NPC streamers are having a moment

If you’ve been on social media recently, chances are you’ve run across the phrase “mmm, ice cream so good” after TikTok creator PinkyDoll’s bizarre NPC live streams reached viral fever pitch. Her strangely robotic movements and repetitive sounds have boosted her to meme status, and PinkyDoll is cashing in on the attention. Her content nets her thousands of dollars weekly, leaving many baffled over what makes the niche NPC video streams so popular. 

What is NPC streaming?

In video game parlance, NPCs, or nonplayable characters, are side characters a player cannot control. They are preprogrammed, usually with looping scripted dialogue and robotic movements. NPC streamers mimic these background characters with canned replies and repetitive actions in response to gift tokens on TikTok live streams. They stay in character for hours as viewers control their responses by tipping with digital tokens, each image translating into a catchphrase or cartoonish action. Know Your Meme traces the trend to early 2022 and Japanese TikTok personality @natuecoco, who currently has 1.5 million followers.

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During her shows, PinkyDoll, whose real name is Fedha Sinon, pops popcorn kernels with a flat iron and rapidly utters slang phrases like “gang gang” as tokens roll in. Her NPC streams have become a lucrative genre because the tokens have real-life monetary value. Sinon told The New York Times that she makes between $2,000 and $3,000 per stream, with tens of thousands watching her shows. She has about 800,000 followers on TikTok, where she has quickly become the face of the viral trend. 

Why are viewers drawn to it?

Some culture researchers and streamers see the trend as “another example of the convergence between erotic work and gaming in online culture,” The Guardian wrote. NPC streamers are part of a legacy of “self-sexualized creators who built their followings by combining the aesthetics of gamer culture with cam girl influencing,” Christine Tran, a University of Toronto doctoral researcher of internet culture and digital labor, told the outlet. The streams offer fans a “sense of being able to control a creator, and we see control become a byword for feeling intimate,” she added. 

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Tran also believes the streams might be a covert way for adult performers to find an audience. Even if the streams are not overtly sexual, the sense of control makes it a subtle type of fetish content. After the 2018 FOSTA-SESTA laws led to the shutdown of many websites catering to sex work, NSFW (“not safe for work”) creators have had to find more discrete ways to advertise. “By repackaging intimacy through the filter of gamer language — something we associate with youth — there is plausible deniability for these creators who are ostensibly partaking in a form of erotic work,” Tran said.

Other people think that assumption is a reach and harmful. Accusing a woman that “monetizes the absurd” of making fetish content is a “symptom of the anti-sex moral panic sweeping pop culture,” Morgan Sung opined in TechCrunch. “Sex workers, meanwhile, are unfairly dragged into dehumanizing conversations about the genre.” The viral boost of the trend has “opened the door for bad faith discourse around online sex work, even though these TikTok creators aren’t making this content for sexual gratification.”

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