NPCs: What Are They, Even?

by Belle Waring on August 28, 2015

If this is going to be a useful analogy for sexist behavior at all people need to know what NPCs (that is, non-player-characters in videogames) are! A number of people in the thread below noted that they did not. It’s pretty simple. Let’s say you play a FPS (first person shooter) or even a third-person shooter (you see the character you control as if he were the star of a movie). You generally roam around the game shooting alien monsters or zombies or Nazis or zombie Nazis or whatever. But there will be people on your side, or fellow members of the space marines, or bystander city-dwellers—people with whom you can interact but don’t need to/can’t shoot. These characters may have only one thing to say, or they can say one thing when first approached (or when you say a certain thing) and one or more other things later (or when you say that other thing). Alternately and more generally in all sorts of games an NPC can be someone you share endless experiences with, or are trained by, or you start a romantic relationship with, or you lose your shit over when they die (not tryna spoil the end of Final Fantasy VII here, just saying. Oh dag! Look, they’re making a new FFVII, and they may botch the ending to please a minority of fans (and in order kick up endless promotional rage-dust IMO), so forget I said that, and buy the latest game from “the franchise that doesn’t know the meaning of the word final”). Basically, in a single-player game, you’re the player, and the non-player characters—even if they look just like you—are merely generated by the game, just like the rendered terrain itself or the monsters or the weapons/spoils of war/scrolls, etc.

Our household is a Nintendo one, and in Zelda Windwaker HD you have crucial but limited interactions with others. It is a beautiful game that I have spent over 40 hours watching someone play while being a crucial assistant, looking through the ign.wiki walkthrough to see how the HELL Link can jump while holding a bomb [pro tip: he can’t, but he can step onto a platform]. You are prompted to press A to talk to NPCs and you are given at most two things to choose from to say either in greeting or reply. This is in line with the generally friendly tenor of Nintendo games, something that led them, after much thought, to
totally disable chat during online battles in their new FPS multi-player game Splatoon. FPS stands for FriendlyPersonSquidgun in this case—it has been succinctly described as “squidpeople play paintball” by “Matpat” on the YouTube channel Game Theory (which is very entertaining; I recommend it highly). Game designers could not think of any other way to prevent trash talk that would ruin the Nintendo experience, so you can only say one of two things to your squad-mates: “let’s go!” or “booyah!” This is despite the fact that it would be very helpful to talk for even 20 seconds before any given battle with your new squad-mates, who are chosen at random from available, physically-nearby players. Then you could set up a simple strategy for winning, which in this case means covering the most terrain possible with ink. “I’ll camp on their re-spawn point and snipe and you run around with that giant paint-roller, painting everything teal. Excelsior!”

Online hassle from dudes has gotten way, way worse since the late 90s when my sister, then 14, “married” a Swedish guy with whom she and my brother had been battling through an MMORPG for almost a year, endless hours at night. Some guys were jerks just because she was playing a female-named profile, and others would give her legendary weapons for free. But the other dudes playing would freeze out ugly harassers and overall it was a million percent more friendly. The current online environment is why neither of my daughters plays games in which you interact with other genuine people over the internet, despite being heavy gamers (Violet moreso, but Zoë will spend several hours a day on her 3DS playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf while on vacation.). A recent study showed that this is a vicious circle: fewer girls want to make themselves known online and so it appears as if girls are a small percentage of gamers when in fact it’s just that they are playing alone or without a headset. That just increases the sense that gaming is a boys’ thing when actually everyone under a certain age plays videogames. Everyone. In this case NPCs are safe and reliable; their scripted routines never include “tits or GTFO.”

NPCs play crucial roles in giving you quests, telling you where to go next, giving you valuable items, and anything else you can think of—in Grand theft Auto V it’s possible to have sex with prostitutes and then beat them till they give you your money back, something which inspired much free advertising protest. Sometimes NPCs won’t do a thing you need them to do until after something has happened. Violet and I had the maddening experience of guessing correctly what the easy password for the interior of Tetra the pirate’s cabin was, checking online to find we were correct, and then still not having the damn dude open the door. It was infuriating. Generally videogames can be infuriating when you can’t figure them out; it’s as if repeatedly restarting your computer to fix an inexplicable problem were supposed to be a form of entertainment. Zoë lost it over Windwaker last night. She does great with puzzle and sim games while Violet crushes at the muscle-twitch aspect of gameplay. She beat an entire Kirby game in three days last year without ever learning how to make the titular character run. Run. In a side-scrolling game (i.e., screens slide past towards the left and you must keep your character in the frame or die, like most classic Mario games.) Violet actively avoids watching the instructional parts at the start of games, relying on the powers of BUTTON MASHING to blaze through them. “This boss is actually easy,” she will say, while striking it with varying weapons at lightning speed. BUT Violet will neglect to feed the Miis in Tomodachi Life, on the grounds that there are “too many” of them. That’s…not how sims work, Sherlock Holmeslice.

In the case of the Windwaker password, it turned out we needed to see a crucial cut-scene first. Again, if you don’t happen to know, cut-scenes are the cinematic sections of a videogame which you must watch but during which you have no control over your character. They are often modeled with greater precision and more details like motion-capture facial expressions; this is because rendering the game in real-time is taxing for the underlying system in a way that simply playing an unchanging cut scene is not. Some videogames rely on them heavily to keep the storyline of the game moving along, and always in the correct direction. Others have no story, like Tetris. OK, except I think one title had a Candy Crush:THE SO EPIC SAGA with much backstory level “story”. In Candy Crush the titular candy-crushing puzzles are intersperced every 15 levels or so with creepy paper dolls “enacting” a “story” for 10 seconds: “OMG this is KrazySurpr1sing, but you have to line up matching candies again (shocker!) because MR. LEMONADE HAT NEEDS HELP WITH HIS SUGARTHING MACHINE TO MAKE SOMETHING SOMETHINGLEMONADE.” (This seems a good place to mention my dubious summiting of the acme of 21st-century capitalism: I have gotten our helper Malou to play through a level of Candy Crush for me on my phone because I couldn’t do it but need to beat each level before proceeding to the next. She is on level 730 and I am at 103. She is a genius at Sudoku also.)

Sometimes treating the NPCs in a certain way will “break” the game. A gamer called Many a True Nerd has done interesting work in killing every single person possible in Fallout 3 (he’s also recently spent a year playing through Fallout 3 with one health bar and no healing). His project is called “Fallout 3 Kill Everything.” He…kills everyone possible. Even the people whom his character is meant to befriend. I strongly recommend watching the video; it is hilarious, if somewhat gruesome (obviously). The opening will hook you

“ …a minor NPC called Shrapnel [is a] merchant who works in Rivet City, and he’s completely unremarkable. He’s involved in no quests, and isn’t even the only weapon vendor in that city.

“But if you enslave the other weapon vendor, Flak, Shrapnel mysteriously leaves Rivet City and starts to wander the wasteland alone. If you run into him during combat, you realise that, for no obvious reason, the game has marked him as essential, meaning he cannot be killed. So he just wanders around in his terrible armor with his terrible gun, picking fights against vastly superior opponents, he chips a bit off their health bar, they knock him down, he jumps up and chips a bit more off their health bar, they knock him down again, and eventually he wins. He always wins, against the Enclave, and Deathclaws, and Albino Radscorpions.

“I ran into him 3 times in the wastes (and tried to kill him all three times too), so he just became part of the series’ mythos. Shrapnel became an NPC who was on his own Kill Everything quest, seeking his lost companion Flak.”

This and other strange consequences make for great entertainment. (Who wants to watch other people play videogames, you ask? So, so many people. Madison Square Garden full of people watching live Super Smash Bros matches! E-sports are a thing.) As usual I went off-message and talked about multi-player games for a lot of the time I was supposed to be explaining NPCs, which is, like, really dumb. NONETHELESS I hope it’s pretty clear what NPCs in videogames are: characters generated by the game, with whom you can interact in scripted ways, who assist you as player of games by supplying various information or items, but are hollow shells. People whom you can treat as means, not ends-in-themselves, without feeling guilty because they themselves have no ends to aim for other than to facilitate your gameplay.

{ 114 comments }

1

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 7:28 am

Something should appear before the black-quote saying “Many a True Nerd says…” The thing in that quote doesn’t happen in the video, it’s just taken from an interview.

2

lacero 08.28.15 at 8:18 am

As an avid gamer the part I had cultural trouble with was the taking notes in the first place.

In comp.sci we had good notes from the lecturer, and when we didn’t they had a book to sell and I dropped the course. and anyway you just do the maths and you learn it, no need for notes. Humanities subjects are weird.

3

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 9:15 am

Dude, maybe, like give it a rest on my generally-acknowledged totally wrong response to a stranger asking for the condensed outline of notes and references that it took me some hours to make with my friends. There are literally 80 comments in the other thread that say how wrong I was. I was sort of hoping that by starting a new thread on a different subject everyone would shut the fuck up about it. If I write a formal letter of apology to the rando who lazily demanded them will everyone talk about a different thing than how wrong I was? That would be great.

4

Sam Dodsworth 08.28.15 at 9:48 am

This sounds like a good time to say I enjoyed reading that, and I’m sorry to learn the context. (I liked the original point about NPCs too, but I stayed away from the comments because watching men derail conversations about feminism drains the joy from my world.)

5

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 9:55 am

The next person who explains how much differently, better, and in a manifestly more reasonable fashion they would have responded if they had been me is begging to get punched in the dick. Riiight in the dick. lacero, it’s your bad fortune that you happened to tell me the same thing for the 81st time, thus eliciting a stronger response than that I made to, let us say, the 27th. It’s like I was handing you lemonade, and then the other commenters pissed in the glass. Now you just got handed a glass of lemonurine, but for real I am not entirely responsible for that. I don’t hate you or anything. Sorry about the pee, but that’s on the dudes in the other thread. As an avid gamer maybe you have something to contribute to the topic of NPCs, like the dumbest thing you’ve ever gotten handed to you in a game, or how the NPCs in a focused FPS act vs those in more open-world games? I am certain you have something interesting to say, please carry on.

[I have edited this comment!]

Seriously, sorry I had to harsh your mellow here, but if there’s one thing this thread is not about, it’s not about how college students should share their notes. Except let me just tell you all one thing, that maybe if I had started with it would have saved us a lot of trouble. There were five people in my first grad school methodology class–and indeed my year generally, there were five of us total. At the end of the second semester we were given a paper to write in which we performed “textual interpretation” of the most literal kind–given that manuscript stemmata A and B were like so, how did this later Latin manuscript end up with precisely these words, errors, and so forth? It was a logic puzzle in the end with a twist solution–they had crossed the streams! Manuscript tradition A got mixed with B at some point, after which they re-diverged. My prof set the same paper each year for all the incoming grad students. I was the first person to solve it in five years. A male fellow-student (one of the four), whom I mistakenly confided in after writing my draft but before the paper was due. flat-out asked me to tell him what I had figured out. x__x What the fuck? (This is a rhetorical question, no one answer it.) I didn’t even know what to say. I’m going to assume you’re all reasonable people and think that was a dick move by an entitled jerk. Now pretend I had put that in the other post. NOW LET US PASS THIS TOPIC BY IN SILENCE, NOT POINTING OUT THAT I AM COLORABLY USING THE RHETORICAL TECHNIQUE OF PRAETERITEO TO CALL ATTENTION TO THE VERY THING I URGE US TO AVOID.

