“Don’t go near her, it’s a trap!” a CGI-rendered Goofy screams at me. As he’s doing so, another character, a Crusader knight with a strong Spanish accent, offers repeatedly (and excitedly): “Her voice is a fake! It’s a guy.” They’re both referring to the anime teen schoolgirl with bright blue cartoon eyes and small mouth who stands in front of me. “Will you be my friend?” she asks in a quiet, high-pitched voice.
I’ve been on VRChat, an online virtual reality community hosted on Microsoft’s Steam network, for only 30 minutes, but it’s already among the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had. For one, I have to play the game with an Oculus Rift headset, and I’m still feeling disoriented by inhabiting the body of a CGI robot. More than that, though, I’ve found myself in a world where nothing is what it seems. For example, the characters in my current chat room range from a hugely muscular Mickey Mouse to a talking mushroom and a rabbit with wheels for legs.
Given all this weirdness, VRChat can be used for some pretty unexpected things. Just off the top of my head, it’s a place to vent about bad relationships, talk about childhood trauma and get virtually baptized. But as the VRChat community has grown since it first launched in 2017, it’s also facilitated another subculture: straight, cis male gamers who pretend to be anime girls online.
In turn, it’s created a valuable shadow economy: one in which teen gamers can make up to thousands of dollars by recording themselves saying things in an “anime girl” voice. “Most of the time, I just record normal things, but I do it in a ‘loli’ voice,” says 19-year-old Sarah (a pseudonym), who describes herself as a “gamer girl” and lives in Arizona. For context, a “loli” voice refers to a “cutesy” voice, usually associated with female anime characters that are often portrayed as innocent and naive. It’s a reference to Nabokov’s Lolita, which is a reason why loli culture in anime is also associated with pedophillia.
Sarah’s business model works as follows: For between $5 to $40, she’ll record any sentence, phrase or quote that people send her — usually in the soft, high-pitched mumbles often associated with young girls in anime. These voice recordings, which she records on free software programs like Audacity, can then be used by people playing popular multiplayer games like Fortnite, Overwatch and Apex Legends (as well as within VRChat).
They’re mostly meant as a troll. “There’s this thing called ‘trap voice,’” Sarah explains, laughing. Male gamers enlist “trap voices” to trick other players and their friends into believing that they’re speaking to a woman — usually just for kicks. The trap voice has had a long history on gaming forums and 4chan, where anime and manga fans would send each other fan art of their favorite anime characters depicted as the opposite gender, though the term later evolved into a derogatory term for a transgender person.
“Sometimes [trapping] can be funny,” Sarah continues. “They’ll be convinced they’re talking to a girl online, and suddenly, the girl will say something weird in a loli voice and they realize they’ve been pranked.” (Sarah also does voice recordings for anime fans and other gamer girls who want to send their partners messages and love notes “but can’t make their voice sound sweet.”)
On Fiverr, nearly 300 people offer anime girl voice recordings. U.S.-based septicbakachanu, who charges upward of $5 for voice recordings, proclaims in her Fiverr description (sic throughout): “Hewo!~ Very nice to have made this account! Im very knew but~! I have an Amazing Voice!. But slightly shy (No Weirdos Aloud)! Anywho I do Anime Impressions and Much More Just ask me about it. Maybe Ill give you a great thingy mobobbydo to listen to!” Meanwhile, “I will say anything your little heart desires!” promises marabird, who offers impersonations, original messages, and for around $30 each, English-language dubs of popular anime series using her range of voices.
Naturally, there are some people who offer “Not Suitable for Work (NSFW) recordings,” which can range from dirty talk to sexist jokes, according to Sarah. She also speculates that there are “probably people asking for recordings that would likely get you sent to jail.”
That’s why she sets rules for those who ask her for recordings on Discord or Telegram, two other platforms where anime girl recordings are popular. “I’ve had grown men email me with phrases that are nasty and weird,” she says, adding that they often veer on being “pedophilic” in nature and depict “twisted fantasies that they feel they can get away with because of the anime medium.” She similarly refuses requests to record phrases that contain racially insensitive language or mock transgender people.
