From time to time, and especially if you’re a fan of science fiction, you may have had the thought that nobody around you is actually real. That sentiment has taken root in anti-progressive parts of the internet as a dehumanising meme, and it borrows some familiar gaming terminology.
About a month ago, a meme along those lines took root on 4chan and among anti-progressive online communities. It’s called the NPC meme and it goes like this: Out there in the world, there are literal NPCs—the term for non-playable characters in video games—who have no internality whatsoever. There are some giveaways, of course. They spit out canned lines—“Good weather today, huh?”—and flock to normie trends (are Ugg boots still a thing?) and, for the most part, share the same uncritical worldview. The classic melancholy meme Wojak, a sad man crudely drawn in Microsoft paint, has now received the NPC treatment with NPC Wojak:
NPC Wojak (Image: 4chan /pol/ user Anonymous)
Part crackpot social theory and part primary school insult, the NPC meme originated from a deeply comical medley of bogus physics and stupid religion found on the messaging board 4Chan. Originally posted in 2016, it resurfaced last month. “I have a theory that there are only a fixed quantity of souls on planet Earth that cycle continuously through reincarnation,” a 4Chan poster wrote. “However, since the human growth rate is so severe, the soulless extra walking flesh piles around us are NPC’s [sic], or ultimate normalfags, who autonomously follow group think and social trends in order to appear convincingly human.” NPCs aren’t even worthy of a classic wake up, sheeple. They can’t!
Here’s where things get interesting. Around the time a lot of us were assigned to read The Catcher in the Rye in school, it was normal to have edgelord thoughts about phonies or being one of the few who is capital-A awake. The NPC meme takes things a step further into a political zone where mass outcry against, say, serial harassers, racial injustice, or Trumpian ideas is dismissed as not just inherently uncritical but prima facie evidence of a lack of human consciousness.
NPCs, the poster continued, “say the same shit,” including “SPORTSBALL,” “THE NEW ADELE SONG XD OMG” and “JUST BE YOURSELF.” The poster also cites a political example: “TRUMP IS HITLER,” adding:
“If you get in a discussion with them it’s always the same buzzwords and hackneyed arguments. They’re the kind of people who make a show of discomfort when you break the status quo like by breaking the normie barrier to invoke a real discussion. it’s like in a vidya [game] when you accidentally talk to somebody twice and they give you the exact same lines word for word once more.”
Essentially, some large portion of society (normies, pop-culture fanatics, and Trump-haters, among others) who speak in cliches are, in fact, NPCs with no internality, agency, or capacity for critical thought. Like townies in Pokemon idly parked outside the same house day and night, constantly ready with the same contrived one-liners, these IRL NPCs aren’t thinking for themselves. They can’t.
The two-year-old 4Chan post, despite its laughable premise, fuelled a meme last month that has some scary implications. “How to tell when someone is an NPC,” wrote anti-SJW alt-right journalist Ian Miles Cheong on Twitter last month. “Logic and facts in an argument do nothing to change their mind and only cause them to just repeat themselves ad infinitum. Like a limited dialogue script that loops on itself in a video game.” In the last month, Cheong has referred to several people as NPCs: An individual who insisted that the “okay” hand symbol, which has been misconstrued as a white supremacy symbol, is racist and using it is fireable; someone who might “read bell hooks in college to impress a girl in gender studies elective class”; people who “misuse the word ‘trauma’ to refer to any mildly uncomfortable experience”; and, ironically, a former New Yorker fact-checker who claimed on Twitter that “the vast majority of men simply do not consider women to be full human beings.”
In some corners of the internet, NPC is beginning to replace the term “SJW.” According to ex-World of Warcraft dev Mark Kern, NPCs have the following qualities: “Incapable of independent thought. Wants everything done for them. (Quests) Constantly needing coddling (escort quests).” He published his checklist after another developer accused him of being a “right wing hack.” The tweet evidently was meant to compare so-called SJWs to these NPCs.
It’s a now-common refrain on Reddit, with posts on /r/TheDonald saying, “The Left is just a meme of lunacy come to life. They’re just NPCs in the game of life” or, in reference to economic experts widely condemning tariffs, “here we are with one of the best economies in US history. Only brainwashed NPCs believe what ‘experts’ say when those claims are contradicted by reality!.”
“Sheeple” by XKCD (Illustration: XKCD)
What makes this marginal, stale meme built on edgelord logic worth half a thought is what the idea of an NPC speaks to. NPCs have no agency; NPCs don’t think for themselves; NPCs don’t perceive, process, or understand; NPCs arrive at the same worldview not because it’s authentic to their experiences, but automatically. As a descriptor, it suggests that those to whom it applies aren’t even human, but are rather, functionally, robots, or clusters of computer code. That this has resonated even as widely as it has is funny, but also a little scary.
It’s one thing to claim that a person’s strongly-held views are informed by nothing at all, but entirely another to imply that they’re completely on auto-pilot. That is dehumanisation, a way of reconceiving your enemies as objects, pawns, strawmen, tools. At best, dismissing large swaths of people you disagree with this way betrays a lack of empathy for people whose experiences differ from yours, and an unwillingness to consider that if a vast number of people happen to agree over something, it may be good to examine why; at best, it is a great utility for spreading bogus conspiracy theories.
But who among us can say they’ve never mashed “A” as a some expository NPC rambled on, wishing all the while they had the option to silence them or worse?
Illustration: Jim Cooke (Inspired by Twitter user @SpookyStirnman)