6

armando 08.28.15 at 10:37 am

One thing that’s maybe worth bearing in mind is that not all NPCs are created equal.

As in, for some role playing games (I’m thinking Baldur’s Gate/Bioware type of games) the player (often) ends up spending a lot of time attending to the needs of the NPC(s). Sorting out feuds, paying debts, solving family problems and romancing them. Not all NPCs, for sure, and the player gets to choose which, but it would be weird to play those games and *not* spend a lot of time servicing the needs of your favourite NPCs.

7

oldster 08.28.15 at 10:37 am

“NONETHELESS I hope it’s pretty clear what NPCs in videogames are: characters generated by the game, with whom you can interact in scripted ways, who assist you as player of games by supplying various information or items, but are hollow shells. People whom you can treat as means, not ends-in-themselves, without feeling guilty because they themselves have no ends to aim for other than to facilitate your gameplay.”

This seems like a good thumb-nail of NPCs, and certainly the relevant one for understanding the best sexism analogy ever.

What I wonder is this: as a parent (you) or as a crotchety oldster who laments the decline of decency, standards, and civilization (me), do you ever worry that the gaming experience is habituating gamers to treat real people as NPCs?

I mean: do we want people around us, esp. young people, to think that the world divides into two kinds, sc. oneself who is amassing points and having fun, and every body else, who are “people whom you can treat as means, not ends-in-themselves, without feeling guilty”?

(I pause over the interesting category clash that you refer to them as “people” even while making it clear that they are not people, but at most fictional representations of people.)

My worry, of course, is the stuff of moral panic–before it was video games it was comic books, and before that Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang. The general decline in violence suggests that, if video games are making us more brutal, they are doing so more slowly than other forces are making us peaceful.

And they may have no tendency to make the young more brutal, if the young have no tendency to transfer the moral habits they develop in games with “people whom you can treat as means, not ends-in-themselves,” over into their dealings with real life people. If that’s right, then it is good news for the moral innocuousness of video games, bad news for the moral improving potential of serious literature and art.

Anyhow, I’ll end with a question. I assume your girls are not yet playing Grand Theft Auto, so you have not had to watch them rape a prostitute and then beat her up. But when you have watched them mug or kill or beat random NPCs for fun and profit, have you ever felt a twinge? Have you ever felt that they were interacting with others–even fictional, pixelated others–in ways that caused you to worry about the habits they were acquiring?

8

Sam Dodsworth 08.28.15 at 11:22 am

I play a lot of videogames but I also run tabletop roleplaying games, and one thing I find interesting is that some people want to treat NPCs as things even when the NPCs are being played by a human being and not a set of coded scripts. Perhaps more interestingly, this was a problem long before videogames had complex scripted NPCs. My guess is that this has less to do with the NPCs directly and more to do with the way games position players as the most important people in the world. (And it’s the same in the wider world, of course.)

9

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 11:43 am

oldster: my kids don’t play Grand Theft Auto, no. Nor do they beat people up in games generally. Link fights various squid-like creatures, and evil hog guards, and scorpion monsters, and evil plants. When he’s interacting with the other people (not all human) in the game he’s often doing things for them, as was mentioned above. You find dumb stuff in dungeons but eventually collect them all and give them to people. They ask you for stuff at the start of the game and you slowly fill their requests. Both Tomodachi Life and Animal Crossing ONLY involve you doing stuff for the NPCs. Animal Crossing characters will ask you to deliver something to another cute creature, even when the intended recipient is standing right next to you! In Splatoon you do shoot people with ink, but they immediately re-spawn and are fine at the end of each match, so it’s not really all that violent. Super Smash Bros–you’re hitting people there…well, hitting characters. It’s hard to take a fight between Kirby and the Wii Fit Trainer very seriously. So none of it seems all that violent. People want to kill each other after one hits the other with the blue she’ll in Mariokart when they’ve been in the lead THE WHOLE TIME, but that’s just like getting mad when you play card games. Mario games are not truly violent either, though the underrated PaperMario is genuinely creepy. That said we both girls and I think the endlessly newly rendered Los Santos in GTAV looks amazing, and it is possible to ignore the quests and just drive around. You’d need to steal someone’s car, probably, but you don’t have to shoot them, you can just rip them out. To the extent that it could just be an open world game in which you can skydive I almost am inclined to buy it for them and play it together. It is a curious fact of their lives that while I got to shoot actual cans and set things on fire for real in South Carolina, they can’t really play outside much of the time, because it’s too hot. They can grow more things in Gardening Mama than on our narrow 24th-floor balcony.

10

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 11:49 am

I do agree that it seems creepy when young children are playing GTA or super-gory games. It’s hard to believe it’s good for them. I’m not really sure what the parents of like a 10-year-old boy are doing when they buy them the game. Not ever watching any gameplay? I guess if your child also had their own TV you could avoid it more. I don’t really feel that helping Mario kill Bowser is violent in any real way. About like if you could play the Roadrunner and the Coyote on an Acme Rocketsled was the final boss.

11

Matt_L 08.28.15 at 11:50 am

Thank you for another splendid post Belle Warring. It was a joy to read.

12

Anderson 08.28.15 at 11:50 am

Sam: yeah, the post is very computer-game-centric. It’s a hallmark of a good DM that D&D-style NPCs do *not* act as mere enablers, even if that’s their game function. The whole round/flat-characters thing. Adding a few extra brushstrokes to their characterizations makes all the difference.

13

FS 08.28.15 at 11:51 am

But in pen-and-paper RPGs (and – even more – live action RPGs) such a behavior has some serious consequences, since you annoy the GM (pen-and-paper) or NPC (live-action), who both are real persons. I think there are points where a GM may tolerate treating an NPC like sh*t or an automaton: The NPC is unimportant or badly written into a printed adventure or he just is in enjoyable mood. But treating an NPC like that into which the GM has put himself a lot of time or which the GM likes a lot is a sure way to get your character into trouble/killed and the GM out of his enjoyable mood. And for good reason. Don’t annoy the Gamemaster.

14

rea 08.28.15 at 12:01 pm

as a parent (you) or as a crotchety oldster who laments the decline of decency, standards, and civilization (me), do you ever worry that the gaming experience is habituating gamers to treat real people as NPCs?

Before we had NPCs in the game of life, we had spear-carriers in the opera of life. The problem of treating other people as means and not as ends themselves has been with us since prehistory. Only the metaphors change.

15

engels 08.28.15 at 12:05 pm

The general decline in violence suggests

Iirc (not gonna Google now) this particular Pinkerism has been soundly debunked.

16

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 12:10 pm

I played D&D as a kid and used to be DM for my brother’s parties, but I have to say I never did enough NPC-inhabiting to get sick of it. I mean, I was narrating about cool stuff, and would pretend to be the innkeeper or whatever, but the latter only briefly. Your tabletop games sound as if they must be pretty different from what I did.

17

Bill Benzon 08.28.15 at 12:17 pm

” About like if you could play the Roadrunner and the Coyote on an Acme Rocketsled was the final boss.”

I like this, Roadrunner as video game precursor, and an ironic one at this. As Coyote would be the third person shooter in this case, and he always ends walking off a cliff, shooting himself in the foot, or some such.

18

FS 08.28.15 at 12:23 pm

Hm, I think it largely depends on the GM and the other members of the group. If they’re into powergaming, or playing “evil” or immoral characters anyway, than such a treatment can be quite common. But if you have an experienced GM, he’ll see to it, that your behavior comes back at you one time or the other. And even the other Players can see to that. If you have some well played characters in the group who have a modicum of morals, they will hold the other character accountable for that, too. Priests/Paladins are always good on that.

19

Rich Puchalsky 08.28.15 at 12:25 pm

“It’s like I was handing you lemonade, and then [the other commenters] pissed in the glass. “

I pretty much treated your comment “GET OUT OF MY MIND!” as a sign that I should go away. If you don’t want to discuss it, then don’t get obvs trolled by lacero, just don’t discuss it — and please don’t keep bringing my name up again so the various creeps here can “support you” by being insulting in the sure knowledge that you’re a poster and I’m not.
[for this reason I’m editing the original comment and thus also yours quote, but if you’d prefer I restored them please say so.]

20

oldster 08.28.15 at 12:27 pm

Engels@15–

I was not quoting Pinker, and I was not referring to any world-wide, millennia-long changes.

I’m referring to crime-stats in the US and other wealthy countries over the last few decades in which video-games have been available for playing. All violent crimes in the US are down over the relevant period. (Kevin Drum makes an interesting case that it is driven be lower lead-contamination, but whatever the cause is, the numbers are clear).

I think you’re misinformed about Pinker’s grander thesis, as well, but that’s a squabble for another thread.

21

Anderson 08.28.15 at 12:38 pm

“in the sure knowledge that you’re a poster and I’m not”

As this particular example of first-world injustice makes manifest, it is incompatible with true socialism for Rich to be relegated to non-poster status. So, I’m sure we can all agree that it’s objectively pro-fascist for Belle not to share her login & password with Rich, because that’s what *we* all did with *our* blogs in college.

22

Patrick 08.28.15 at 12:50 pm

Interestingly, one of the big places popular feminist media criticism has fallen on its face is in dealing with the idea of an NPC. There are videos in which a certain popular feminist (whom I will not name for fear of unleashing The Hordes of Gamers upon me) struggles with the idea that NPCs are inherently objectifying, because they exist to be acted upon as objects. But it seems more rational to say that NPCs literally are inherently objects, because, uh, they literally ARE objects. Just objects fashioned to look like men or women or squid people or whatever. The differences between the idea of “treating people like objects” and “treating objects like people” is an interesting one, but not one that many seemed to have really wrapped their head around yet.

23

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 12:51 pm

Ooooookay Rich.

24

Anderson 08.28.15 at 12:55 pm

22: that is a weak criticism. Characters in realist novels are all “objects,” created by their author. Yet it’s a valid criticism if a novel’s characters are unrealistic and there just to gratify the reader’s prejudices. Same w games.

25

engels 08.28.15 at 1:01 pm

the general decline in violence

I’m referring to crime-stats in the US and other wealthy countries over the last few decades in which video-games have been available for playing. All violent crimes in the US are down over the relevant period.

Violent crime /= violence.

Since 2001, the base defense budget has soared from $287 billion to $530 — and that’s before accounting for the primary costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars

Federal Prison Population Soars By 790 Percent Since 1980: Report

In 2011, Los Angeles County police shot to death 54 people, some 70 percent more than in 2010. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of people shot by Massachusetts police increased every year. In 2012, police in New York City shot and killed 16 people, nine more the previous year and the most in 12 years. In 2012, Philadelphia police shot 52 people—the highest number in 10 years.

Americans are becoming more violent.

(Sorry for the threadjack.)

26

bob mcmanus 08.28.15 at 1:04 pm

The differences between the idea of “treating people like objects” and “treating objects like people” is an interesting one, but not one that many seemed to have really wrapped their head around yet.