It’s on the latter count where loli voices are most controversial — i.e., trap voices reinforce harmful stereotypes about trans people by insinuating that they’re men distorting their voices and pretending to be women in order to “trap” heterosexual, cis men. “Trap has been used on forums — mainly the ‘chans’ — to refer to transgender people,” explains Alice Avizandum, a co-host on my podcast Trashfuture and a trans woman with knowledge of obscure digital subcultures.
On these forums, Avizandum says “trap” is typically used in a derogatory way — so much so that it’s led trans gamers and anime fans to label it as a slur. As she explains, “Some very strange ideas about transition and gender identity have developed, where [channers] believe that actually being transgender is for ‘social justice warriors’ or whatever. They’re also convinced that [trans women] are ‘femboys’ or ‘traps.’ That longtime myth/joke about trans women just ambushing dudes has been internalized completely, and they have these self-reinforcing communities that keep projecting this idea of what kind of transgender identity they recognize and approve of.”
All of which, of course, has been reinforced by the growth of voice-changing technology. “For transgender women, seeking therapy to modulate to a higher, more feminine voice is about more than identity,” writes Angela Chen in Smithsonian Magazine. “There are tangible safety benefits to being able to pass as cis when you need to.” Further, she adds, “[M]any trans people just want to be in control of their own voice.” As such, Chen explains, more trans people are going to speech-therapy classes in an attempt to adjust their voice.
But for those who can’t afford classes, apps like EVA and LingoJam can serve as less expensive substitutes — not just to retrain a voice, but to also make transitioning easier, particularly online. They do so by manipulating the frequency of a voice to between 196 and 246 hertz, or the frequency that EVA founder and speech therapist Kathe Perez has cited as the average tonal frequency of a female voice. “It’s a myth to think that voice training for trans people is just perpetuating stereotypes, but we are definitely dealing with cultural norms like word choice and intonation,” Perez told Smithsonian Magazine. “It’s about helping people understand what the norms are and how to work around them and find the right combination of patterns that make it congruent with their identity and within the biological constraints that they have.”
Over the last few years, even more voice-changing apps have been created, designed to challenge both gender binaries and competition like EVA. A number of them are open-source and free, which also makes them a key feature in multiplayer and virtual reality games. And while loli and anime girl voice services might seem strange to the uninitiated, they’re becoming a key feature in modern gaming, according to BuzzFeed tech reporter Ryan Broderick. “Gamers, thanks to Steam, XBox Live and Discord, are talking on voice chat so much more than they used to,” he tells me.
This is partly due to the popularity of voice notes more generally, which for younger people outpace standard text formats and are even being used to screen potential dates. At the same time, Broderick adds, voice notes are also becoming memes — a favorite one being “Creeper, Aw Man,” which, according to Know Your Meme, “refers to a game popular in Discord servers in which the members of the Discord attempt to sing the lyrics to CaptainSparklez’ Revenge, a Minecraft song parody set to Usher’s ‘DJ Got Us Fallin in Love,’ in perfect order, and if they make an error, they have to start over. The game got popular when videos of the attempts set to the music, complete with the errors, grew popular on social media.”
When finishing my interview with Sarah, she tells me she has a few jobs to finish before she goes to bed. Two were “cute” messages that other girl gamers wanted to give to their crushes, while the other one was a recording of the theme music to the anime series Yuri on Ice. Sarah believes that although anyone (in theory) can record an anime girl voice by using autotuned apps, what she records is unique. After all, they’re entirely her voice, without any editing or manipulation. But given that the demand for her voice mostly comes from men who at best want to prank their friends, and at worst have far more nefarious intentions, she admits that her time in the voice-recording business might be coming to an end.
“It takes a long time to make recordings,” she explains. “You have to find the right tone, and be in the right [emotional] mindset to understand what the person who has sent you text actually wants. It’s a lot of effort, and I don’t want to do that for people who just want to use them to mock other people.”