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Meet the Obsessive Role-Players Who Live Inside the World of Grand Theft Auto

Renegade developers co-opted this controversial video game’s source code to build a complex alternate universe where breaking character is the cardinal sin. Millions tune in to watch.

Meet the Obsessive Role-Players Who Live Inside the World of Grand Theft Auto

Before joining the police force, Sergeant Ziggy Buggs was an exotic dancer. He still performs a striptease now and then for the troopers at his precinct, resurrecting the moves that paid his way through law school. But there were no lap dances at the San Andreas courthouse on July 30, 2019. Buggs’ police force walked in, straight-backed and somber, all dressed in suits, to give trial testimonies regarding a shooting that had taken place a few weeks earlier.

A senior deputy named Kurt Leonard had shot an unarmed civilian, Curtis Swoleroid, three times in the back during a foot chase through the San Andreas Valley. Leonard was accused of using excessive force. After being sworn in, Swoleroid’s attorney approached the bench for opening statements. He stood firmly before Judge Dennis Lebarre, who presided donning a sheriff’s hat, and declared that the state’s police officers “are explicitly trained on how to uphold the law, how to conduct themselves professionally, how to execute their authority gracefully, with distinction, and with respect to the civil rights of the citizens of the United States that they are sworn to protect. We are gathered here today to hear a violation of these civil rights.”

He described the attack, how his client had fallen down and pleaded for his life, how Deputy Leonard had shot anyway. While his lawyer recounted those shots, the way they’d entered his back and exited his torso, rendering him unconscious and near death, Swoleroid, now largely recovered, stood in the back of the room, shifting on his feet. He wore sunglasses and red pants with his suit jacket. Swoleroid is a man with a commanding presence, a brawny build with broad shoulders. He has a clean-cut fade haircut and a neck tattoo peeking out from his button-down collar. His father had died in prison, and, as a well-established narcotics dealer, Swoleroid was no stranger to law enforcement himself. But although known for being tough and swaggering, while reliving the shooting in court Swoleroid looked restrained, uncomfortable even. His hands clenched tensely below the counsel table, and he shifted restlessly from foot to foot.

Opposite Swoleroid, Deputy Leonard bristled multiple times during the prosecution, a certain defensiveness seeping into his responses. He hadn’t heard his partner’s call for a ceasefire, he protested. The tension was palpable, even through a screen, to the thousands of interested onlookers who’d tuned in from behind their computers.

The trial showcased a story that has played out in other courtrooms across the United States, indicative of a systemic issue that, the year after this trial, in the summer of 2020, would bring about a national reckoning. But the Swoleroid v. Leonard case had one major difference than others that have captivated the nation: It took place in an online world, between avatar people. Swoleroid and Leonard are role players in an extremely complex, volunteer-run, hyperrealistic video game.

The world in which this trial took place is set in Los Santos, a fictional city (although one clearly based on Los Angeles), that serves as the setting for the wildly popular action-adventure video game Grand Theft Auto (GTA). Back in 2016, a small, niche group of gamer-programmers created this new world by altering the code from GTA5 to create a large-scale, multiplayer system dedicated to role-playing, called NoPixel. NoPixel is a server of GTA5, meaning it uses enough of GTA’s data to keep the original game’s feel, but it also adds completely different rules and access to new parts of the map — a process called “modding.”

NoPixel does not have the ultrapowerful weapons of the original GTA, such as explosives and military-grade sniper rifles. Nor are there any true goals or missions for each player, no victorious endings. Instead, it’s all about role-playing. This brave new world is designed to be as realistic as possible, and the new code allows players to customize their characters in extreme detail, from walking style to facial expressions. In NoPixel, players take on everyday lives and everyday jobs: They’re police officers, bartenders, taco shop owners, sex workers, journalists, delivery workers. They earn and spend money and trade items with each other. They have health requirements that necessitate everything from grocery shopping to hospital visits.

A clash between a police officer and the person they are arresting, in an October 2021 NoPixel livestream.

The server is completely unofficial and has no connection to GTA’s developer, Rockstar Games. Yet hundreds of thousands of people from around the world tune in to NoPixel via the streaming platform Twitch every day, to watch events like Swoleroid and Leonard’s court hearing. While role-playing is a genre that’s been around since the PC video games of the 1970s, NoPixel’s distinction lies in its complex rules and huge viewership, a vast international community invested in complex, years-long character arcs. At any given moment, there are hundreds of streamers role-playing on NoPixel — and like a real city, that equates to hundreds of lives being lived simultaneously, every one of them live-streamed. Big events like the court cases are some of the most popular draws, but at the same time there are other characters role-playing outside the courthouse, across town and all over the city.