Still looking thru my notes to see what, if anything, to paste.

Vivian Sobchak was a pioneer: Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004). Haraway. LaMarre.

I think this is Sharalyn Orbaugh:

“Practices of cultivating an attachment for the unreal while inhabit-
ing a different everyday reality harken to far earlier times. In fact, this
stance has been entrusted to young men for generations. In an earlier
era, the scientific imagination, detached from mainstream reality, was
a symbol of masculinity.In addition, I describe later how youth were
redefined as possessing powers of imagination that exceed the confines
of reality”

Honey don’t just stand there lookin like this dream will never end
Let me introduce you to my 2D waifu.

27

Bill Benzon 08.28.15 at 1:10 pm

The point of dolls is, of course, to treat these objects like people. The following half hour video about dolls in Japan is nonetheless fascinating (and is useful background for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, in which one occasionally inhabits a character POV like one is playing a FPS):

28

Sam Dodsworth 08.28.15 at 1:10 pm

Anderson & FS: But this is what’s interesting. Even in a social game where the NPCs are visibly human you still get That Guy (and it’s always been a guy in my experience) who thinks being a protagonist means the world is his playground. There are ways to mitigate and discourage that kind of behaviour, of course, but it’s surprisingly hard work.

And, in another parallel with sexism, problem players tend to push at the boundaries of what’s acceptable, trusting that everyone else would rather put up with a certain amount of bad behaviour than derail the game.

(Also, what rhea@14 said.)

29

Anderson 08.28.15 at 1:15 pm

28: yeah, I’ve seen a little of that, but the other PCs get the jerk under control. All it takes is a few servants or passersby who turn out to be assassins, retired 13th-level paladins, gold dragons ….

30

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 1:18 pm

Patrick: I think that Sarkeesian’s videos are so basic and unobjectionable, and I am always surprised to hear the extent of the whining. I mean, Princess Peach’s constant need to be rescued from another castle is an obvious Perils of Pauline situation and is sexist and lame. Violet thought Zelda was the little person in green who did awesome stuff and when she tried for the first time to play (she was too young to read and so I read for her as we played an old version on the Singapore Airlines entertainment system) she was sad when we realized THAT was Link, and Zelda was some other weaksauce Princess Peach-type. If every player is male and NPCs are mostly female then the games can develop an overall unpleasant environment in games as a whole. However, it’s certainly true that it’s quite sensible to treat NPCs regardless of stipulated gender like useful tools, because they are useful tools.

31

JimV 08.28.15 at 1:23 pm

I get that the NPC analogy describes some aspects of sexism, but am slightly hung-up on this: if an entitled frat-guy asks a hard-working, brilliant woman for class notes or help that’s sexism, but what is it if he asks me for the same thing (which he did – albeit not in the same person)? I would say in both cases there was NPC-treatment, but they were not both sexism, so NPC-ism sexism. That is, I think Zoë’s insight was more fundamental (encompasses more of the universe) than an analogy for sexism.

32

Anderson 08.28.15 at 1:24 pm

“certainly true that it’s quite sensible to treat NPCs regardless of stipulated gender like useful tools, because they are useful tools.”

This suggests something about the ethics of gaming that’s more insidious than gratuitously bloody violence.

33

JimV 08.28.15 at 1:26 pm

I tried to use the less-than and greater-than symbols to write that NPC-ism .NE. sexism above, but HTML got rid of them, duh. Anyway “so NPC-ism sexism” was meant to be “so NPC-sim does not equal sexism”.

34

kent 08.28.15 at 1:33 pm

I’m assuming engels is trolling w/r/t ‘Americans are becoming more violent,’ but I’ll waste a few minutes of my life & reply anyway.

(1) If you adjust for inflation, it looks like (surprise!) US defense spending went up under GW Bush, down under Clinton, up under GHW Bush, and down under Obama. Which implies, quite obviously, that military spending (and war) is in large part an outcome based on the ideological preferences of the person occupying the White House … and irrelevant to the underlying level of preference for violence among the American people.

(2) The federal prison population is finally starting to drop. Using the years 1980 to present ignores this. If you take into account the growing population, the recent drop is more remarkable. In any case, since an increasing percentage of the prison population has been nonviolent offenders since 1980, using prison population as a metric for violence seems rather misguided.

(3) Police do in fact seem to killing more people over the past several years. This is sick and disgusting and clearly shows that the police need to be reined in. What does this have to do with trends in underlying violence by the rest of us?

(Sorry for replying to the threadjack.)

35

Fuzzy Dunlop 08.28.15 at 1:34 pm

I didn’t get a chance to comment before, but figured I might as well jump in now to say that ‘treating someone like an NPC’ is absolutely spot-on as a simile for sexism and related entitled jerkiness! What an insightful, pithy comment!

oldster @7 – On whether videogames encourage this kind of behavior, I think it’s pretty clear that treating people dismissively has been around long before videogames, and I don’t think the fact that you have so many mechanical (non-human-controlled) characters in a game encourages people to treat other people that way. If anything, in my experience the robotic nature of NPCs is usually conspicuous and obtrusive (like with the pirate password example Belle gave in the OP), and that makes both the smoothness and unpredictability of a human-controlled character (in a multiplayer game). You notice that and appreciate it on some level (even if that appreciation is limited to realizing that this is a character you can cuss out and they will actually understand what you said), and to go the other way and treat another person as purely functional (as an NPC) takes a lot of pre-existing entitledness.

One thing I would say though is that the way NPCs function in videogames, as means to an end, mirrors something about the working world (or the modern world in general), which John Lanchester captures very nicely in this essay in LRB: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n01/john-lanchester/is-it-art

The trouble with these games – the majority of them – isn’t that they are maladapted to the real world, it’s that they’re all too well adapted. The people who play them move from an education, much of it spent in front of a computer screen, full of competitive, repetitive, quantifiable, measured progress towards goals determined by others, to a work life, much of it spent in front of a computer screen, full of competitive, repetitive, quantifiable, measured progress towards goals determined by others, and for recreation sit in front of a computer screen and play games full of competitive, repetitive, quantifiable, measured progress towards goals determined by others.

36

kent 08.28.15 at 1:34 pm

Also sorry for failing to use the ‘href’ marker correctly …

37

Murc 08.28.15 at 1:35 pm

The psychology surrounding how people treat and respond to NPCs and objects within the game environment is damned fascinating.

Nobody has brought it up yet, which gives me the chance to be the first person to mention the Weighted Companion Cube.

Context: back in 2008, Valve released a game called Portal. It was an interesting puzzle game involving, well, portals: your taskmaster would dump you in a room somewhere and you’d have to get out with only your wits, a wormhole gun, and the ability to fall endless distances without being hurt.

Towards the end of the game, there were a set of more complex than usual rooms in which the initial design plan called for forcing the player to carry a small cardboard box sized cube with them from beginning to end. Cubes had figured prominently in many of the puzzles; you would do thinks like use them to hold down pressure plates that opened doors or block and reflect lasers and suchly. But this would be the first time they handed you a cube and said “bring it with you.”

People hated it in testing. They would, in fact, go to extreme and elaborate lengths to try and find a way to complete the puzzles without bringing the cube with them. There was a lot of unfocused resentment which even the players seemed at a complete loss to explain. They knew they didn’t like being saddled with this literal dead weight, but couldn’t articulate it.

Well, Valve isn’t in the business of making people resent their games, but they thought the idea of needing to shepherd this cube was interesting enough to keep working with. And eventually some bright spark said “What if we personalized the cube?”

So the cube was given a name, the Weighted Companion Cube, and they put a little heart decal on the side of it, making it unique from all other cubes in the game, and when they gave it to you they had your cruel robotic puzzlemaster really talk it up like it was a person and not a thing.

Response was enormously positive. People loved the Companion Cube. They developed, near-instantaneously, strong emotional attachments to it. It’s important to not that the cube didn’t actually do anything differently. It was just a cube. It was mechanically identical to all other cubes in the game. You used it to weigh things down and open doors and often it was very inconvenient because you had to figure out how to make it through the puzzle rooms and not abandon it. But players went from seeing that as an inconvenience to seeing it as a fun and cool challenge!

Then, at the end? They took the cube away. In fact, they made you, the player, throw it away. Into an incinerator. You monster.

This also produced strong emotional reactions in players. They felt like they’d literally killed a person. People were genuinely anguished.

The Weighted Companion Cube is one of the most popular and enduring NPCs of recent years, and it isn’t even really a character or a person. It’s a literal object, a cube with a heart painted on it, but people invested it with love and hope and even to a certain extent personality.

38

kent 08.28.15 at 1:41 pm

On the actual topic: one could argue that our tendency to treat others as NPC’s is, like, the fundamental problem of morality. I think Kant rather did say that, in fact. But it’s lovely to have a less clunky way than Kant’s of making the point! (I fear that telling Belle her prose is less clunky than Kant’s may be the ultimate damning with faint praise, and I apologize for that as well as all my other failures of this morning.)

NPC is not just a fabulous metaphor for sexism, it’s also about:

— racism (obviously);
— homophobia (the thought being something like: “if gays are fully human then I might be able to understand their experience, and then I’m only 1/2 step from being gay myself”);
— the standard American attitude toward people in other countries;
— road rage (those other drivers aren’t fully human);
etc.

39

Patrick 08.28.15 at 1:50 pm

belle- I think you have to try listening to her videos from a pretty foreign perspective to “get” why people hate you. Try to imagine that you can barely understand her words, just her tone of voice, which you know is nattering specifically at you and yours for your moral choices, and is describing how you see the world in ways you don’t quite get but you know aren’t flattering. And then out of nowhere she’s like “and sure Mass Effect let’s you choose your characters gender, but it’s still not good enough because it promotes the male version in the advertising as the ‘real’ Commander Shepherd, which is why the fans call the female one FemShep, to separate her from ‘real’ Shepherd, who’s a dude.” And you’re like, wait, I understood that bit! That’s not true! The fans also call the male one MaleShep! Shepherd is used when gender is irrelevant, or in gender neutral ways! She’s LYING! I AM SUDDENLY MOTIVATED TO HANG OUT ON REDDIT AND COMPLAIN ABOUT THE SEX LIFE OF A TWINE DEVELOPER BECAUSE OF REASONS!

40

Patrick 08.28.15 at 1:51 pm

Hate her! Not you! I suck so bad at mobile! I forgot where I was in a sentence. I’m really sorry.

41

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 1:52 pm

JimV: I think it’s reasonable to say that the analogy might usefully be applied to other situations or out-groups. And I’m certain that men have had similar experiences. BUT if you read the threads you would see that every dude in the world wants to correct me about an experience I personally had (well, two now I guess) and explain that sexism wasn’t a main or the motive force, because I could just as well have been male? I’m misinterpreting and projecting my concerns onto a neutral situation? I’m not sure this is productive or a good way of putting forward the (plausible) view stated in my first sentence there.

42

marcel proust 08.28.15 at 1:57 pm

Too old to be a gamer (in fact my 30+ y.o. oldest child just barely snuck in under the line) so I’ll play the role of crotchety oldster, but I’m going to do it in a pseudo-intellectual way, consistent with an intellectual fashion of my youth. It looks to me as though video-games, esp. those with NPCs, encourage not only violence but narcissism more broadly. Also (alluding to the previous post which we are not supposed to address directly), it seems as though sexist behavior (in contrast, perhaps, with sexist ideology or practice) has strong links between narcissism and sexism.

