I’ve been seeing these videos for at least a year, what I’d call the “NPC in real life” trend on TikTok, videos which involve harassing, embarrassing, or frightening people in public. Harassment is a staple of online life, something I placidly accept from YouTube “prank” channels, niche celebrity drama, and my Twitter reply guys. But these videos needled me in a unique way, as if watching them sunk my hand into a bowl of sweet gum tree seeds, because their creators had a unique justification—it’s okay to bother other people, they said, because other people are nothing more than non-playable characters.
More than anything else, thinking this way seems embarrassing. When I see these videos, which try extruding entertainment from bothering older people, possibly unhoused people, and service workers, I feel like our cultural myopia is worsening. Being the progenitor of your own personal social media content doesn’t make you God, but seeing everyone around you as a thoughtless NPC, an easy target, eases you into giving up your empathy and believing otherwise.
Everything that defines a non-playable character is right in the name. In a video game, NPCs are characters you can’t play, even if you’d really love to kill a man with NPC Princess Gwynevere’s generous bosom in Dark Souls, as I know I would. Anyone who isn’t an NPC is a hero, the protagonist.
This kind of character arrangement might be inherently individualistic, but it’s not distinct—it mimics those found in the mythological narrative arc known as the hero’s journey, in many movies, and in the ubiquitous first-person “I” of many songs. Nothing makes video game characters particularly more prone to selfish metaphors than characters in those other art forms, except, perhaps, the fact that “NPC” is a more specific term than “background character” or “extra,” and more neutral than “antagonist” or “the best friend.”
Video games protagonists, too, are charged with a kind of positive action you can’t find elsewhere, by virtue of their actions being linked, barring cutscenes, to the player’s. If viewers could fire every gun in John Woo’s plastic surgery thriller Face/Off, too, maybe I’d be writing about the “Nicolas Cage in real life” TikTok trend instead.
So the origin of Urban Dictionary’s snobbish 2018 interpretation of an NPC— “seemingly a human that is unable to think objectively”—becomes clearer with this in mind. Other people? Animals, puppies that need a leader, half-formed humans whose joy and aspirations are found in helping you find the right train, get to class on time. And you? You’re the faultless main character, unhappy that all these extraneous personalities are meddling with your quest.
Though the Urban Dictionary definition was been born from lazy political dissatisfaction (it lists both “Fuck Trump! Ban guns!” and “Fuck Hillary! Ban immigrants!” as things NPCs say), the TikTok interpretation of NPC is more general, like other online interpretations going back as early as 2011, but equally sticky with condescension.
When you search “NPC in real life” on TikTok, you will be confronted with results that garnered millions and millions of views, with the highest volume of videos posted between spring 2022 and now. The type of content varies, and videos are rarely about actual video games. One of the most-watched NPC videos, with 16.8 million views, shows a group of boys pretending to be Grand Theft Auto NPCs, but another with 12.5 million views follows a kid snarling at a passing classmate, ostensibly to help himself cope with living among “too many npc’s.”
The most prolific anti-NPC creator might be British TikToker bigcthedon, whose entire account and combined 15.3 million likes advertise TELLING NPC’S WEIRD THINGS, TELLING NPC’S WEIRD THINGS, SINGING SKEPTA ON TUBE TO NPC’S, and TELLING NPC’S WEIRD THINGS. These kinds of grating displays of obnoxiousness are the most popular types of NPC videos, though teenagers often also do “NPC interviews” with kids at school, and Dazed writes that some NPC videos have more to do with an increased interest in simulation theory, with the video maker enacting robotic, game character-like movements that to an unsuspecting onlooker must seem “almost unnerving, akin to swallowing the red pill.”
But to me, a 23-year-old and older member of the much–philosophized–about Gen Z, I think TikTok’s distasteful use of “NPC” can be attributed to my generation living most of our lives small, alone, and online.
In my most crucial years, the tweens and the teens, I formed my identity and understanding of community through chat rooms, blogs, and group texts. I never saw who I was talking to on the other end. I posted selfies on Instagram, stories on An Archive Of Our Own, lunchtime thoughts on Twitter, songs on SoundCloud. I saw other people’s selfies and other people’s stories, but in a physical sense, everything was filtered through my isolation—it was only my face I could get up and see in my computer’s reflection, it was only my typing that told everyone what I believed. Using a computer isn’t totally different from previous generations’ pastimes of solo TV-watching, or writing letters, but only a computer allows someone to parse and transmute their physical and emotional selves into neat digital packages. Otherwise known as social media posts.
For some members of Gen Z, the first generation to have social media access from birth, the way we understood ourselves was more informed by what we did, alone, lit by the light of a screen, than by other people. The internet, with its limitlessness, its Photo Booth filters that could distort your self-image even more than a magazine’s unreasonable expectations, made more of an impression on us than sitting in a cafeteria and noticing that the people around us were anxious, loving, and alive, too.
When I was younger, spending most of my time concerned with my internal and personal digital world, I think I stopped seeing that everyone around me was fully breathing. They looked to me like empty-headed NPCs—but then I grew up.
I learned to listen and care for other people. I learned that egotism made any self-granted hero status diminish quickly: It hurts you and the people trying to help you on your journey. And “NPCs,” are they really so mindless? Is it so terrible to be a helpful member of a well-meaning collective? NPCs have stories, families, and feelings, too. Being like everyone else isn’t bad, so I don’t need to be the hero. Sometimes, I’m fine with being someone else’s NPC.