NoPixel police officer Ziggy Buggs dances at a local benefit night.

Fans choose their favorites and follow them through the winding streets of Los Santos, oftentimes every day for years. They can also toggle between different characters’ channels, watching the world through the character’s eyes. They just can’t “meta,” which means telling a player something the player didn’t learn through their own gameplay. This is the strictest rule for viewers.

The events are so realistic, so true to form, one might forget that they’re fictional, especially when the real human streamers’ faces appear in the corner of the video game. The players inhabit their characters so completely because they have to. Breaking character is grounds for suspension. While anyone over 18 with a microphone can apply to play a character on NoPixel, the application process is strict, and entry is exclusive. Once accepted, characters go through specialized training for their roles, run by other role players. The Personnel and Training Division, to take one example, is the administration that recruits, hires and trains aspiring police officers on radio codes and proper conduct. Players can only attend “the Academy” after in-character interviews. When NoPixel launched, a meme circulated on Reddit proclaiming: “It’s harder to become a cop on NoPixel than in the U.S. Change my mind.”

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In July 2021, the NoPixel police department interviews prospective chiefs.

During Swoleroid v. Leonard, commentators in forums dissected the police officer’s long pauses between answers: “Is he making things up? Is he lying under oath?” To some, the long pauses made it seem like Deputy Leonard was colluding with fellow cops during the trial (police in the game have access to radio and communication codes not accessible to civilians). Others argued that Swoleroid had a criminal history and that perhaps Leonard’s shots were warranted. Then the questions became philosophical: Is misremembering the same as lying? What should police roleplay look like?

One key thing about NoPixel trials is that court members are not allowed to review VODs (videos on demand) of the events from other perspectives. A juror can’t go back and watch what a lawyer said a second time, or review video to see how the defendant reacted to an accusation. They must rely on their own memories, as we do in real life. Spectators, on the other hand, can watch any VOD they want, becoming inadvertent watchdogs for any misremembered details; and while they don’t call these out to the streamers, they do closely analyze them and gossip about them elsewhere online, usually on Reddit and Discord. The Swoleroid v. Leonard trial would later be reposted and debated thoroughly on the r/RPClipsGTA subreddit.

NoPixel fans around the world watched intently to see what the verdict would be. Judge Lebarre called the court back into session. In his smooth drawl, he declared: “Officer Leonard should be held liable and responsible for the actions that led to Mr. Swoleroid’s injuries.” He ordered the police force to pay $80,000 in restitution.

In July 2019, the Swoleroid v. Leonard trial concludes, and Officer Leonard is convicted.

Reddit erupted. “Crushed it tonight. Fair and entertaining,” wrote a spectator who goes by Kimballn. “Rare combination.”

One spectator, Edward Griffin, commented on the clip, stating that Lebarre’s verdict was shocking “not because of the facts in this case, but because I thought that his pro-police and government bias would have him siding with the defense.”

The case sparked a debate on the systemic forces at play; some viewers argued that cops have to act aggressively, that the streets of Los Santos had become out of control in terms of criminal activity. But Leonard’s behavior in court also prompted criticism of the police force and the way they shield each other from consequences, which some likened to a gang that’s perhaps more dangerous, and in possession of more resources, than the Leanbois or Chang Gang who also run the streets in this fictional world. “Cops have advantages. Better guns, communication, more than 4 people,” a spectator who goes by Jeyts wrote on the thread (a rule states that criminals are limited to four people per crime, to avoid complete anarchy — but there are no limits on cop groups). “If the cops lose they move on. They don’t risk anything. Koil built a high risk high reward server for criminals. Can’t be mad when they do what it takes to save their boys.”

The Koil that commenter referred to is an elusive gamer, programmer, longtime role player, and the lead developer of NoPixel. There’s a deep admiration, even mythology, around him. During court trials, participants are not sworn in with the phrase “so help you God” — but instead with “so help you Koil.”

It’s no small feat manning NoPixel. Koil’s partner, Anna, or Arachnea, the name she streams by, tweeted that it costs $10,000 per month to keep NoPixel well-oiled and operational.