Like many of my ideas, I suspect that this is not original, but I don’t recall (I did say “oldster!) running across this anywhere. Or rather, like many of my ideas that are good and original, what is good is not original and what is original … Have these issues been discussed (in interesting ways) elsewhere?

43

oldster 08.28.15 at 2:00 pm

“NPCs are a great analogy for sexism”
“No, NPCs are a great analogy for gender-neutral injustice!”

where have we heard this recently…? Oh that’s right:

“Black lives matter”
“No, all lives matter!”

Yeah, maybe the responding claim on its own is facially unobjectionable. But as a response, it is doing something different from that.

44

oldster 08.28.15 at 2:10 pm

Murc–the Weighted Companion Cube story is really fascinating, and that’s exactly the kind of evidence that we need to get beyond the normal debate between people (like me) saying “video games coarsen the moral sentiments of their players and develop habits of anti-social narcissistic exploitation of others, contrary to the Categorical Imperative!!”, and the other side saying “It’s a GAME, dude, so CHILL! Players can tell they are in a game, and they can tell when they are not, and they know enough not to treat real people IRL the way they treat pixels on a screen. The crude habituation story–what you practice in one context you will do in others–does not work when the one context features mere daubs of digital paint and the other involves living humans. Also, stop spoiling our fun!”

What your story shows us is that there are really complex reactions and engagements with digital daubs of paint, if they are given certain signs, stories, and symbolic weight. Gamers *are* interacting with them as though they were somewhat person-like–witness the gamers’ reluctance to throw the WCC into an incinerator at the end.

I just wish there were a lot more research and a lot more evidence for all of this, so that it didn’t always sound like warmed-over Aristotle meets warmed-over Ayn Rand.

45

Lynne 08.28.15 at 2:16 pm

What fun! Video games! Murc, I love the companion cube story. I used to play Harvest Moon and it is sad when the animals get sick. Or die. Or your very own character ages and dies.

I didn’t know what the short form NPC meant, even though once it was explained I realized I’ve met quite a few of them in various games I’ve played, but I like this as deft analogy for sexism (thank you, Zoë!)

About applying the analogy to other situations, Oldster has it exactly right @43.

46

engels 08.28.15 at 2:29 pm

I’m not sure what’s more disturbing, the belief that keeping millions of people in cages isn’t violent or that it doesn’t count if ‘they deserved it’. Discuss with reference to Immanuel Kant.

The idea that the persistent huge scale of US military spending has nothing to do with preferences of American voters is laughable.

47

LittleMac 08.28.15 at 2:33 pm

This is probably a silly thing to delurk for, but I must object to characterizing Zelda as a “weaksauce” Princess Peach clone. There are certainly games in the Legend of Zelda series where she’s a damsel in distress, but often her role is more complicated.

Off the top of my head:

-in A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess Zelda is kidnapped, but she uses her psychic powers to reach out to Link and basically guide him through the process of rescuing her. If anything, it’s Link who just passively bumbles along killing monsters at her instruction. In TP, Zelda actively participates in the final fight with Ganon.

-in Wind Waker, Zelda has no memory of being a Princess and is living the life of a badass pirate captain (and she helps in the final fight). In the direct sequel The Phantom Hourglass, she knows that she is Zelda but keeps living as Pirate Captain.

-in Skyward Sword, Zelda spends most of the game on her own adventure, while Link basically just tries to catch up to her. He fights the final boss, but she’s actually the one doing most of the “save the world” work while Link retraces her steps thinking he’s trying to rescue her.

48

Robespierre 08.28.15 at 2:34 pm

I was, I believe, 17 or 18 when, walking down the street, it occurred to me that all those other people going about their business viewed it as as important as I viewed mine.

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oldster 08.28.15 at 2:53 pm

Robespierre@47

Every now and then I wonder whether the same might be true about other blog-commenters, but then the sheer absurdity of the proposal reassures me that they are all NPCs (i.e. non-playing commenters), simply generated by the underlying algorithms of the blog.

50

Plume 08.28.15 at 3:29 pm

I did computer/Internet tech support for a long, long time, and pretty much all of my coworkers were gamers. I never was. Never cared to be. Well, aside from computer chess and Risk.

But from their descriptions of their gaming experiences, media depictions and your explication above, it’s not too difficult to see that NPCs can be, but are not always, a spinoff of previous “helpmates” and/or disposable parts. A combo/spinoff, perhaps going back to ancient myths where the hero is helped along his way by various NPCs or goddesses acting as NPCs. Athena and Perseus spring quickly to mind.

One of the paths toward the gamer version — it seems obvious — would be our movies and our dramas, especially those set in wars or violent crime dramas, etc. etc. How many NPCs are killed by the “heroes” and villains along the way, and aren’t we programmed not to feel a thing about their deaths? They’re just extraneous characters, and barely that.

Media, of course, aren’t the only modes of teaching us not to care about 99% of the population. But they’re perhaps the most effective. From studies done on very small children we know they’re not born this way. We know that they have an equality bias early on, one that is pretty much beaten out of them over time. It’s also no wonder that we lose this, given the way our economic system organizes us and is organized, hierarchically. An anti-egalitarian, autocratic society is very, very likely to produce people who don’t give a shit about many people beyond those who write their checks, a few family members and friends.

In short, we’ve had at least two very concentrated centuries leading us here, with the disease accelerating from the Industrial Revolution on. It’s not surprising at all that we treat people as means to an end. The culture teaches this, 24/7.

51

Belle Waring 08.28.15 at 3:44 pm

I’m too tired now but I’ll post about The Totem in the game Monument Valley, in which you become so attached to a silent totem pole with a single mobile eye that I teared up when he sacrificed his life for me in a short puzzle game. You can become very attached to NPCs, also!

52

Marshall 08.28.15 at 4:31 pm

Does free will exist? The playing characters are also massively constrained by the mores, taboos, and folkways of the preconstructed game field. Murder those Aliens!!! Not unlike real life. Others may be more “successful” but the arc of my personal game resembles a search for a place where the things I am constrained to do are reasonable, kind, and generous. Also rewarding, if possible.

53

Plume 08.28.15 at 5:04 pm

Speaking of treating people like NPCs. Rather, far worse:

Jamycheal Mitchell found dead in Virginia jail

A young black man arrested by police in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the same day that one of the city’s officers fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old, has been found dead in jail after spending almost four months behind bars without bail for stealing groceries worth $5.

Jamycheal Mitchell, who had mental health problems, was discovered lying on the floor of his cell by guards early last Wednesday, according to authorities. While his body is still awaiting an autopsy, senior prison officials said his death was not being treated as suspicious.

54

Armando 08.28.15 at 5:33 pm

Well, one of the criticisms of the well known feminist game critic is that while she has something of a point, she is somewhat selective in evidencing it. You might say this doesn’t matter, since if the evidence of sexism (or unfortunate gender tropes) is there, then it’s there.

That has something going for it, but NPCs are treated badly, and it can be a stretch to claim that because some of them are female that this is evidence of sexism.

I’ve even heard it claimed that this is already having an unfortunate effect. Bioware (who are my favourite games company) are known for strongly written NPCs with personality, romances, sex appeal etc. It’s not porn, but does touch those themes. In their latest game, they have been careful not to oversexualise the female NPCs. Which perhaps sounds fine. But they have no such restrictions for the men.

In short, they write their men to be interesting and their women to be inoffensive. And that’s what they got, whereas in previous games their women were at least as interesting as the men. I fear this is the kind of reaction you get with selective evidencing. I’m all for more diversity, more female protagonists, less female victims and so on – but if the darker roles for NPCs (eg the vast majority of NPC victims are male, with the women used as shock value.) are off limits for women, then you end up creating exactly the kind of space that discourages diversity.

Just a last non point. Given that most NPCs are male (some are inanimate of course) does that effect the sexism as treating people like NPCs at all? Genuine question.

55

bexley 08.28.15 at 5:42 pm

Belle @ 3

Huh – I understood Lacero’s comment almost entirely differently to you.

This is how I parsed it:
1.Lots of people in the last thread didn’t understand what NPCs were (hence this post)
2. Whereas as a gamer he knew what NPCs were but the part of the story that struck him as weird was the idea of writing notes during lectures.

So the last thread had a whole host of scolds who showed up saying “Belle should have shared her notes with some random fellow because argle bargle” but I don’t think lacero’s comment fell into that genre.

56

NickS 08.28.15 at 5:42 pm

Thanks to Murc for the “Weighted Companion Cube” story, that’s fascinating.

It’s a hallmark of a good DM that D&D-style NPCs do *not* act as mere enablers, even if that’s their game function.

Hmmm, this immediately made me think of the (brilliant) gaming comic strip nodwick which presents AD & D style adventures from the point of view of the henchmen (Nodwick) who’s job is to carry the loot that the party acquires. For example, from the wikipedia description:

Artax and Yeagar frequently use Nodwick to set off traps, or to distract or bait monsters. Nodwick has died numerous times, but each time Piffany manages to revive him with her duct tape of healing, usually wrapping him from head to toe to put him back together (On one occasion, Nodwick was reduced to a pile of ashes, so the group poured his ashes into a “Hench Mold” with the words “Just add water” written on it; about the only time she hasn’t used the duct tape); so Yeagar and Artax usually don’t worry about tossing him into gruesome traps, feeding him to dragons, etc., if it will advance their quests. . . .

Prior to this conversation I wouldn’t have thought about the way in which it could be read a commentary on sexism, but it works that way. Though nodwick is male we often see him being dismissed by the male adventurers (Yeagar and Artax) in the way that parallels the experiences of women.

57

bexley 08.28.15 at 6:19 pm

I don’t know what this says about me but I dropped the companion cube in the incinerator without a second thought and was then astonished at how popular it became.

I say this as someone who normally plays as the biggest goody two shoes going in ROSS.

58

bexley 08.28.15 at 6:20 pm

Gah Ross = RPGs. Damn autocorrect.

59

Lynne 08.28.15 at 6:22 pm

@53: “In their latest game, they have been careful not to oversexualise the female NPCs. Which perhaps sounds fine. But they have no such restrictions for the men.

In short, they write their men to be interesting and their women to be inoffensive.”

If they can’t make women interesting without oversexualizing them, maybe they were never that interesting,

60

Dogen 08.28.15 at 6:25 pm

I like the “-ist treatment of real people in real life is similar to how one treats NPCs in video games” idea.

Let’s play with it some more. Seems to me NPCs in virtual reality (VR) reflect RL (“Real Life”) experience in many ways. Actually, VRs reflect RL in many ways!

E.g. 1- I’m sitting here looking out my window on a view of the area, and I can see little cars driving along the freeway and I’m sure there are people in them and they mean about as much to me as most NPCs.

E.g. 2- I remember seeing/reading reports from the war in Iraq. “X thousand troops killed or wounded” but no one bothered to report the tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people killed or wounded or displaced.

