Non-Player Characters

December 24, 2012

Here’s an interesting idea. This article mentions “non-player characters” in the context of a role-playing game, and proposes something rather unsettling:

Many of us approach the other people in our lives as NPCs.

I’ve been thinking along similar lines. People often imagine strangers as incidental scenery, part of the social environment. This is understandable given the limits of human knowledge – there simply isn’t enough time or mental capacity to understand very much about very many people. However, we often forget that this perspective is only a necessary convenience that allows us to function as individuals. For example, if you’ve ever been in a rush to get somewhere on public transportation, you’ve probably felt that bit of guilty disappointment while waiting to accommodate a wheelchair-bound passenger. Here comes some person into my environment to take another minute of my time, right? If you use a wheelchair yourself, this delay happens every time you catch a ride, and that frustration simply does not exist. If anything, I would imagine that disabled passengers feel self-conscious every time they are in a situation where their disability affects other peoples’ lives, even in an insignificant way.

Has this always been true? Probably to some degree, but the modern media environment seems to especially promote it. Good fiction writing communicates the thoughts and motivations of relevant characters, unless they are complete unknowns. This means that any meaningfully observable character has some kind of hypothesized history and experience informing their participation in the story. Film is different, in that a script can describe an “evening crowd” in two words, but the realization of that idea can involve hundreds of extras, living entire lives and working day jobs that barely relate to their final appearance on the screen. We can assume that their real lives intersected with the production of that scene on that day, but it’s really the only significance that their identities have in context.

With interactive media, the idea of a “non-player character” has appeared in many forms, and academics study how they can design the best (read: most believable) fictional characters for interactive environments. Here the limited reality of these characters is even more pronounced. In video games, non-player characters have lower polygon counts, fewer animations, and generally use less code and data. This is a consequence of the limited resources available for building a virtual environment, but the effect is readily apparent and forced.

Does this mean video games shouldn’t include background characters? Not really. What I’m suggesting is that we should be careful to see this phenomenon for what it is: an information bias in favor of the protagonist, which necessarily happens while producing media. It shouldn’t ever be mistaken for a relevant characteristic of the real world. This holiday season, when you’re waiting an extra minute or two for a disabled stranger, or expecting better service from a tired professional, remember that he or she probably has lived a life as rich and complicated as your own, and try not to react as if he or she is just some kind of annoying scenery. Whoever it is might return the favor, even if you never realize it.

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