“They honestly don’t get enough credit for the many man hours I bet it takes to make that stuff work within the server,” says Nate Paul, a NoPixel streamer who role-plays tattoo artist turned prison kingpin Marty Holiday. In real life, Paul is in school for criminal justice; Holiday, on the other hand, was sentenced to life in prison at age 18, for tattooing underaged teens. While Paul has another character who works as a lawyer, it is the prison “lifer,” as he calls Marty, whom Paul has chosen to focus on building out.

A longtime NoPixel fan, Paul feels lucky to have even been accepted into this mix. Back before he was a streamer, he was a viewer, imbibing one of the earliest iterations of the server. And before that, the game’s first role players acted out their characters without any audience at all.

“My favorite part of ‘RP’ is just the stories, and the people you make and meet along the way,” Paul tells me. He lauded the virtual city’s dynamic nature, made possible by around-the-clock software development. “Beyond the mechanics and updates though, it’s the community.”

A streamer who goes by the handle Pssychotic helps keep a pulse on this community. Pssychotic (who, like many of the streamers interviewed for this article, declined to provide an off-line name) stumbled across NoPixel while browsing Twitch four years ago. He now both plays and works as one of the game’s administrators. His favorite character to role-play, Sher Singh, is a former cop who currently manages Fast Loans, a company that provides credit on vehicles. Pssychotic says that one of the reasons he took the new job was the same reason he became an admin in real life: “Helping with the whitelist [sorting through potential role players’ applications] and providing loans to people who are new to the server to get a set of wheels — there is nothing more joyful than that,” he tells me, adding that the game has come a long way since his Los Santos PD days — in a good way. “The community cares about each other and looks after each other.”

It’s this community aspect that also adds to Koil’s mysterious allure. Koil created an international coterie, yet what his loyal following knows about him is only what he streams and posts, a legacy built on content creation. (Koil did not respond to interview requests for this story.) Spectators debate whether his accent is Australian or Kiwi, and little is known about Koil’s personal life, besides the occasional snippets he shares of his and Anna’s life together. He tweeted this summer that his son was getting stitches, and attached a photo of a little boy in a bucket hat smiling despite his bleeding nose. Most fans commented their support. A few asked impatiently for NoPixel updates.

At the end of the day, Koil’s power comes down to one thing: He makes the rules. He guards entry to the server, deciding who can stay and, on some occasions, who must be exiled. He role-plays a myriad of characters — a plastic surgery-obsessed gangster, a loan shark, a criminal named Saint Jospeh who believes he is the brother of Jesus Christ. But mostly, Koil plays a cop, a role that straddles the real and virtual worlds. In both realms, Koil has to police those not following the rules. And a lot is at stake; viewership has grown so drastically over the last two years, in a period dubbed the “streaming boom,” that Koil now has hundreds of thousands of eyes watching his every move. The pandemic only exacerbated the rush. Viewers found respite in this niche of humanity that Koil had created, something they could participate in from the safety of their homes.

Nate Paul says the game’s focus has shifted too. “Back in the day, it was mainly criminal-based, which still has a large part. But businesses and civilians are now thriving,” he says. There’s Wu Chang Records, a record label that releases actual songs on SoundCloud. Bad Boy Customs, a car parts shop, was formerly a shell company to wash crime money; now it’s morphed into a legitimate vehicle importer and delivery service logistics company, organizing delivery drivers across Los Santos. It seems counterintuitive — these plotlines have grown less violent, less sensational, less attention-grabbing over time, yet NoPixel’s popularity has only grown. It seems many people simply want to do and watch ordinary things.

But streaming is also a serious business. Twitch, now owned by Amazon, is one of the most popular platforms on the web, and it accounts for 91 percent of all video game streaming. The most popular Twitch streamers earn money from being part of the Twitch partner program, as well as from subscriber donations through the platform and external creator software like Streamlabs, and even from brand deals and sponsorships. A Twitch data leak in October 2021 showed one Canadian streamer made about $705,000 over the previous month from the platform alone.

Streamers are celebrities in their own right, and to them, playing isn’t all fun and games; it’s also a full-time job. With NoPixel’s increasing pandemic-era popularity, by early 2021 some of the biggest names on Twitch were vying for spots in its world. Once installed in the game, popular streamers’ existing followings often join too, spiking viewership — and the amount of money involved. Estimates for NoPixel streamer Summit1g’s net worth range anywhere from $2 million to $11.5 million.

But fan-run servers have a contentious relationship with developer companies. In September 2021, Rockstar’s parent company, Take-Two, filed a lawsuit against a small group of developers who modified code from GTA3. Nevertheless, NoPixel continues to go strong.