E.g. 3- I hear about someone I don’t know dying and think that’s sad (if I think anything at all). I call the vet to come euthanize my dog and I’m inconsolable. Is my experience reflected in the WC Cube story in some way?

I’m an oldster too, but I tend to think the awful parts of a lot of VR games come straight from RL with only a little cosmetic tweaking. And the good/fun parts too!

From this point of view maybe RL people/VR NPCs are more than just analogous? I.e. the way we treat/think about NPCs is a very close reflection on how we treat people in RL.

Well, if you’ve read this far, thanks for sticking with me as I splash about in the shallows.

61

Bill Benzon 08.28.15 at 6:45 pm

FWIW, my impression of Lacero’s comment is similar’s to bexley, @ 54.

On games, I’m afraid i have little experience (a couple of hours of Wolfenstein 3D back in the early 90s), so I’m looking for clarification. In first-person shooters we’ve got: 1) the protagonist, 2) a bunch of bad guys, who could be legion if you’ve got to work your way up through 10 levels of play in order to get a gold start, and 3) NPCs, who can be of various types, with some quite narrowly defined and in role while others rather capacious and demanding. We’ve also got the game-space, which varies from game to game as appropriate, and we’ve got resources which the protagonist can acquire, sometimes with the help of NPCs. I’d assume there are also Bad Things, which can harm or impede the protagonist, but which aren’t fatal in the way a Bad Guy can be.

Anything else?

62

Lacero 08.28.15 at 7:08 pm

I actually didn’t read the comments on the other post, and didn’t read it at all until this one referenced it, so I was unaware of the amount of history here. Sorry for reminding you of it Belle!

I feel I should contribute something to the important subject of NPCs to make amends.

@53
The female characters in DragonAge:Inquisition didn’t strike me as very inoffensive. I mean Sera must be the most offensive person in the entire game! Both to the other characters and to the player having to put up with her.

But then I suppose the companions aren’t quite true npcs, they’re too fleshed out and meaningful. Same goes for Pillars of Eternity. The companions are extremely well written, male or female, but as in any work of linear fiction you have characters with detail and ones left as functional stereotypes. Barkeepers selling you a bed and exclaiming about how clean their inn is don’t need to do more than the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, and narratively I think there’s a strong argument for them doing little so as to focus on the story.

Leaving narrative and looking at the gameplay side what little substance there is vanishes. Even companions stand around waiting for you to trigger their excellent characterful writing, with a big gamey speech bubble if they have something “new” to say. The NPC has to stay out of the way of the game, and very few games base their fun on interacting with NPCs. One exception that this audience may be less aware of is SpyParty (http://www.spyparty.com/), the player has to pretend to be an NPC and fool the second player. Or he gets sniped.

The technology for this kind of thing is quite hard to make so there aren’t many examples of making believable behaviour a core mechanic in a game. I hope we see more as the tools for making games improve, and they are improving at a near exponential rate.

However if I was feeling misanthropic I might suggest technology isn’t the sole barrier people sometimes think. NPCs behave in the predictable, shallow way they do because that is what people expect. Not what gamers expect in games, what people expect. Every time a societal decision is reduced to profit/loss maths in the media it treats people as shallow NPCs. Entertainment is often based around the structure and “work” of a society and as ours is based on numerical transactions it shouldn’t be too surprising to see that duplicated.

63

Z 08.28.15 at 8:14 pm

“People whom you can treat as means, not ends-in-themselves, without feeling guilty because they themselves have no ends to aim for other than to facilitate your gameplay.”

Yeah, I never reached that point.

Back when I played video games (in the late 80s/early 90s), I had very serious moral qualms about killing NPC, even when this was the aim of the game or at least an essential part of it, as soon as they would exhibit behaviors of self-preservation (running away from you, fighting back…). Why, after all, would I increase the level of suffering of a world, even a fictional one? And who was I to declare that they had no ends to aim for other than being killed for my entertainment?

About the NPC analogy, this has always been my reaction when confronted with standard utilitarian argument. Whenever I hear someone telling me that of course choice X caused a great deal of suffering to people Y but that it was probably still justified on utilitarian ground all in all, I want to ask who is doing the counting, and whether people Y are entitled to carry a similar computation about the speaker.

64

The Temporary Name 08.28.15 at 8:42 pm

Just this morning a clothing designer told me about meeting photographers in Los Angeles who were unfailingly warm and helpful until business was over, at which point you became invisible.

65

JanieM 08.28.15 at 9:13 pm

Just this morning a clothing designer told me about meeting photographers in Los Angeles who were unfailingly warm and helpful until business was over, at which point you became invisible.

The same is true of the clerks at my local Barnes & Noble. In my experience a lot of professional friendliness is just that: professional, not personal.

66

The Temporary Name 08.28.15 at 9:19 pm

It HAS to be true of clerks: there’s immediate business in front of them to deal with. It’s more surprising and obvious in people you’ve shared names and work and opinions with in a two-person sit-down.

67

JanieM 08.28.15 at 9:45 pm

No it doesn’t have to be true; I’m not talking about when they’re waiting on the next customer, I’m talking about seeing them on the street, or at the local diner, or at some other store. And I’m talking about people I see a couple of times a week, not someone who just shared a glance with me over the cash register and never saw me again.

But I can see this will go nowhere, so I’m done. I should have stayed away from this thread in the first place.

68

The Temporary Name 08.28.15 at 9:51 pm

Clarification helped me, for what it’s worth.

69

Fuzzy Dunlop 08.29.15 at 2:47 am

Z @62 and others: “ I had very serious moral qualms about killing NPC, even when this was the aim of the game or at least an essential part of it, as soon as they would exhibit behaviors of self-preservation (running away from you, fighting back…).

I think the issue is more that many of the NPCs that populate a game world are scantily-written and are very transient presences in the story–your concern with them is limited to a particular transaction and after that you pretty much know that they’ll have nothing to say to you and vice versa. So you follow through with these transactions mechanically, saving your emotional investment for less transient characters–this is not so much about changing your own character’s behavior towards them as it is a meta-textual (or rather meta-game) distancing. On the other hand, if you have the choice of killing the NPC to complete a certain quest, that adds a lot more substance to the interaction and makes you think about it more (even if that substance is limited to the question of what moral code the player character adheres to). Zoe’s comment seems to apply not to NPCs you kill so much as to the multitude of characters where you don’t have any such fraught interactions–it’s not that your character is more likely to actively mistreat or harm these characters, it’s that you as a player have about as much emotional investment in the interaction as you do interacting with a vending machine, and a similar sense of entitlement.

It’s interesting that in both the case of the companion cube, and apparently also The Totem that Belle mentioned above, the ‘NPCs’ stay with the PC (player’s character) for a long time and/or are part of the game-play, and that is what humanizes them beyond reasonable expectations. A cube that you carry around for a long time is more human in a game than a human who walks on and off the stage, and who you know has only a couple lines of dialog (no matter how big a contribution they make to your ostensible quest). The real interaction for the player is not the superficial one with the characters but the indirect one with the game’s authors–all highly-engaged players are meta-gaming in a certain sense. (And I would say that it’s a rule of good game writing that the extent of an NPC’s contribution to your quest should be proportional to their presence in the game in other ways–a helper character who gives you really important help should not just appear, help you, then disappear, they should have a prolonged presence–even if it’s an indirect presence–in the game.)

70

Belle Waring 08.29.15 at 3:07 am

lacero, I apologize for biting your head off.

71

gianni 08.29.15 at 4:38 am

The last post on this theme was hilarious. Laugh out loud hilarious.

I think that the analogy itself is excellent, but it probably loses a lot of that ‘grok’ factor when you have to explain the concept of NPCs.

72

Meredith 08.29.15 at 5:12 am

Maybe like Janie M: I have nothing to say here except hello to Belle. Good to hear from you even if I have little idea or interest what this is all about. These games have left me cold since Mario, but that’s me.

73

js. 08.29.15 at 5:40 am

I mostly came on here to make an off-topic Game Theory reference (I mean, someone had to!), but I am genuinely curious why online environments, gaming but even otherwise, were markedly better for women in the ’90s. What changed between then and now (given that it’s the same form of interaction, it seems)?

74

Stephenson-quoter kun 08.29.15 at 9:29 am

I’m curious about the moral problem that people have with treating NPCs ‘badly’. I mean, we know that they don’t have feelings, but we still feel bad about it. When Lydia in Skyrim says (with just enough sarcasm that you know this is a multi-level in-joke) that she is “sworn to carry your burdens” every time you ask her to carry a valuable sword for you, you can’t help feeling slightly bad about it. And it’s not like I’m slacking here – I’m only asking her to carry the sword because I’m at my limit of carrying stuff, what with all the dragon bones and suits of Daedric armour. Plus she’s taller and stronger than I am!

Having said that, the entire point of first-person games is that they allow the player to be a hero. This is a privileged position. That is the entire point. Not everyone can win the 100m at the Olympics, or play Hamlet at the Globe, or be President of their local Bird-watching Society, never mind President of the United States. Games (at least, single-player games) allow everyone to be the hero, without inconveniencing another living soul. If you want to know what it feels like to be faster, stronger, more powerful than everyone else around you, there’s a game for that. (And also slower, weaker and less powerful; there are games for that too). The point being that you don’t need to cajole an entire cast of real people into creating this reality for you, which would be either oppressive or expensive or probably still both. Games allow you to play, and if we judge a person’s play by what it says about their character then we are destroying the most useful thing about it, that it allows you to put yourself in roles and scenarios that you would never encounter in real life, and behave differently to how you would normally.

This is why I’ve always been skeptical of the argument that “you are what you play”. I must have a body count totaling in the millions (OK, so this is mostly from playing a lot of Civilization, and much less from personally shooting people in the head in GTA) but I am otherwise an entirely non-violent and friendly person. The only thing I disagreed with Anita Sarkeesian about was when she claimed that experience of bad things (viz. sexism) in games is worse than in movies because the player is complicit in the act; this seemed to me to be an argument equivalent to saying that appearing as a sexist character in a play (or in an improv session) is morally bad and dangerous, which I don’t think most people would accept. I think it’s possible that treating NPCs badly in games might make us feel bad, we are perfectly entitled do it anyway, and this really isn’t harmful.

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Zamfir 08.29.15 at 9:42 am

I was abit sad about the totem pole, didn’t care about the WCC at all. That little eye made all the difference… I like Fuzzy’s point about interaction with the game makers.

It ties into Lacero’s remark that some NPCs feel alive in dialogue, but revert to objects in game play. There’s an artist behind the dialogue, but for gameplay the artistry is often more in enemies than in NPCs. While the Totem and the WCC are part of the challenge against you…

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ZM 08.29.15 at 10:34 am

Stephenson-quoter kun,

“The only thing I disagreed with Anita Sarkeesian about was when she claimed that experience of bad things (viz. sexism) in games is worse than in movies because the player is complicit in the act”

I think there is a difference between watching a character act in a film and controlling the animated character in the game. If you are controlling the character you are acting to create the story you are simultaneously watching as it is a program — but if you are watching a film your action is confined to choosing to watch a film a director and actors etc have made.

“this seemed to me to be an argument equivalent to saying that appearing as a sexist character in a play (or in an improv session) is morally bad and dangerous, which I don’t think most people would accept.”

