Pop culture is, of course, much more the films, TV shows, music, etc. It encompasses the entirety of our culture, and touches on themes of justice, education, faith, and technology as much as it does entertainment. And through it all, pop culture—even pop culture as seemingly frivolous as games—proved more than capable of bringing people together in fellowship and community.
Below are our favorite pop culture moments of 2023, including epic fantasy, dark academia, the Duggar sisters, and Pedro Pascal.
The 2023 Actor’s Strike
Hollywood has a long and sordid history of actor abuse and manipulation, both in front of and behind the camera. A visually powerful medium like film, when wielded improperly, can perpetuate a mindset that objectifies actors as mere pawns, whether for monetary gain (for studios) or entertainment (for audiences). While the past few years have seen disruptions and changes in the entertainment industry, especially in regards to sexual exploitation, we still have a lot of work to do.
Enter the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. For nearly four months—what turned out to be the longest strike in entertainment history—Screen Actors Guild members refused to work in an effort to address numerous labor disputes. Issues included compensation, working conditions, profits from streaming media, and the use of artificial intelligence. The strike finally ended when studios and actors came to a contractual agreement that has been called “an enormous victory for working performers.” While over 20% of SAG-AFTRA members were displeased with the results, this new agreement represents a tangible and substantial change for the better, and hopefully a harbinger of more reformation in the future.
Baldur’s Gate 3
A wise man with a miniature giant space hamster once said, “Those that seek danger over cheese tend to not live as long.” However, the amount of things you can do with a wheel of cheese—or a fork or a chair—in Baldur’s Gate 3 leads me to believe that danger might be the safer option.
Larian Studios was given six years to percolate, polish, and sand the sequel to what is unquestionably the granddaddy of all computer RPGS. This massive, unmitigated love letter to the sheer flexibility of tabletop gaming is the result, and after two playthroughs, I’m still thinking of new ways to play and new paths to take. Taking the Dungeons & Dragons license to its current limits, Baldur’s Gate 3 is what happens when a studio with ability and passion is given the time to create the game they want to create.
Want to play as a murderhobo? It’ll adapt around you. Want to play as a non-lethal pacifist? You can leave a wake of unconscious enemies and picked pockets. Want to play as a fighter who specializes in the ancient art of tavern brawling and improvised weapons? Chuck that ham at the orc’s head, baby, you do you. The breadth of creative problem-solving is staggering, and while it groans under its own weight on occasion, by and large, you can approach situations in a ludicrous amount of ways.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is the classic CRPG formula married with the immersive sim genre, and an achievement of this magnitude should be on the receiving end of a horde of nerds cheering and huzzahing.
Critical Role’s Third Campaign
2023 led us deep into Critical Role’s third campaign, following the steps (and missteps) of the adventuring party Bell’s Hells. Critical Role is a show where a bunch of nerdy voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons, and the Big Bad Evil Guys of campaigns one and two were pretty standard (read: epic and enjoyable) D&D fare (e.g., dragons, liches, ancient wizards seeking forbidden knowledge). But campaign three’s BBEG is something new: Predathos, the God-Eater. Bell’s Hells have stumbled upon an ancient conspiracy bent on unleashing this being against the gods of Exandria, which would upend the world’s magic—and society as we know it.
The situation is not only dire, but complex. As is so often the case, the conflicts of the fantasy world echo the quandaries of the real one. With many of Exandria’s religious organizations lashing out violently in defense of their faith, the player characters are beginning to question the role of institutions in the lives of the faithful. And with the gods suddenly made vulnerable to death, Bell’s Hells find themselves wrestling with questions rarely found outside a philosophy of religion class: What is the nature of divinity? Who determines good and evil? What value does faith serve? Whether the Hells will end in glory or in flames is yet to be seen, but the Critical Role team has already proven once again that fantasy narratives are powerful tools for exploring the questions that matter most.
The “Dark Academia” Trend in Fantasy Fiction
You may have seen the visual aesthetic taking over Instagram. Or stumbled upon some of the books. Or seen Wednesday on Netflix. Either way, dark, brooding takes on elite Victorian boarding schools (with an emphasis on classics, Gothic architecture, and secret societies) is in. And while it’s been “in” since 2020, the sub-genre’s popularity continued to grow throughout 2023, with a growing subreddit, dedicated roundup posts from both Publishers Weekly and Goodreads, and a wave of new books, including Hell Bent (which won the Goodreads Choice Award in Fantasy), Curious Tides, A Study in Drowning, and The Will of the Many.
