I play video games for legitimate medical reasons,* so I’m very familiar with the concept of the NPC. That stands for “non-player character,” and it’s one of the ways modern video games approximate real life. Let’s say you’re playing an open-world “sandbox” game, like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption or Assassin’s Creed, one of those games where you navigate a little animated character through an almost-photorealistic landscape. Usually, the goal of the game is to kill people and steal things.** And as you run around the game committing various acts of an antisocial nature, you encounter a bunch of NPCs. They might be people on the street, or targets you’re supposed to attack, or allies, or whatever.
NPCs add verisimilitude to a game world, at least in the early going. The first time you encounter a passerby on the street in a game, and he says something funny or angry or otherwise memorable, it’s kind of a cool moment. “Hey, I’m walkin’ here,” or “You’re in the wrong neighborhood, Holmes,” or something like that. It gives you a chuckle. It adds a bit of flavor to the game and enhances the illusion. It helps you immerse yourself in the fictional world the game makers have created. It’s fun.
But after the 200th time you hear the exact same preprogrammed line of dialogue, with the exact same tone and inflection, it just becomes an annoyance. It breaks your suspension of disbelief. It reminds you that you’re not really a car thief or a cowboy or an assassin or a superhero, and you could and should find something more worthwhile to do with your time and money. So, you either wise up and turn off your game console, or you tune out the NPCs. You don’t need to listen to those non-player characters, because they never say anything new. They’re just robots.
If that sounds a lot like trying to talk to liberals, then you may be interested in the NPC meme.
You’ve probably seen this little fellow online recently:
This gray, blank-faced little fellow has become the latest weapon in the war to #OwnTheLibs. He’s apparently an effective method of mocking and humiliating people who can’t seem to think for themselves, who only spit out the same preprogrammed responses over and over. If these folks are capable of independent thought, you wouldn’t know it by talking to them. So it’s kind of funny to think of libs as NPCs.
And this NPC meme’s effectiveness makes it dangerous to the people it’s targeting. Not just annoying or silly or stupid, but outright dangerous.
Last week, The New York Times published a piece about an insular 4chan meme that had started to bleed over into political Twitter. At the time, NPC — an acronym for the gaming term “non-playable character” — had been weaponized by trolls in an attempt to “own the libs” by calling them automatons, but it was still a relatively niche meme very few outlets had touched…
Reporting on hyper-niche memes, even when they’re attached to more newsworthy events, inevitably carries a cost in terms of amplification. To report necessarily means giving new symbols to wider audiences, which gives bad actors more power in a self-proclaimed fight against censorship. The paradox reporters are often faced with is finding a responsible way to report on harmful memes spreading without amplifying hate.
Oh no. If you tweet out a little cartoon of a blank-faced dude to mock some libs who just spout the same lib talking points over and over, you’re being harmful. You’re amplifying hate!
How about this, libs: If you want to counter the idea that you’re nothing but mindless automatons, only saying the things you’ve been programmed to say, how about saying something new? How about showing some evidence that you’re reacting to the reality around you, rather than just following a script that’s been written for you?
How about thinking for yourselves?
Or, you could just ban memes that make you angry. That’ll probably work.
**Or, if you’re playing as Batman or Spider-Man, the goal is to beat up criminals and return the stuff they’ve stolen. Either way, you get to work through your anger issues by committing various acts of violence without going to jail. I’m convinced that without violent games, our society would be more violent, not less.