It would depend how the sexist character is portrayed in the play — if the sexism is celebrated then the actor’s choice to play the sexist character is encouraging sexism which unless you think sexism is good or neutral then you would have to agree is bad.

“I think it’s possible that treating NPCs badly in games might make us feel bad, we are perfectly entitled do it anyway, and this really isn’t harmful.”

Well computer games are animated so making the animation you control treat another animation badly is not harming a person but it might make you more likely to treat people badly in real life.

If you think about it the great numbers of people living in poverty in the world are treated as if they are NPCs as richer people spend money on luxuries. And also we are causing climate change and risking other planetary boundaries which is treating young people and future generations as NPCs.

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Stephenson-quoter kun 08.29.15 at 11:58 am

ZM @77:

I think there is a difference between watching a character act in a film and controlling the animated character in the game. If you are controlling the character you are acting to create the story you are simultaneously watching as it is a program — but if you are watching a film your action is confined to choosing to watch a film a director and actors etc have made.

Well, yes. All that this tells us is that the player has some capability to steer the direction of the game. There is ‘a difference’ between games and films, but I’m not sure that this difference supports the claim that bad films are merely bad films but bad games are harmful.

Well computer games are animated so making the animation you control treat another animation badly is not harming a person but it might make you more likely to treat people badly in real life.

Or it might not. There are equally plausible arguments that, by allowing you to explore an act and its consequences, it might make you less likely to do it in real life. (In either case, better that the exploration happens in a world that doesn’t have dangerous consequences for other people).

It would depend how the sexist character is portrayed in the play — if the sexism is celebrated then the actor’s choice to play the sexist character is encouraging sexism which unless you think sexism is good or neutral then you would have to agree is bad.

So we can’t have art that portrays bad things, unless those bad things are accompanied with a clear moral message to tell people how to feel about it? And anyone who participates in such art is morally responsible for perpetuating those bad things in society (“the actor’s choice… is encouraging sexism”)? I think we can credit the audience with enough intelligence to understand the difference between a portrayal and the actor’s own opinions, just as we should be able to understand the difference between play and reality in games.

If you think about it the great numbers of people living in poverty in the world are treated as if they are NPCs as richer people spend money on luxuries. And also we are causing climate change and risking other planetary boundaries which is treating young people and future generations as NPCs.

Treating them as NPCs would, in many cases, be an improvement! NPCs in Sim City or Civilization often seem to get a better deal out of their simulated governments than real people do from theirs.

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Lacero 08.29.15 at 12:55 pm

While it may seem that doing something affects people more than watching it, the studies that have been done show that the interface differences in games distance the player from the events in the game more than in movies.

The active thought that the player must engage in means the fact it isn’t real is always present in their mind. In TV and film this doesn’t seem to be the case.

That said I don’t play GTA and I don’t feel I’m missing anything.

Belle, apology more than accepted. I’ve gain too much joy from reading your putdowns on this site and I was probably due some karmic retribution :)

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Belle Waring 08.29.15 at 2:01 pm

Stephenson-quoter-kun: treating NPCs like NPCs is fine morally, obviously. It wouldn’t be a good analogy otherwise. Having said that there are plenty of cases where you do feel badly for the NPCs–as you say. But you probably feel worse about burdening or allowing to be killed or killing someone you have either spent time with or have intense interactions with than you do burdening etc. the numbered faceless in a turn of Civilization. And if, as a gamer, it isn’t the most fun-sounding idea to you to play a game in which you torture strangers to death (people don’t make games this bad, but imagine the Saw horror franchise made choose-your-own-adventure)–and I assume this isn’t fun sounding–surely it’s in part because your choices would be constrained among morally repulsive things? Being a leader who wants to lead your country to Alpha Centauri gives you the fig-leaf of a good motive, and games like that also maximally distance you from the bloodshed.

Sort of crosswise to this thought: if a game allows bad things [things we would consider bad were they happening IRL] then gamers will do them. The Sims is a gruesome survival horror game for some people, but it’s hilarious! In part because you are not doing what the game wants–it’s the breakiness that’s funny.

Having said which, I think there is something to the notion that video games are an art form that is unique, precisely because it makes some choices available to you and not others. Could you nuke someone but then also make it off-planet in the end in Civ IV? No, right? The game The Sims tells you that you are playing it wrong when you engineer a death by drowning to your new family of Sims. It penalizes you. I think people playing GTAV are rewarded for making choices we normally regard as unmitigatedly bad, or valorizible only within the context of strained thought experiments (like when you need to carjack someone to get your daughter to the hospital in a place where no one can understand you but you know the roads well.) Sarkeesian may not present this point to its best effect, but there is a point along these lines.

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Belle Waring 08.29.15 at 2:14 pm

ZM, my man! Look, I am saying this rather than ignoring the points you made above because I care about you, even given our tenuous internet-based interactions. If one of my friends told me the things you just did, I would say, “dude I’m worried about you.” I don’t want to argue you out of your specific points about Newsom or something, because that won’t be productive. But, if you are a person who, like me, has struggled with mental illness, and who, like me, needs to take lame psychiatric medicine all the time or some of the time, then make sure you’re doing those things? There is no shame in that game: I am taking 3 kinds of antidepressant and one anti-anxiety at this very moment! I have taken anti-psychotics, and they fucking suck, and I hated it, but it was necessary. In my family, we think people who’ve never had to go to the psych ward are lame and boring. So, seriously, maybe check in with your friendly local doctor? You’re a smart person but it’s so hard to outsmart your brain sometimes. I don’t mean to offend you at all, just, I’m worried about you, dude.

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Richard M 08.29.15 at 2:22 pm

There is an alternative three-letter acronym for a game character; MOB, standing for MObile Object.

It’s interesting that exactly the same thing can be considered either an object that moves, or an unplayed character.

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Belle Waring 08.29.15 at 2:38 pm

Thanks Rich, that is interesting. And thanks for accepting my apology, lacero. The anima Sword Art Online is fun in part because it depends heavily on the familiar contours of a fantasy-style MMORPG. It is set in a near-future in which the only serious tech innovations are VR gaming, Oculus Rift-style, and medicine, so everything looks the same. Every player gets trapped in a new MMORPG, and grinding for gold killing boar becomes a deadly disaster. Of the 10,000 people trapped, 2,000 die on the first day. There is a point at which some strategists want to use NPC villagers as bait, and some people strongly disagree even though they know no human will die. It’s under-explored, though. Proving you were real in an environment of Turing-test-passing, but not sentient, automata, would be weird.

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Belle Waring 08.29.15 at 2:42 pm

Hm, “people don’t make games this bad” should maybe be “AAA companies don’t make good-looking, complex games this bad,” because people make creepy steam games that suck. Even there I’d think we’d have read bitching. Wait, I’ve got it: Dexter, the game where you torture and kill all and only remorseless, seasoned serial killers of children, because fuck those guys.

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Patrick 08.29.15 at 2:56 pm

To the extent that Sarkeesian is saying that games “reward” you for doing literally anything the game permits you to do, because experimenting and figuring out what happens when you try something is “fun” and “fun” is the reward a game gives, I think she’s almost 100% correct, particularly in the context of sandbox or puzzle games.

Where I get off the bus is her entire theory of human communication. Her videos treat meaning like it’s something that inherently exists in a work when that work is interpreted within a cultural context. As if meaning were like nutritional content. Given that you are a panda bear with a panda bear’s dietary needs, the nutritional value of this cheeseburger is such and such relative to your biology, and I am teaching you how to recognize this.

But meaning doesn’t work that way. The interpreter of a piece of media isn’t interpreting it wrong if he takes away something other than the meaning that would be placed on it by a purported plurality of his cultural cohort. We come to media with only that cultural baggage that has actually made it into our heads, and even that is diluted by the personal baggage we carry with us. Meaning is a varied issue even when a work remains fixed, and determining meaning is essentially an exercise in estimating how others think and feel. It’s essentially an empirical question.

In other words: A while back she argued that True Blood was questionable in its treatment of homosexuality, because it clearly created an analogy between the plight of it’s fictional vampires, and real life homosexual rights issues. She felt that this was problematic because it was analogizing homosexuals to bloodthirsty predatory monsters. And I can understand how that’s one possible interpretation of the story! But it’s certainly not the only interpretation. Just ask anyone who’s read Anne Rice or played Vampire the Masquerade or read any of the billions of “will they won’t they” female-aimed urban fantasy novels about Strong Female Protagonists and sexy werewolves and vampires (spoiler- they will). That fandom… the True Blood fandom… is liable to have a very different interpretation, and in fact are likely to see the analogy as a very flattering fantasy, and not insulting at all. You know, like how very few real life people wake up and go, “wait, X-Men analogizes gay rights to FILTHY MUTANTS! I AM SO ANGRY AT THIS INSULT!” Nobody who reads X-Men comics thinks that way.

So for me, Sarkeesian provides great insight into how some people see the world- a fact that I think is incredibly important for me to consider when I write things (you haven’t read anything I’ve written, I suck, this is why I have a day job). I just wish she was operating on a model that would concede the same thing to me.

But what do I know, I’m just some guy who always lets the guy’s wife through in Papers Please, and can think of no game more traumatic than Shelter. Obviously I’m just bad at media.

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ZM 08.29.15 at 3:11 pm

Stephenson-quoter kun,

“There is ‘a difference’ between games and films, but I’m not sure that this difference supports the claim that bad films are merely bad films but bad games are harmful.”

I don’t make that claim, I think films can be harmful. An example of this is The Act Of Killing where the men who killed the communists were influenced by Holywood movies and enjoy theatrically re-enacting the murders they committed in real life.

“So we can’t have art that portrays bad things, unless those bad things are accompanied with a clear moral message to tell people how to feel about it? And anyone who participates in such art is morally responsible for perpetuating those bad things in society”

I would phrase the question as “Should we have art that uncritically portrays bad things without morality?” Normatively I think art should be moral really and I do not think evil should be portrayed without being sanctioned in the text itself. But governance of this would no doubt be difficult.

“I think we can credit the audience with enough intelligence to understand the difference between a portrayal and the actor’s own opinions, just as we should be able to understand the difference between play and reality in games.”

But I don’t agree the question is about just understanding the difference between art and reality, as you learn that at quite a young age in childhood. I think it is about recognising that art and society interact, and judging whether artistic representations might contribute to and encourage social wrongs and even evils.

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Richard M 08.29.15 at 3:37 pm

On Art and Morality, I think there is a genuine dynamic where Captain America is a good guy, and would never torture. And would get into gun-fights more days than not, but never kill (and hardly ever die).

One of those things is obviously unrealistic, an artifice of the story. Both being taken to be equally so gives you Gitmo.

Maybe there is a viable principle that it is a good thing to write true things. And if you have certain views, the things you think are true will match that. And there are other things, like vampires and orcs, that are clearly not true. So what you write about them means either nothing, or perhaps the opposite of the obvious meaning.

But it seems never a good idea to make anything about that process a concrete rule; defection is just too easy to gain anything from its enforcement.

