AI PlayStation 2 filter fuels NPC frenzy in China

    As China’s obsession with NPC characters swells, a new AI-generated trend is flooding social media across the mainland and the West. Cue, the PS2 filter.
    Balenciaga's SS24 campaign got the PS2 filter treatment. Photo: Balenciaga

    Move over NPC livestreamers, there’s a new AI-generated trend in town: the PS2 filter.

    Designed to replicate the glitchy video game personas from the early 2000s, consumers in the West have gone crazy for recreating themselves as retro characters inspired by their favorite PlayStation 2 (PS2) games, such as Grand Theft Auto and Tony Hawk’s Underground. Now, China’s netizens are jumping on board.

    Users are turning popular album covers into PS2 video game characters. Photo: Know Your Meme
    Users are turning popular album covers into PS2 video game characters. Photo: Know Your Meme

    The trend, which first surfaced in a Midjourney Reddit forum in November last year, was popularized last month by user @hurtabdu1, after he shared a viral clip of himself as a PS2 character that garnered over one million views in 48 hours.

    Deploying the AI program Replicate (a tool that uses machine-learning solution Stable Diffusion), users have been transforming both themselves and popular album covers into the PS2-inspired graphics.

    On Xiaohongshu, there are currently over 3.5 million posts dedicated to users reimagining themselves as PS2 characters.

    Brands join in#

    As with every internet-driven craze, brands are scrambling to capture the zeitgeist before it becomes obsolete. Balenciaga, a maison whose entire ethos orbits digital culture under the direction of Demna, was one of the first to ride the wave.

    Photographer Donald Gjoka ran images taken from the brand’s SS24 campaign through the Replicate platform, giving the lookbook a virtual twist. The project arrived on the heels of the house’s AI-heavy FW24 runway, which showcased at Paris Fashion Week in February and enveloped audiences within hundreds of screens broadcasting AI-generated visuals.

    OMighty, the lo-fi label that gained Instagram fame in 2017 after being spotted on singers Miley Cyrus and Madison Beer, has also put its own spin on the trend by turning Instagram posts from popular influencers wearing the brand into PS2-inspired avatars.

    View post on Instagram

    “Niche user-generated content (UGC) under a common theme, or visual style takes off because it gives people the opportunity to broadcast their cultural nous,” senior trends editor Annie Corser, who covers pop culture and media at forecasting firm Stylus, tells Jing Daily.

    Nostalgia-infused elements also come into play, Corser says. For millennials, Corser believes the Y2K-heavy PS2 aesthetic “reminds them of discovering the first inklings of virtual, immersive worlds, and of the slightly subversive, rebellious, sexy sheen to many of those early games.”

    On the other hand, for Gen Z, “nostalgia is a cultural activity. They’re magpies, always on the hunt for signifiers from eras before their own that can enrich their visual identity and cultural expression.”

    Users on Xiaohongshu are jumping on the trend. Photo: Xiaohongshu
    Users on Xiaohongshu are jumping on the trend. Photo: Xiaohongshu

    NPC craze lives on#

    Though fears of an AI coup are still rife, it seems like people aren’t ready to let go of the NPC phase anytime soon.

    Last year, clips of individuals reenacting the uncanny gestures of video game characters exploded in popularity, with user @loczniki’s video Shopping with NPC Girlfriend amassing over 100 million views on TikTok. Then there was internet sensation Pinkydoll, who stoked an online tsunami of users trying to emulate the content creator’s hypnotic body movements and earworms (“ice cream so good”).

    Watch on YouTube

    In China, revenue generated by AI-powered humans is forecast to reach over $24 billion (175 billion RMB) in China by 2030. It’s also big business for retailers – for last year’s Single’s Day, four times more broadcast rooms opened in the first 10 minutes of the shopping festival compared to the year before due to the advent of AI livestreamers. Estée Lauder, L’Orèal, and Jo Malone were among the numerous brands that opted to engage with virtual anchors during their livestreams.

    However, netizens’ responses have been mixed. As KOLs and celebrities turn to digital clones to boost business efficiency, audiences have been vocal around the ethics surrounding deepfakes and the inauthenticity of AI twins.

    “Celebrities can now make money while lying idle,” user @bachuanxiaoji penned on Weibo.

    One big video game#

    As for the PS2 trend, it’s unlikely to transcend its visually appealing value. But it’s another step towards a digital future.

    New developments, such as Apple’s Vision Pro headset, and a revival of live-simulation titles like The Sims are only deepening relationships with the online realm, with the metaverse firmly cementing itself in the social milieu. “It’s an interesting representation of the juxtaposing vibes of this current online era,” says Corser.

    Aileen Carville, co-founder of avatar design studio Colonii, believes that lower barriers are also accelerating the population’s obsession with emulating machines.

    View post on Instagram

    “Mainstream accessibility to creative tools means more of the young population can participate in these UGC trend cycles,” she adds.

    Corser echoes this, noting that AI platforms like Replicate have made UGC content “eminently sharable.”

    As digital personas transcend their gaming origins to new virtual interfaces, Carville says brands are in prime position to capitalize on their recognizability.

    “The familiarity of their avatars and game environments means that brands can serve this generation better by emulating the ‘NPC style’ aesthetic to showcase products, collections, and so on,” she says, noting that, over time, the trend will “only encompass more niche styles and subcultural traits to further engage both millennials and Gen Z.”

    • The PS2 filter trend, replicating early 2000s video game graphics is gaining popularity in the West and China, with millions of posts on Xiaohongshu.
    • Brands such as Balenciaga and OMighty are seizing the trend, incorporating it into campaigns to tap into nostalgia and cultural expression.
    • The PS2 trend represents another step towards a digital future, with developments like Apple's Vision Pro headset and the metaverse reshaping online interactions.
    • While the PS2 filter trend gains traction, the NPC (non-playable character) craze continues to thrive, with AI-powered humans generating significant revenue and engagement.
    • However, concerns about ethics and authenticity persist, as audiences grapple with the implications of deepfakes and AI clones.
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