“Look, everyone else is going to tell you that they wanted the opportunity to tell a story and be creative, some type of outlet, etcetera,” a streamer known as CrayonPonyfish tells me, explaining the reasons people join NoPixel. “They’re not wrong, but they aren’t exactly telling the truth either. Most people playing and streaming on NoPixel who weren’t here more than two years ago are here for one thing — money.”

Before NoPixel, CrayonPonyfish wrote erotica. “I still have Amazon bestsellers that pay off some of my bills through royalties,” she says. “But you can really only describe sucking dick so many different ways before you get bored of it and need to try something new.” CrayonPonyfish is self-assured, articulate and exacting (she even called me out on a typo I made in an email). She says things like they are, both on- and off-line. In NoPixel, one of her characters goes by the name of Wilhelmina Copperpot, who often wears a button-down shirt and tie under a gray peacoat and red-rimmed glasses, with a cigarette poised between her fingers. Copperpot, fittingly, is an investigative reporter for the Los Santos Herald newspaper, where she’s written on the prison release of town cannibal Garfield Henderson, as well as on issues within the Department of Justice. She’s spent a lot of time in the Los Santos courthouse, and she knows journalist jargon — she was clear on what she wanted to say to me on the record. CrayonPonyfish has also played a prison warden named Wynona Fontaine, among other roles. In this world, no job is off-limits to anyone, as long as it exists in our three-dimensional realm as well. Backstories can be as wild as streamers’ imaginations, woven into intricate storylines — like Ziggy Buggs’ stripper-turned-sergeant narrative. On a platform that reveres individuality, the zaniest characters are often the most well loved, and the interpersonal connections and lore are what keep people coming back for more (and paying for content).

But, CrayonPonyfish explains, viewer support stretches beyond financial donations. When she retired Wynona Fontaine, she expected backlash: “It’s pretty easy to think that I might be disappointing people who have spent money on me to see that character, and I’ve even expected a degree of hostility because of it,” she says. “But there hasn’t been a single viewer who hasn’t given me words of encouragement and understanding. You can’t really apply that to other communities and games.”

It was blizzarding in New York City when I first entered the curious world of NoPixel. People had either left the city or were cooped up indoors, and the Lower East Side was the quietest I’d ever heard it. My boyfriend at the time, Matt, and I were snowed in at the one-bedroom apartment he was subletting from a Craigslist stranger, a film director who had lived there for over a decade. Instead of a door, the bedroom had a shower curtain with koi fish on it, and the faux-wood floors sank so much that all the furniture lived on a slant. Tchotchkes from travels, article clips, and film-family photos hung delicately from every surface. I was looking out the window watching the snow fall as legal jargon blared from Matt’s laptop. “You have to see this,” he said to me. I was confused — it was a police brutality court case that had been going on for four hours, but it was animated. There were hundreds of thousands of people watching. “None of it is real.”

Since I was little, I’ve loved people-watching and imagining strangers’ backstories. “He’s a photographer and a tourist from Akron, Ohio, here for the very first time,” I’d think of the man in a corduroy shirt pointing a camera to the sky over Union Square. NoPixel is a whole community of people who create these kinds of stories, weave them together, and share them with each other. In NoPixel, you never have to be alone; you can tune in anytime, from anywhere, and know someone will be up in the city of Los Santos. When the snow stopped falling in lower Manhattan, I walked home. I never stopped watching the stream.

I’d later listen to dozens more improvised trials, letting them run in the background of my life as I made dinner or went for runs down East River Drive. I spent hours reading OG characters’ lore and Reddit debates on court case verdicts, the way some people consult the internet to make sense of movie plots. Following the drama was like watching a soap opera you never have to turn off — addicting during a time when life was so monotonous and empty of novelty. The last few months, I’ve also watched tensions grow in ways eerily similar to those of the systems in our real world. Twitch, it seemed, imitated pre-COVID life.

Koil’s world had me hooked, the same way it had hooked millions of others.

The drama often carried over into real life. I held my breath this spring as popular streamer Felix “xQc” Lengye’s play grew increasingly contentious and veered into “malding” territory — Twitch vernacular for getting so mad you begin balding. Malding is a phrase typically reserved for multiplayer games, where tensions run high. XQc, who plays in NoPixel as the criminal Jean Paul, is usually malding over beef with the cops. NoPixel’s admins had enacted short-term bans on xQc before for raging against the police, but he’d always been allowed back. On May 24, however, Koil enacted a ban that looked like it could be permanent. It was a big business decision; xQc was one of the platform’s most-viewed streamers.