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Plume 08.29.15 at 4:13 pm

I think we, especially in America, have been deluding ourselves for far too long about the effects of mass media — including games. It’s time to take a seriously close look at what the endless barrage of violent images is doing to human beings in this culture. We’ve already made up our minds, officially, anyway, about sexual images — IMO, through extreme errors in judgment, burdened with current religious superstitions and our Puritan past. We have a far, far greater need to scrutinize violence, and I’d argue our rating system should be thrown out and replaced by one that concentrated on violence rather than sex.

“X” (or NC-17) rated should be for movies like “Saw”, and for sadism and gratuitous violence in general. Creating this content for profit just makes it that much more despicable, IMO. Humans engaged in mutually agreed to sex shouldn’t warrant anything above, perhaps, PG, while the depiction of humans slaughtering each other should be given the “pornographic” status.

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ZM 08.29.15 at 4:25 pm

Belle Waring,

In 2006 I had a psychotic episode the day after listening to Will Oldham’s Cursed Sleep EP and thinking it seemed to refer to me somehow. In the years afterwards listening to his music made me unwell and it seemed like it might somehow refer to me but I couldn’t be sure and would become unwell.

I emailed Will Oldham in late 2013 and due to events afterwards I was unwell a lot from July 2014-August 2015, I am now taking a higher amount of medication which is working okay at present.

I do not know what to do about this situation as I wrote to Will Oldham again in late 2014 but he wrote some replies then stopped when I wrote to his brother Ned Oldham who would not reply at all, and when I wrote to Drag City they were not very helpful either. This is very unfair I think and is very upsetting for me.

As I am on a high amount of medication now I can think about this for a longer period of time for the first time since 2006 so I can try to write my reasons down, but having to do this is upsetting too and it makes me angry as well and I also feel helpless.

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Belle Waring 08.29.15 at 4:34 pm

I think that videogames’ status as art makes them of necessity open to the types of critique Sarkeesian makes. I imagine we would all agree that some games are more violent than others, and that some have lame lore while others have excellent story-lines, and that some are more intuitive and immersive than others, so I don’t think we can avoid thinking some are more sexist than others. Only some serious GGers think no game ever is sexist. But if we accept that some are moreso than others, then we have to give reasons why. And “the way female NPCs are treated” seems like an obvious data point or trend to point to whether/how much the game is sexist. Are female NPCs all hyper-sexualised in a given game? [Cough 98% are cough.] Is a strip club or ye oldene stripping brothel the setting for major game incidents or story lines? Because we recognize that as fanservicy sexism when it occurs in TV shows. Are all the defaults male, like protagonist choice, or fellow CoD squad-mates? Is there a female kick-ass character, but only one, because she’s infertile and every other woman is interned in a pregnancy camp in a bid to save the human race? Do we need to kill some chainmail-bikinied chick to physically block the turning of gears that will otherwise close before we make it through? What other sorts of evidence could we provide for the claim “game x is more sexist than game y,” once we are willing to grant that even a few games are sexist, a claim almost no one would deny?

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Belle Waring 08.29.15 at 4:36 pm

I understand, ZM, and you don’t need to talk about things that throw you way off-balance, mental-health wise. I just wanted to say I care, and want you to be able to do whatever will get your head in a better space.

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Plume 08.29.15 at 4:46 pm

Belle@90,

As mentioned above, I’m not a gamer. The idea of spending my time that way just never appealed to me. But unless I misunderstand you, and that wouldn’t be the first time, it seems you do spend time gaming.

I don’t get that. The story-lines and depictions strike me as worse than just “sexist.” From your descriptions and others I’ve read, they’re full-on misogynistic. Violently so. Why do you want to even be associated with an industry that seems to have very little problem repeatedly creating and selling such garbage?

Changing that culture, both from the corporate end and the gamers themselves, seems like an impossible task. If you and others are in the midst of doing this, I respect the hell out of that. But it’s kind of like, why would you want to be a part of an industry that seems to value you even less than the NPCs in their games?

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Stephenson-quoter kun 08.29.15 at 5:03 pm

Belle @80:

. The Sims is a gruesome survival horror game for some people, but it’s hilarious! In part because you are not doing what the game wants–it’s the breakiness that’s funny.

Yes, and the fact that they play the game ‘wrong’ shows that people who play games are much more interested in figuring out how the game works than they’re given credit for in the popular imagination.

Having said which, I think there is something to the notion that video games are an art form that is unique, precisely because it makes some choices available to you and not others. Could you nuke someone but then also make it off-planet in the end in Civ IV? No, right? The game The Sims tells you that you are playing it wrong when you engineer a death by drowning to your new family of Sims. It penalizes you. I think people playing GTAV are rewarded for making choices we normally regard as unmitigatedly bad, or valorizible only within the context of strained thought experiments (like when you need to carjack someone to get your daughter to the hospital in a place where no one can understand you but you know the roads well.)

In GTA, you are given incentives to do all kinds of terrible things, and if you want to progress in the game then you need to do them. What do we learn from this? That shooting and killing people is fun? Not really – we learn that incentives are very powerful, which is pretty much the standard left-liberal account of why crime and poverty go together. The game can help you understand ways in which incentives can override what we think of as being our normal moral or ethical principles. We don’t like to be confronted with the idea that, if placed under the same kinds of incentives ourselves, we might behave as these characters do, but games are a good way of understanding how we might react, and why other people for whom crime is a way of life behave as they do.

We get the same thing in more abstract strategy games too. One of my most uncanny experiences came from playing Rome: Total War. The strategy side of the game is a simple Civ-esque game of resource management – capture territory, construct buildings that improve the productive capacity of your lands, entertain the populace or train military units. Problem is, there’s a limit to the size or quantity of temples etc. that one can build to entertain the populace, but no limit on the size of population in a given territory. As the population grows, you need to maintain larger and larger garrisons in your cities to keep order, and this is both expensive and strategically unhelpful (you want those garrisons on the Rhine or in Persia or something, not suppressing riots in Spain). So the easiest thing to do is whack taxes all the way up, withdraw the garrison, and wait two turns for the inevitable revolt, then send in the army and massacre the local population (you’re given three options – occupy, enslave or exterminate; extermination subdues future rebellion most effectively). I figured this tactic out by following simple incentives – how to maintain an optimal balance of people to the resources necessary to keep them happy, whilst deploying my army toward the goal of imperial expansion – and ended up with a strategy of large-scale mass murder. The lesson here is not what fun it is to massacre people, but “oh, so that’s why imperialism is bad”, all the more visceral for the experience of the mechanisms at work.

As it happens, I went to a very interesting event last night which featured several discussions of video games, with different speakers classifying games as ‘art’, ‘design’ and – most interestingly for me – ‘thought experiment’ (yes, there was a discussion of the trolley problem). Jordan Erica Webber described games in terms of their ability to allow us to consider abstract moral problems that are difficult to approach as pure thought experiments and clearly unethical if done with real people; in a game we can see how certain combinations of incentives, moral frames and narratives act to produce different outcomes. This provides material for academic study (some games record and report back the player’s choices), but I think it’s interesting and useful just for individuals to study their own choices.

All of which leads me to the belief that exploring morally dubious scenarios in video games does not make a person any more likely to act out those scenarios in real life. For most people, the incentive structures which produce the behaviour in the game just aren’t there on a daily basis. To the extent that we do face such incentives in our lives, games can be a good way of understanding our own reactions to them. Should I ever be appointed World Emperor, I will be much more skeptical of my own motivations precisely because games have shown me how easily I can be manipulated by facts, figures and incentives. I’m not saying that anyone who runs for office should play SimCity first and disclose their results, but that’s only because I think the experience matters more than what score you got.

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Patrick 08.29.15 at 5:09 pm

Belle Waring- A big part of this debate actually centers on this:

“Because we recognize that as fanservicy sexism when it occurs in TV shows.”

The extent to which we ought to consider fanservice to be a form of sexism. A lot of people don’t view fanservice as sexism at all. They figure, if the industry reflexively gives more fanservice to men than women, that’s sexism- in the distribution, not in the fact of the fanservice itself.

Like, its the difference between saying that it’s bad that the glee club orders pepperoni pizza all the time and never buys anything for its vegetarian members, versus saying that the glee club should start ordering vegetarian pizza because pepperoni is murder.

This is entirely separate from what I was saying earlier though. Just, to be clear, this issue isn’t connected to my previous post.

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Plume 08.29.15 at 5:20 pm

Apologies if this was already linked to — from The Guardian:

Anita Sarkeesian Interview

Sarkeesian, media critic and executive director of the nonprofit and video web series Feminist Frequency, has spent the past few years of her life at the centre of a firestorm in the gaming community – one that brings together misogyny, technology and a cultural shift in an industry so huge it now outperforms Hollywood. In videos that discuss misogyny in video games and widespread tropes that diminish women, Sarkeesian – named one of the 100 most influential people of 2015 by Time magazine – talks to the camera, with a commentary that runs the gamut from feminist theory to historical analysis. Her videos are smart, incisive and much needed in an industry in which women are often treated as little more than background decoration or damsels in distress.

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Plume 08.29.15 at 5:22 pm

Belle,

Please ignore my previous questions. The above interview, what Sarkeesian has gone though, her goals, etc. etc. . . . make them (my questions) look beyond tone-deaf in context.

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Bill Benzon 08.29.15 at 7:14 pm

Did you hear about the hitch-hiking robot that got vandalized at about the same time that Cecil the lion was killed and generated a raft of online commentary and dismay?

http://videos.theconference.se/kate-darling-robots-humans-and

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Matt 08.29.15 at 7:52 pm

Dexter was creepy enough as a TV show. I watched multiple seasons with my sister because she really liked it, and it was compelling, but it was impossible to cheer for Dexter. I can’t enjoy vigilante killings no matter how evil the victims were. There are some things that most people regard as categorically evil, but vigilantes torturously murdering murderers (and potential child molesters, and people who happened to be near murderers when Dexter showed up…*) is apparently a delicious gray area for most people. I tried to break out of the frame by joking that the sequel to Dexter would star his son, now in middle school, as he killed the pets of other (bad) children to punish them. You know, future vigilante serial killer in training, starting out with pets and gradually working up to people, with the same BS justification that makes people cheer for Dexter. My sister just thought I was twisted for even talking about children killing pets. The frame stayed unbroken.

I grew up in a household where my parents tried to shield their children from coarsening media (including depictions of violence) up until late in high school. On TV I was allowed mostly a curated selection from PBS and in computer games it was puzzles and simulations that weren’t war-centered. The Matrix was the first big rated-R-for-violence movie I saw, at age 18, and it was amazing, but it also gave me cold sweats and a churning stomach as I watched the violence unfold with my hands clenched to the arms of my seat. Most of my fellow nerds at college loved playing FPS games against each other but I didn’t want to shoot people in the head even virtually. It’s still hard for me not to empathize with characters from novels and NPCs.

*And accused terrorists, the family members of accused terrorists, people who spend time near accused terrorists, cheerleaders for terrorists, and everyone who is close to cheerleaders for terrorists… Not that a President of the USA could ever be remotely comparable to a serial killer. Among other things, the President is “the person who is definitionally-not-evil when killing with his executive powers.”

