Creators have tapped into a market for 'non-playable characters'
In the TV series Westworld, high-paying guests visit a fictional amusement park in which they can act out their fantasies on androids pretending to be human. In 2023, people can do the same for a fraction of the cost on TikTok, except they make their demands on humans pretending to be androids.
The latest “trend” on TikTok and now Twitter is watching livestreams of people role-playing as “NPCs”, or non-playable characters in video games. This involves content creators acting like avatars, often using anime face filters and other infantilising guises. They perform various “looped” animations, such as lightly bouncing up and down whilst staring at the camera, much like a character would do on a “loading” screen.
These influencers then “come to life” when they are sent tokens or gifts by their audience, which appear on the screen like emojis and are visible to viewers. The would-be NPC reacts accordingly, often performing strange, repetitive, implicitly sexual behaviours such as licking and saying “yum yum so good” if they are sent a virtual ice cream.
It’s not quite the Wild West of Westworld, but it is a disturbing new online subculture that shows how willing people are to push their content to new bizarre depths in the hopes of going viral. There’s also a lot of money to be made: each one of these tokens or gifts has monetary value. Users buy TikTok “coins” in various packages (65 coins is roughly equal to $1) which they can then use to buy gifts for content creators. The scheme has been widely criticised for enabling children to be exploited into giving these gifts, or just for perpetuating a kind of gambling, escort culture in which people pay for parasocial online relationships.
TikTok Live has always been the unfettered underbelly of the app, with a reputation for more unnerving content — for example, people streaming while they sleep, or acting out horror movies — but NPCs are a new hybrid monster altogether: a crossover between OnlyFans and VTube. VTubers, or virtual YouTubers, use a virtual avatar to create online content, often employing motion capture software to translate their actual movements and facial expressions so that their avatars emote and move just like a real person. VTuber content racks up around 1.5 billion views a month, with the most popular creators boasting follower counts of over 14 million.
Both NPC creators and VTubers are therefore capitalising on developments in technology (AI, the metaverse, motion tracking and face detection software, filters) and popular culture (the rise of anime and K-pop, live-streaming, the appeal of being able to virtualise yourself). Some may see this as another harmless evolution of the Internet, which has always prioritised the weird over the wonderful.
Yet there is something deeply unsettling about normalising role-playing the ultimate submissive woman: fetishising an avatar with no real autonomy. The expressionless, pre-programmed, surreal behaviour of Pinkydoll, one such creator, is not funny but frightening. She is basically willing to dehumanise herself for donations that satisfy some sort of control kink. It’s PG prostitution: pay, and she’ll perform in a submissive, suggestive, subtly sexy way. It’s nowhere near as violent or sadistic as what happens in Westworld, but it’s a start.