest names, like Pokimane and Jacksepticeye.
The show exists somewhere on the spectrum between The Tonight Show and a video podcast. It’s like if the satirical interview web series Between Two Ferns by comedian Zack Galifianakis were hosted by a video game character. Miko can spontaneously start dancing or turn into a clown in the middle of an interview, depending on what the viewers demand. For now, it’s a surreal entertainment experience that can only live on an interactive live streaming platform like Twitch—but perhaps not forever.
“We’ve got 7 million content creators on Twitch,” Michael Aragon, Twitch’s COO, told Quartz. “That’s 7 million different [television] pilots.”
At the heart of CodeMiko’s show—and what makes it difficult to translate to other media—is interactivity. Viewers pick what topics she discusses with guests in realtime, change her body proportions, and determine the words that flash across her chest—a virtual billboard controlled entirely by her viewers. Miko is the conductor, ensuring the operation is smooth and enjoyable. But the viewers are powering the train.
Behind CodeMiko is a 30-year-old real live human who’s known only as “The Technician” in an effort to maintain her anonymity; she is concerned that revealing too much about her true self might diminish what’s made CodeMiko so popular with fans. “Suspending reality is critical to keep the community engaged,” she said. “No one wants to know how hard I’m working to make any of this possible, the community just wants to see CodeMiko in her element, and the approach seems to be working.”
In addition to motion capture, the Technician uses face-tracking technology to bring the boisterous 3D Miko to life. In reality, the Technician is a former animator who describes herself as a quiet introvert, and who’s leveraged her background to create one of the most innovative personalities on Twitch. In a year, she has gone from not being able to afford her rent, to building out a team of engineers and artists, to launching what might just be the talk show of the future.
Quartz spoke to the Technician responsible for CodeMiko about how she got started on Twitch, her entertainment ambitions, dealing with one-sided “parasocial” relationships with fans, and where live-streaming might go from here. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get into streaming?
My background is in research and development for animation, specifically how to make the production process for animation faster. I focused on how to do realtime, live animation. So I had a technical background before going into streaming. But then my whole team got laid off. I was familiar with Twitch, so I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a live, animated character on Twitch that is interactive with the audience?”
I imagine launching this new career in the middle of the pandemic has been a whirlwind. Can you characterize what the last year has been like for you?
I had the idea [for CodeMiko] for a long time, so after I lost my job, I decided to just do it. The pandemic didn’t affect me too much in terms of lifestyle, because I was always kind of an introvert. I got myself into debt, the suit and equipment I needed initially cost me around $20,000. I worked for around three months exclusively building CodeMiko. For the first few months I wasn’t bringing in enough income to even cover my bills. But then I started figuring some things out about her interactivity, and that brought in real income. I gamified her world. I made it so the audience can influence her environment and her situations. Once I did that, I was able to pay my bills and have this project run on its own.
Is the idea that the CodeMiko universe has an evolving storyline, almost like a TV show?
There’s a narrative. Right now, she’s trying to make friends through her interview show. We’re also going to bring streamers on to compete for her love for a month. That’s the smaller narrative. There’s also a bigger underlying narrative that she ultimately wants to be part of a AAA game, so I’m hoping she’ll be able to be, like, a skin in a AAA game.
How do you come up with the next narrative in her universe? Do you write story lines in advance, or do you allow your streams to unfold naturally and then let that dictate where things go?
I map out a lot of it, but I also let some things be organic. I know her ultimate goals and I have a general map of how she might be able to get there. Things that come up along the way—like her wanting to make friends—is honestly just my own want to make friends in the streamer space. The interview show would force me to collaborate with large streamers. I’m afraid to talk to a lot of people, so she forced me to go out and network. That wasn’t planned. I just wanted to make friends. But some other things have been planned out for awhile.
So you’ve created this character, who lives inside her own fictional universe. How do you expand that? Do you have any ambitions to cross that over into other media?
We’re actually looking into moving into TV. Her content on Twitch is not like regular streams. A lot of streamers just sit and play games. But for CodeMiko, it’s an actual show. That can easily be translated to TV. I want to create more game shows inside the virtual space. I can bring in more live people and mix them into the virtual world. Anything can be gamified. We can make innovative shows that have never been done before. I think it’s created this whole new genre of streaming.
We’ve written a lot about the traditional late-night TV talk show has struggled to reach younger audiences. It sounds like what you’re pitching could be more of what talk shows are like in the future.
Absolutely. In a virtual space, you have no limits on what you can do. You can create a whole world of TV show types and game shows.
But wouldn’t something be lost bringing the CodeMiko Twitch show to regular TV?
I would definitely lose that audience interactivity. The advantage would be that it could be way more focused, more directed, and have more resources than a Twitch show. Because it’s live-streamed content with an active audience.
Is there a way to bring that level of interactivity to TV?
If they somehow incorporate a live chat system, or a system where the audience can influence what they’re watching.
A film or TV actor only has to be in-character for brief moments during filming. But you have to always be “on” when you’re streaming, often for hours at a time. What’s that like?
Miko is a hyperactive version of me. In real life I’m very quiet and calm, but Miko is loud and she’s not afraid to be blunt. She’s a little arrogant, too. That’s what makes her funny when she interacts with humans. I tap into that reserve. It’s refreshing. It’s an extension of a part of myself. And through playing Miko, my real self has become more vibrant. She’s definitely influenced my own personality.
Live-streaming has fundamentally changed the relationship between celebrity and fan. It’s enabled a type of access to creators we’ve never seen before. How do you feel about that?
You feel a lot more connected to your audience, and your audience feels a lot more connected to you. That’s a good thing, because they feel like they’re a part of your show. That level of engagement gives them a sense that they’re a part of a community. But the other side of that is, it can turn into parasocial relationships. It’s important for the audience to realize that the streamer is an entertainer. There isn’t a directly relationship with them.
On that note, the culture around live-streaming can be toxic, especially towards women. What can be done in order to make streaming a safer environment for everyone in it?
There’s definitely a lot of opinions when it comes to female streamers. Some only get views because they show their body, not for their personality. There’s also a stigma against girl streamers who are in relationships. It can affect their viewership. There’s a whole stereotype that they are supposed to just be the “girlfriend experience” for viewers, instead of content creators. That’s something I really want to change. Women can be funny and don’t need to rely on their bodies to get views. They can have awesome quality streams with top-tier content without using their sexual—you get what I mean. I hope I’m showing that female streamers are content creators, and they should be appreciated for that.
What do you think future of the live streaming industry looks like?
People will push even more toward being interactive. I’m already seeing more TV show formats popping up—more streamers are going to make their content like a production, rather than just sitting and playing games. There will be more planned-out content. Audience engagement is the new frontier of streaming.