by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
The advent of the NPC meme is curious. It’s used as a term of abuse in comment-exchanges, it has occasioned some deep hermeneutics from the cultural Left, and it’s been a cause for escalation particularly by the extreme Right. The political meme of the NPC comes from the world of gaming. It is an abbreviation of non-player character. The point of non-player characters is that they are part of a story being told for the point of the game – a person in need of help, a bartender with some information, or an opponent with a challenge. In tabletop gaming, such as Dungeons and Dragons, the NPCs are played by the Dungeon Master. In that case, there was still an interested human driving the actions of the NPCs. But with electronic games, the NPCs are directed by the computer. They have no inner life nor are they avatars for those who have them. They are merely furniture in the world of the game. Their purpose is to be there to be soaked for information, helped so that they may confer some boon, or vanquished for some treasure, as the case may be. But they have no value or purpose beyond being a foil with which players may tell their own stories.
The application of the term NPC in contemporary internet culture is predicated on the divide between player character and non-player characters. Player characters develop, and they are reasons for which the game world exists. Non-player characters are static, predictable, and mindless; again, they are mere instruments within that world. The division, then, is between those characters who, on the one hand, are conscious, have minds, and can deliberate about what they wish to do, and on the other hand, those characters who are mindless, unconscious, and do not (and perhaps cannot) deliberate about their purposes. NPCs are, then, tools, and players are those who may use them as they see fit.
It is a familiar distinction, in a sense. The old division between those who are asleep and those who are awake is one ancestor. Further, the old term of abuse ‘sheeple’ invokes the idea that there is a less-than-aware group who is systematically misled because of their incapacities or credulity. In fact, the rhetorical force of most consciousness-raising programs requires some such contrast. Enlightenment, for example, contrasts with those who labor in darkness. Being woke contrasts, again, with the slumbering. Those who have been raised up are brought out of a lower consciousness. That’s what consciousness raising is and must be. These metaphors all entail that a change has occurred, one between two contrary states of mind. Read more »