Are you an NPC?

7 months ago

NPC is an acronym that stands for non-player character. They are the AI operated characters in video games that react to input from the player. Because of the limitations on computer hardware, and the complexity of writing AI capable of reacting to players in a way that truly mimics human behavior, NPCs, or bots, are usually pretty easy to spot.

Anyone who has played a video game that includes NPCs will tell you that they are extremely formulaic and quickly become predictable in their responses. Especially older NPCs. Let’s use the primitive example of Pac-Man. In the game Pac-Man, the player is Pac-Man, the iconic yellow puck shaped man that moves about a maze gobbling up the pellets until they are all gone. Once the pellets have all been eaten up, the maze resets.

The NPCs in Pac-Man are the different colored ghosts. Each ghost in Pac-Man has a unique set of rules in how it will react to outside stimuli, or in other words, how it will react to what the player is telling Pac-Man to do through input from the joystick. The red ghost will always attempt to find the quickest way to reach Pacman, while the blue ghost uses a set of rules that actually cause it, in some instances, to run away from Pac-Man. They each use separate pre-programmed strategies to try to trap Pacman, and they never stray from these strategies.

The rules are so simple and predictable that the players who have beat Pac-Man, by playing the game to the 256th level, which is the level that crashes the game because it runs out of memory, are accomplishing this feat simply by memorizing the most effective path for each level. In other words, if you complete a level of Pacman by taking a certain route, you will know that taking that route will complete that level every single time you play it. The ghosts will never figure out your strategy no matter how many times Pac-Man takes the exact same thing route because they are responding to the actions of Pac-Man with the exact same predefined set of rules. So if you were to record the game input of someone playing a perfect Pac-Man game, you could play that input back to the game over and over again and it would always be the perfect game.

Recently people have been pointing out that some humans behave in the same way that NPCs do. They say that they aren’t reasoning through their decisions but rather feeding the outside stimuli through predefined rules and then acting accordingly. This is an interesting way of looking at people that exhibit predictable behavior. People that seem to lack creativity and whose behavior, because it is dictated by a predefined set of rules, are as easy to manipulate as the ghosts in Pac-Man. In some ways it’s hard to argue against this theory there are extremely predictable people who do seem to be reacting to stimuli using predefined rules. But if this is true, aren’t we all just NPCs? Aren’t we all just reacting to a complex set of rules, and it’s just that some people have a much simpler set of rules that make their predictable behavior easier to spot?

NPCs have evolved quite a lot since Pac-Man, in fact, the major difference between Pac-Man and the sequel Ms Pac-Man, is that the programmers added randomness to the behavior of the ghost. So while the ghost NPCs operate in a similar fashion using similar rules, in Ms Pac-Man a random change in course is added to the behavior of the NPCs so that players can’t just memorize patterns in the same way they could in Pacman. Each game is unique because the ghosts are less predictable but still predictable enough to be beaten by humans.

Today’s games use NPCs are far more complex with more sophisticated sets of rules that also utilize some level of randomness to prevent repetitive behavior to make them harder to predict, but because we are still limited by the hardware and software available in gaming systems, they still lack the same decision making power of humans. But are humans anything more than just extremely complex NPCs? Reacting to a set of rules programmed in their heads, perhaps with some randomness caused by changes in things like hormone levels, or blood sugar changes or all the other changes taking place in the the cacophony of other biological factors going on inside the body at any given moment?

I would say that the NPC theory has merit and that the difference isn’t so much that these human NPCs are just reacting to stimuli in a way that makes them separate from thinking people. That’s how all humans behave.

The difference is that some people, much like the NPCs in video games, never change their set of rules. They aren’t NPCs because they are following the predefined rules, they are NPCs because those rules never change. Just as the ghosts in Pac-Man are limited by the code that was written forty years ago, these human NPCs have their rules written in their head and never perform any upgrades. They never revisit the code that was written in their head by their parents, the media, religion or whatever influenced their set of instructions, they simply move through life and react to the stimuli using their original programming.

An NPC’s behavior is forever defined by their programmers. Sometimes NPCs are reprogrammed, just like the ghosts in Ms. Pac-Man. But an NPC will never be able to rewrite its own code. If you don’t want to be an NPC you must do what NPCs are unable to do and that is be creative. Only those who are able and willing to revisit their programming and perform necessary updates themselves will be able to rise above this predictable existence of automatic behavior of the mindless NPCs.

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