It had been a long few months of scuffles with the cops for Jean Paul, who first came on the Los Santos scene as a journalist, a lifestyle he quickly grew disillusioned with. He developed a gambling addiction and took to the streets as a notorious and successful bank robber instead. But the lines had grown increasingly blurred between him and his real-life counterpart xQc, whose brash, foul-mouthed, quick-tempered personality seeped into his role-playing. Jean Paul even resembles xQc, with long blond hair, often wearing colorful T-shirts.

On one sunny day in May, Jean Paul was in yet another altercation with a police officer. He stood in front of the police car, on a highway surrounded by green forest. He looked to be yelling, although the voice was coming not from the character but from a small window in the corner of the screen — xQc himself. The cop began explaining his reasoning from inside the car, but Jean Paul called him an ass. “Yep, you’re right I’m an asshole, 100 percent,” the cop shot back. Viewers could see xQc jumping up from his computer chair, yelling into his headset. “You’re so stupid!” Jean Paul screamed. Back in the game, he got out his gun and shot three rounds first, then dozens more, through the car window. Next, he was struck by a passing car, but he got up and continued shooting relentlessly.

Some viewers speculate that xQc malds when playing in the NoPixel world for too long. He typically streamed for nine hours a day, but on this day, he was approaching 12. Later, he broke the fourth wall by talking about his stream while in character. The game’s admins decided it was time for a permanent ban.

But it seemed Koil had a soft spot for the younger streamer, declaring that xQc could be redeemed and perhaps return: “All he’s got to do is not be angry, OK?” Koil said later from his cop car, while patrolling GTA’s streets (or are they Koil’s?). “Because that leads to OOC [out-of-character] shit. He needs to learn to not give a fuck. It’s a hard thing in RP, it really is.” It was the rare meta moment when role-play is addressed within the world of role-play. On-screen, heavy rain fell, the winds causing palm trees to sway angrily along the road.

Koil addresses xQc’s permanent ban from NoPixel, saying he hopes xQc can control his temper.

By August of 2021, xQc was back in the game, having apologized and returned to Koil’s good graces. But within minutes, there was another police altercation playing out on xQc’s stream. Two years after Swoleroid v. Leonard, the divide between the NoPixel police force and civilians has only grown more hostile. Back then, a cop-civilian shooting would have implications for an entire week in the universe; now the shootings are so frequent, redditor jhaluska likened the play to Counter-Strike Global Offensive, a game that pits “terrorists” against “counterterrorists.”

“The amount of cops that respond to something in the server, multiple times — you’ve probably seen somebody steal a local’s car or commit a small petty crime — and instead of a couple regular cop cars responding to this, it turns out to be a heli, two interceptors, and a bike, and they will all be chasing down these crimes, and it all seems a little overkill,” SgtSlushPuppy says to me, not hiding the disdain.

I watched the August 2021 incident from xQc’s perspective, as the cops shot an unarmed man in front of him. Now the bad boy of Twitch — known for impulsivity and creating controversy, for always having something to say — looked taken aback. He sat uncharacteristically still, defeated even. “I think this is cop burnout,” he said. “It makes no sense … I don’t think the cops want to role-play anymore.”

A shocked xQc provides commentary on the NoPixel cops shooting an unarmed civilian.

SgtSlushPuppy says of people who choose to play as police: “I think a lot of people went into it looking to be goofing around, but have a bit of seriousness here and there, and just have a good time. But I wouldn’t doubt it if people went in just wanting to be Boss Hogg kinda deal.”

The police declined to comment on this story.

Earlier this month, Summit1g, another popular streamer who plays as a gang member, stated his own exasperation with the cops’ behavior. “The cops are in this position where I don’t even want to get into gunfights with them, because it’s just fucking stupid.” As he spoke, he ripped down the freeway in a black sedan with tinted windows. The city dissolved into desolate wasteland, bringing with it a thick fog.

Soon Summit1g’s frustration would come to a climax: His car flipped after being T-boned. The officers who arrived on the scene verbally abused him from behind their assault rifles. They faced no punishment — or even a lawsuit. “The whole server seems to be getting into this sweaty state, you know.” “Sweaty” is the term for gamers who go too hard, taking their play way more seriously than ever intended.

But while GTA itself was never meant to be anything but escapism, an action-adventure criminal-laden video game, NoPixel was always different. It sought to mirror reality. Beneath the most recent shooting video, a comment reads: “Cops don’t get punished. It’s like real life.”