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Matt 08.29.15 at 8:32 pm

At the risk of just flattering myself, and the further risk that most thoughts about one’s own mental states are not correct… does it come down to how comprehensive a theory of mind a person has? Apparently mine is overactive in that I identify even with fictions.

When I was a kid there were older twin brothers across the street who developed horrible elaborate ways to kill insects and slugs. It horrified me. But they always acted kind and loving to their pet dog, and they even cried when one of their teddy bears got “hurt.” Do some people just have empathy systems that are firing too infrequently — they sense pain/distress in things that look familiar but fail to sense it in the unfamiliar? So they’ll torture slugs but coddle stuffed animals, really connect with peers of the same sex but treat women like NPCs?

This has recalled another weird memory: I think I saw these same slug-torturing brothers engaged in a weird, abusive kind of sexualized play with a girl. I hadn’t thought about it in a long time until this thread. I think the boys were maybe twelve, which means I would have been 9, and they had a girl from their school over to play. We were in a free for all water fight outside in our bathing suits. One of the brothers discarded his squirt gun after a while and started just spraying the rest of us with the garden hose. After a while the other brother got the girl in a headlock and held her as the hose-wielding brother sprayed her relentlessly. Then the girl was wrestled to the ground and held as the hose sprayed continuously against her crotch for a minute or two. In my 9 year old mind it was just very odd, not horrible like the slug torture chambers. I mean surely if the girl hated it she would have screamed and cried and tried to bite… thought 9 year old me. Instead she just tried to wriggle out of it and kept laughing loudly. But I don’t remember her coming over to play again.

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Brett Dunbar 08.29.15 at 8:40 pm

Nukes are pretty nasty weapons in Civilisation IV leaving behind a horrible mess but IIRC don’t prevent you winning a space race victory. Looking at some wikis on the subject this seems to be correct.

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Colin R 08.29.15 at 9:11 pm

What’s interesting to me about Grand Theft Auto games is that the growing gap between gameplay and story experience. The gameplay remains as antisocial as ever; you drive around (fantastic) environments, and while you don’t have to cause mayhem, it’s highly encouraged and rewarded–you pretty much have to steal cars to get anywhere, and the pedestrians and other drivers seem programmed to infuriate you into running them down when they get in your way. Like why is that person stopping for a red light when you want to drive 100 mph through the intersection??

It’s not very socially redeeming, but I wonder if it’s useless. Is it helpful or harmful to be able to explore sociopathy and violence in a basically consequence-free environment? Maybe both?

But anyway, the stories themselves seem designed to punish you for enjoying the sociopathy that they serve up for your enjoyment. The game is peppered with ‘jokes’ about gamers being antisocial losers; the protagonists are deliberately humorless and unlikable, and all of their victories in their criminal enterprises are hollow; they learn nothing and lose much. And sometimes the people who make the game seem to take sadistic pleasure in making the player uncomfortable. In one series entry, a necessary quest requires you to torture one innocent middle-eastern man and murder another on behalf of the government; since you’re required to actually play through these events, not just witness them in cutscenes.

I like the analogy. I think that maybe the GTA makers are more aware of this phenomenon of treating other people like NPCs. Because anybody who drives totally does this sometimes–we reduce all the other human beings to just cars, obstacles in the road.

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Lynne 08.29.15 at 9:23 pm

After reading that interview with Anita Sarkeesian, I, too, would like to know why things were better for women back in the ’90s. Wow.

When I play video games, I never do it online, I just poke along here at my computer, and I think I’ll keep it that way.

102

Fuzzy Dunlop 08.30.15 at 1:22 am

Stephenson quoter-kun @78 So we can’t have art that portrays bad things, unless those bad things are accompanied with a clear moral message to tell people how to feel about it?

But I wonder how many of us have actually seen art/media that portrays bad things front-and-center without moral commentary? It’s so natural for us to conjure this hypothetical, but how common is it to actually see? I wonder if we wouldn’t be more shocked and affected by loving depictions of evil than we realize?

and @75 I’m curious about the moral problem that people have with treating NPCs ‘badly’… Having said that, the entire point of first-person games is that they allow the player to be a hero.

Part of being the hero is being good, being able to do great good without our actions having other consequences.

Patrick @94 They figure, if the industry reflexively gives more fanservice to men than women, that’s sexism- in the distribution, not in the fact of the fanservice itself.

Sure, but if the issue is distribution, that issue exists at the level of an individual game just much as at the level of the industry–many individual games are sexist, and that makes them inaccessible/undesirable to a lot of people for no good reason. The interesting thing about fan service though is that it’s so completely incidental to other aspects of how the character is portrayed–like, in anime, semi-pornographic ‘shots’ of a character that has mainly non-sexual interactions with the other characters. (The sexuality is in the syuzhet but not in the fabula.) That might automatically demean the character to a lot of viewers, especially given that the unbalanced distribution makes it look like something that is done to female characters to put them in their place in a male-dominated world, rather than just a way of displaying beautiful bodies.

103

ZM 08.30.15 at 2:38 am

Belle Waring,

Thank you.

Matt,

“does it come down to how comprehensive a theory of mind a person has? Apparently mine is overactive in that I identify even with fictions.”

Yes me too, I am the sort of person that covers my eyes in bits when watching some movies. When I saw Dancer In The Dark when it came out I was so upset that when I was leaving the cinema the usher was concerned and asked me if I was alright.

When I was around 16-17 I realised I could read and watch things differently so they did not overwhelm me as much or I feel caught up and consumed by the events or author’s view point so much, which was in a more observational and analytical way. This was quite a strange thing for me at the time as I could sort of move between the different modes of perception and for me there is quite a gulf between the modes of sympathy and observation.

When I watched Dancer In The Dark since it had Bjork in we had loved It’s Oh So Quiet and had hoped for her to do a musical since then, I decided at the start to watch it from the sympathetic perspective. This proved to be a great mistake as Lars Von Trier made an awful musical tragedy (which I think was mixing up genres as you should have a chorus for a musical tragedy not the main characters singing and the film and songs should have been more formal to be a tragedy too). I read Bjork fought with him on set about the film. Afterwards I promised myself I would kick Lars Von Trier in the shins if I was ever within reach to do so, but unfortunately only the director Abas Kiarostami has sat within my kicking reach and as I like his films I did not want to kick him, although the trajectory of his films did go strangely after The Wind Will Carry Us.

I think this is why I had such an affinity for the Iranian movies of that time, as in the work of Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami they often used elements of the real — which being real deserved sympathy much more than a fiction like Dancer In The Dark — but they were also reflexive and called attention to the film making process and form and their own role.

While I do not play video games anymore — I am the most unfortunate person as I broke my elbow due to video games as I tripped up over my socks when I was around 11 going to either watch my brother play video games or take a turn playing video games (we don’t agree on this) — video games would be a very interesting form in which to bring in reflexivity.

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Peter T 08.30.15 at 11:26 am

In the first game I designed (table-top RPG) there were huge fluffy kittens near the beginning. If you hurt a kitten very bad things happened to you. This was effective in teaching players to be cautious about indiscriminate violence. But the first players then lured newbies to their doom (“go on, whack a kitten! You get loads of xp!”).

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Belle Waring 08.30.15 at 2:27 pm

Matt @99: that anecdote is kind of totally pretty fucked up. I poured salt on a slug once because they were eating my moms garden, and then immediately wished I hadn’t, with no way to fix it other than to kill the slug in a hurry to shorten the agony of its flesh melting away like acid had been poured on it. And slugs, like tarantulas, are in the “too big to kill” category. There’s too much goo and stuff left over. You just want them to go somewhere else. And scorpions, bleh. I am ok with the snakes and poisonous spiders native to the South, but I feel like I couldn’t ever live in the Southwest. I can remember staying in a backpacker hotel on Koh Tao in Thailand, which had no power after 10 pm when the generator went off. The common bathroom contained what I discovered to be my least favorite showering spot: a place with three or four scorpions on the walls at any given time. And going to use the toilet at night with a flashlight was not relaxing. I’ve never really known anyone to get stung by one, though (touch wood!).

106

Plume 08.30.15 at 2:42 pm

Belle,

Major props for your discussion about mental illness, and I think your words of wisdom for ZM are spot on. Much courage. Like Anita Sarkeesian.

107

dsquared 08.30.15 at 3:35 pm

God all these references to video games are confusing. Could someone please summarise this thread into a set of notes and then share them with me?

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Belle Waring 08.31.15 at 12:24 am

I’ll get right on it.

109

Lyle 08.31.15 at 4:28 am

Maybe Cliff’s Notes still pays? I’d buy it.

110

Sancho 08.31.15 at 4:30 am

Without combing the comments, can someone reassure me that among them is an indignant rant about tabletop gaming and the roots of NPCs?

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ThM 08.31.15 at 1:21 pm

I don’t think anyone has referenced Brian Tomasik’s “Do Video-Game Characters Matter Morally?” yet, so here goes:

http://reducing-suffering.org/do-video-game-characters-matter-morally/

112

Kiwanda 09.01.15 at 5:57 pm

NPCs play crucial roles in giving you quests, telling you where to go next, giving you valuable items, and anything else you can think of—in Grand theft Auto V it’s possible to have sex with prostitutes and then beat them till they give you your money back, something which inspired much free advertising protest

A gamer called Many a True Nerd has done interesting work in killing every single person possible in Fallout 3….I strongly recommend watching the video; it is hilarious, if somewhat gruesome (obviously).

I’m not a gamer, but I have the impression that GTA involves a lot of killing, so beating up prostitutes to steal from them is arguably mild by comparison. But maybe the prostitutes are damsels in distress, so their suffering is more important than that of men getting run over etc. It’s not clear to me why a killing spree can be hilarious, but a prostitute beat-down not so much. (And such reactions are likely mine as well.)

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bob mcmanus 09.01.15 at 6:35 pm

I thought I might mention, FWIW, that some recent anime releases are playing with the concepts of NPCs and human reactions, not necessarily in any profound or feminist way. Don’t know, since I don’t watch them. Log Horizon.

This season, Overlord:

MAL blurb:”The story begins with Yggdrasil, a popular online game which is quietly shut down one day; however, the protagonist Momonga decides to not log out. Momonga is then transformed into the image of a skeleton as “the most powerful wizard.” The world continues to change, with non-player characters (NPCs) begining to feel emotion. Having no parents, friends, or place in society, this ordinary young man Momonga then strives to take over the new world the game has become.”

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bob mcmanus 09.01.15 at 7:16 pm

Take it back, I can safely assume that Overlord deals with moral questions, because that is what drama and narrative do. “Profound” is an aesthetic judgement.

Last night I watched a story about a vacuum cleaner’s unrequited love for a coffeemaker, who was in love with the cash register. The VC had to learn to respect her choice. Because they, coffeemaker and cash register, began to let their feelings degrade their work performance, humans tossed both into the landfill, where VC went to find and save her. But actually the appliances were partying in the landfill, and after getting overexcited combined into a giant appliance mecha that went on a rampage in the human city. Luckily the vacuum cleaner was struck by an energy bolt and leveled up to battle the fridge-mecha. He still didn’t get the girl.

Also last night, Takashi Miike’s Big Bang Love, gay prison romance. Excellent, and had some animated shots.

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