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San Francisco - Koby Colls grabs a vase of dark, wilted roses and screams, "Roses, my love, roses!"

His fiance, Gloria Briggs, swats them away with annoyance and the two turn back to the screen, bouncing rhythmically as they wait for the next cue from their TikTok followers.

The couple is tapping into a new social media trend: live-streaming on TikTok while saying strange phrases robotically, mimicking an NPC, or non-player character, in the video game world. Unlike other trends where content creators come up with their own ideas for each video, viewers in NPC live streams take on the role of puppeteers, influencing the creator's next move.

TikTok viewers send small emoji, filters or animations that the couple then reacts to or acts out. These donations are bought with TikTok coins - one TikTok coin amounting to about 1.5 cents. The couple receives hundreds of requests per hour, equivalent to roughly $200. They use the money to fund their 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter's education and extracurriculars.

In the past, viewers might donate to a creator, but they had no control over what happened on a live stream, which could include watching a creator play video games or listening to them tell a story or chat with another creator. Now NPC streaming puts viewers in the driver's seat, allowing the audience to influence what kind of content gets created. TikTok said in an email that the trend has exploded in the past month but declined to give specific statistics.

Viewers find this type of content so engaging because they're actively involved in what they're watching, said Jaime Banks, an associate professor of the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University who specializes in human-machine interaction, avatars and NPCs. "There is a micro-acknowledgement for each of your inputs into this stream," Banks said, noting that viewers feel connected to the creators after seeing them react to their requests.

TikTok spokesperson Zachary Kizer said in a statement, "TikTok LIVE allows creators to celebrate the magic of real-time engagement with their audience, driving community building and connection while opening up new monetization opportunities."

Why pretend to be an NPC?

TikTok has slowly become a major platform for everyone from celebrities to relatively unknown teens to build a following where they can monetize their videos through advertising contracts, subscriptions to their live streams and commission from TikTok links.

So why pretend to be an NPC? Non-player characters are only meant to be fillers within video games, repeating the same few lines and interacting with the main player to provide context. But video game fans tend to have a favorite NPC within each game they play - and that relationship is what creators want to mimic in the TikTok live streams.


NPC streaming on social media isn't entirely new, as some in the cosplay community have been doing it since 2021. One of the first NPC streamers, Japanese TikTok creator @natuecoco, told Insider that she considers each NPC in a video game to be its own piece of art, like a statue. "If you think about a statue at a museum, people have varying responses to it. When I perform, I can see those different reactions and experiences in real time and learn about them," she said. In her live streams, she essentially becomes a lifelike statue that reacts to viewers' commands.

She often appears wearing a wig, cat ears and soft makeup. Her videos have racked up 5.5 million views.

Crystal Alana Bennett, 37, works at an airline as a customer relations associate and used to deliver food for UberEats and DoorDash. But when she got into NPC streaming last month, just as the trend was blowing up, she found it to be emotionally rewarding, more lucrative and less physically demanding than gig work.

Bennett pokes fun at the NPC trend while taking part in it. She'll hold items in a hair straightener, for example, before reacting to tips or donations from her audience. She also tends to burst into laughter and break character, which viewers seem to enjoy.

Now she makes in two hours what she used to make in two weeks with her other jobs, and she's stopped delivering for UberEats and DoorDash and gives away shifts at the airline to other co-workers so that she can focus on monetizing her TikTok presence.

While the live streams might appear mindless, they require intense concentration and quick reaction times. "You have to keep people engaged every 10 seconds, or they lose focus and then they leave," Bennett said. She needs to remember the right catchphrase for each gift that comes in, all in a session that lasts one to four hours.

NPC live-streaming can makes things easier for creators because they don't have to reinvent the wheel every time they go live.

"The lift is lowered on the creator once they have their shtick put together," said Ellen Simpson, a PhD researcher studying creative labor at the University of Colorado.

Despite such an exponential growth of demand for NPC streaming, Simpson notes that viewers will inevitably move on to a new shiny trend, which might leave creators behind. "The problem is that you then get typecast or stuck in a rut where you can only be an NPC streamer and you can't be anything else," Simpson said.

"Welcome to the healing temple," Indigo Zahir, a 22-year-old student at Georgia State University, says as she rocks back and forth with a scarf over her head, reacting to each tip that comes in with positive, encouraging words for viewers. She invests the money she makes from NPC streaming into her main passion: making soothing videos with autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, techniques. With her earnings from one week of NPC streaming, she said, she was able to buy a high-quality microphone and synthetic nails that she uses to make tapping sounds.

For Briggs and Colls, NPC streaming has been a team effort. The couple's live stream is like watching a dance performance where the couple displays a range of emotions, quickly coordinating and improvising with one another.

The couple, who are 22 and 23, said they have multiple streams of income: Together, they manage an Airbnb, and Briggs works as an aesthetician. While the income from NPC streaming might not last, they do see long-term potential in content creation.

"We could kind of picture this full-time," Colls said. He and Briggs are considering creating videos that include their two children. "We're going to do it for a while until it becomes not lucrative."