The term NPC, or non-playable character, blew up on TikTok last summer as streamers went live on the app and acted like robots with canned responses to stimuli. But NPCs, and NPC memes, have been around since they became a video game staple.
And the slang term, which refers to video game background characters that have no agency of their own, has been an effective political meme for years.
The birth of NPC memes
It all started in 2018 when the pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald became a hotbed of political memes.
The point of NPC memes is to make fun of people who believe whatever they’re told to believe, but the NPC meme specifically originated as a way for right-wingers to dunk on liberals.
The NPC meme is characterized by a cartoon gray man’s expressionless face, usually espousing some political view.
For example, one NPC meme shows the NPC character reacting to a Trump supporter who is Black. The NPC is shown thinking that “Black = Democrat” followed by a “System Error.” Confused and overwhelmed, they say “You are a white supremacist” to the Black Trump support.
When members of the subreddit and other conservatives inundated Twitter (now known as X) with accounts with the NPC picture as their profile photo and spread misinformation about the 2018 midterm elections, Twitter suspended more than 1,500 of the NPC accounts.
‘I support the current thing‘
But that didn’t kill the meme.
The meme still circulates in a post r/The_Donald world. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, and X has shared plenty of NPC memes on X over the last few years.
In March 2022, Musk tweeted a popular format of the meme that shows the NPC cartoon in front of various flags or symbols with the caption “I support the current thing.”
The version that Musk shared shows the NPC in front of LGBTQ pride flags holding a Ukrainian flag, thus mocking liberals for what he seemed to think was blind support of Ukraine after it was invaded by Russia in February of that year.
Other versions of the meme include an NPC with a mask, COVID-19 vaccine needles, a Ukrainian flag, and Black Lives Matter symbols; and an NPC wearing a hat in support of President Joe Biden, a Palestinian flag, and an Israeli flag.
There are also versions of the “I support the current thing” NPC spin-off meme that make fun of right-wingers—like an NPC wearing a MAGA hat with the Confederate and Trump 2024 flags—or memes about not supporting “the current thing.”
Another popular NPC meme format is the groupthink version, which is a large collection of NPCs all having the same thought. This meme is frequently used to critique mainstream news outlets and accuse them of all printing the same exact thing.
“You can’t put aluminum foil in the microwave,” one NPC groupthink meme has news networks and social media sites saying.
“This is extremely dangerous to our democracy,” say all the NPCs in another, mimicking what they see as overzealous histrionics on the left about any comment or idea posited by right-wingers.
One of the most cutting versions of the NPC groupthink meme shows all the NPCs sharing the thought “I am an independent thinker,” implying that even when NPCs think they are having an individual thought, they aren’t.
And in a full circle moment, netizens also have discussed the merits of the meme itself via NPC memes.
For example, one meme shared by Musk that ridicules opponents of NPC memes casts them as NPCs saying “NPC Meme is dehumanizing. We are all unique and special.”
Another shows an NPC struggling to decide between the statements “NPC meme is dehumanizing” and “everyone who criticizes me is a Nazi.”
Both are phrases associated with the NPCs and the NPC in this meme can’t choose between them, which makes it even more of an NPC.
Basically, whether we want to or not, we’re all trapped in an endless loop of NPC-ing.