In many ways, the trend reveals both our cultural nostalgia and our cynicism towards the past. Many of the books hearken to a bygone era with both older aesthetics and the fascination that many of their characters have with the past and forgotten secrets. Yet such adoration is often coupled with a magnifying glass on the ways in which institutions cling to power, silence those who question, and cover up horrific acts. This simultaneous love and distrust of past eras may seem paradoxical. Yet it’s not hard to see how this mirrors prevalent attitudes in modern colleges and universities.
The Duggar Sisters
Three years after their TV show ended, the Duggars have been having a moment this year. Or at least the daughters have. Between one documentary and two memoirs, we know a lot more about the dysfunctions of the Duggar household. We’ve also been able to see different perspectives on it. Amazon took a deconstructionist approach in Shiny Happy People. In Becoming Free Indeed, Jinger consciously avoided that with her “disentangling” approach to separating biblical faith from legalist lies. Jill described a similar experience in Counting the Cost, but with the focus on distinguishing manipulative behavior from true Christlike virtue.
Many individuals who grew up in legalist or IBLP households have found it cathartic to watch several daughters escape its orbit. Yet as Christians, we understand that what you escape to is just as important as what you escape from, lest one prison be exchanged for another. While Amazon had little interest in exploring such questions, both memoirs particularly stand out in this regard. As many Christians deconstruct various beliefs, these memoirs cast enticing visions for what real freedom in Christ looks like. For those searching for how to separate biblical truth from man-made rules, there’s a lot to appreciate about the Duggar sisters’ example.
The faith-based film industry has had its ups and downs—although many (including myself) would say the downs outnumber the ups. But in 2023 alone, we saw filmmakers try their hand at true-to-life events (Jesus Revolution, Surprised by Oxford); up their game with quality Bible stories (His Only Son, The Chosen); and branch out in new directions, including the thriller (Sound of Freedom), horror (Nefarious), sci-fi (The Shift), and musical (Journey to Bethlehem) genres.
While all these films have their detractors (sometimes rightly so), this year’s output shows promise, indicating “a faith-based filmmaking community that’s making strides in the right direction, even if there are some faltering steps along the way.”
Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, and Dungeons & Dragons
Wizards of the Coast (WotC) should have had an amazing year as the leading source of profitability for Hasbro. And yet, WotC began and ended 2023 in ignominy. In January, leaked documents revealed that WotC had plans to rewrite their Open Gaming License (OGL). The new copyright rules communicated that D&D-adjacent game developers, podcasters, and various creatives “would have suddenly owed Wizards royalties, earnings reports, and at least partial licensing rights on any published D&D work, past or present.” The decision would have decimated a broad and beloved industry, and D&D players responded with predictable fury, forcing Hasbro to backtrack the decision. Then just a few weeks before Christmas, Hasbro announced a round of layoffs which cut deep into the creative team at, you guessed it, its most profitable arm.
But Hasbro’s staunch commitment to broken trust and brain drain might ultimately bode well for other game designers. One such company is MCDM Productions, a team which has been successfully producing D&D-compatible digital and print resources for several years. Just days after the OGL fiasco broke, MCDM announced that they would be releasing a new roleplaying game system separate from D&D. Then, in the same month when Hasbro was laying off some of their best team members, MCDM’s new RPG successfully Kickstarted with more than $3,000,000 of the $800,000 it required to launch. 2023 confirmed something we already knew: corporations are interested in making good money, not good products. But it also revealed something we might have forgotten: there is still a committed market for high-quality work produced by fairly-paid creatives, even in the gaming industry.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
In 2017, Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild was released to much critical acclaim for an open-world design that invited players to explore—even if that meant running straight from the opening credits to face the game’s major antagonist with little more than a stick and an apple. 2023’s Tears of the Kingdom built on those generative strengths, expanding Hyrule both above and below while introducing the creative Ultrahand mechanic. (Never forget that 2023 brought us ToTK Godzilla.)
In a year of phenomenal games (crowned by the masterwork Baldur’s Gate 3), singling out a sequel for its continuity of quality and commitment to play may sound like faint praise. But Tears of the Kingdom remains a favorite of mine for the year precisely because of its familiarity, because of its caring stewardship of Hyrule and its denizens, and most of all, because of its earnest commitment to honor and foster a deep sense of the possible in gaming.
