Social media is in thrall of a peculiar new viral trend among creators called “NPC streaming” that’s now capturing fans — and their wallets. TikTok creators such as PinkyDoll, Cherry Crush and Natuecoco are mimicking NPCs, the acronym for so-called non-playable characters featured in video games that respond to player interactions with various scripted phrases and movements.
With her long, straight hair and a cheerful demeanor that never wavers, Montreal-based PinkyDoll captivates fans in livestreaming videos in which she repeats a series of catchphrases on loop as she reacts in real time to a scroll of fan requests prompted by monetary gifts on the app: “Mmm, ice cream so good. Ooh, you got me feeling like a cowgirl. Gang gang.”
It’s as entertaining as it is disorienting. The performances are a hypnotizing whirl of repetition and immediate gratification that reportedly earns PinkyDoll up to $7,000 a day, as fans reward creators with “gifts” on the app that they can then swap for cash.
The NPC streaming trend could hold lessons for marketers and media companies, as it suggests a powerful way to engage audiences. These videos seem to tap into nostalgia and associations with gaming experiences or digital pastimes, strongly held by gamers and familiar to digital natives.
But what’s really happening here? Before pivoting content strategies to NPCs, it’s important first to understand the subtler nuances of NPC streaming to gain insight into why users have gravitated so intensely to these videos.
For one, the NPC livestreaming trend carries an undeniable aspect of power play that borders on erotic, as content creators — themselves often attractive — perform acts on demand in response to monetary tokens of appreciation. While the streams aren’t overtly sexual, some viewers likely find appeal in the illusion of control they offer. Discomfort around that aspect, however, has done nothing to stall viewing.
Another layer of intrigue stems from a type of the uncanny valley effect created by watching a human enact a passive game character, highlighting a dissonance between repetitive and predictable NPC behaviors and complex human interactions.
NPC streaming demonstrates how game-thinking and mechanics are being even more explicitly applied and referenced in non-game contexts, where social media itself can be understood as a gamified form of engaging with other people — or at least other users.
Finally, NPC videos suggest our growing digital immersion, holding a mirror to our digital lives and culture as it’s reshaped by our engagement patterns, potentially even altering our perceptions of what’s real.
Brands and content companies that can recognize and harness the dynamics of the trend that have attracted so much attention could offer creative new ways to engage consumers and differentiate their content. Key emerging dynamics to consider would include digital nostalgia, gaming affinity and even interactive feedback loops between viewers and performers.
Despite the basic repetitive nature of NPC streaming, its potential for fan interest and substantial earnings is hard to overlook. And its wildfire rise may well indicate a more enduring shift in how we perceive and interact with digital content, beyond just a passing fad.