Major College Sports Conference Realignments
For over a decade now, college sports fans have known that every year brings changes—or at least rumors of changes—to our teams’ schedules and rivalries. Still, the 2023 cycle felt different because it was different. Dramatic moments from years past pale in comparison to the blindside hit delivered to the status quo by the apparent death of the venerable Pac-12. Meanwhile, the four surviving major conferences lurched towards becoming super conferences with Ship of Theseus-like memberships increasingly untethered from bygone geographical affiliations.
2023’s realignment news stands out because it’s about more than sports, and it’s about even more than the eye-popping amounts of money in play. In 2023, college sports asked us if we can we keep growing or changing the things we love without falling out of love with them. Whether or not you keep a full schedule of autumn Saturdays on campus, the next few years of college sports will tell us much about how our culture relates to change in ways that are applicable to our personal lives, careers, organizations, movements, churches, and more.
Sharon McMahon and the Governerds
With 1.1 million Instagram followers, a community of devoted fans, and viral content that gets shared by Hollywood celebrities, Sharon McMahon has filled a unique role in the internet landscape: she’s America’s government teacher! McMahon’s “SharonSaysSo” Instagram account grew in popularity around the 2020 election, with the aim of sharing “non-partisan information about democracy,” explaining how basic systems of government work, and taking questions about the rapidly changing current events. As McMahon’s popularity grew, her followers took on the moniker “Governerds” and enjoyed a growing lexicon of references and inside jokes, such as a penchant for whale content and a shared disdain for Andrew Jackson.
The Minnesota-based former teacher initially offered Zoom workshops called “Government for Grownups” before launching a virtual book club that boasts participants in the tens of thousands. Book clubs include regular Q&As, deep-dive workshops, and much-anticipated Zoom chats with authors and celebrities including John Green, Adam Grant, Kate Winkler Dawson, Bryan Stevenson, Jenna Fischer, and Angela Kinsey, to name a few.
Beyond cultivating a following, McMahon has facilitated a bipartisan community characterized by respectful communication, kindness, and goodwill. Friendships have begun in Zoom chats, Discord groups, and in-person meet-ups. Passionate about philanthropy, McMahon has also used her platform to raise money for charitable causes. In December, the Governerds donated $1,000,000 to RIP Medical Debt, which allowed the organization to forgive approximately $100,000,000 of medical debt. McMahon is also the host of the award-winning Here’s Where it Gets Interesting podcast and her book, The Small and the Mighty: Twelve Unsung Americans Who Changed the Course of History, will be released on September 17.
Pedro Pascal Memes
For much of 2023, one of the best things about social media was Pedro Pascal’s face—specifically his reactions in memeable format. The actor has been around in Hollywood for a while, but in recent years, has become a beloved household name for his portrayals of the Mandalorian on Disney+ and Joel Miller in Max’s The Last of Us. The roles are similar and different. Similar because both are portrayals of a gruff, childless loner reluctantly becoming a protective father figure to an orphaned “chosen one” who protects the child against all odds. But different because The Mandalorian is a show that I allow my young children to watch while The Last of Us is absolutely not intended for a young viewership. Both shows are showcases for Pascal’s talent, however, launching him into the spotlight and endearing him to a wide audience as—perhaps it’s safe to say—a lovable father figure to us all.
Thanks in large part to Pascal’s popularity and affability, frames from his various shows, appearances, and interviews went viral in 2023. There was a Pedro Pascal meme for every mood or occasion, and the people of the internet couldn’t get enough. Buzzfeed published this roundup highlighting “19 Pedro Pascal Memes that I Can’t Stop Looking At,” Bored Panda collected this list of “52 Pedro Pascal Memes Even Non-Fans Will Find Hilarious,” and there were even explanations of Pedro Pascal memes—and why they went viral—on places like The Today Show. The memes are as ridiculous as they are hilarious, often demonstrating our common ability to find humor in simple, shared experiences; all it takes is the right actor to put expression to language and the broad scope of the internet hive mind to continuously evolve the memes. Add to that the knowledge that Pedro Pascal is someone able to laugh at himself, and the shared humor of the joke feels almost too pure for the internet—and definitely one of the best things to happen in pop culture in 2023.
—K. B. Hoyle