Editorials Features

What is Life? – A Look at Non-Playable Characters

Written by Nelson Hernandez

The latest scientific theories regarding our reality hypothesize that we aren’t real at all. In fact, we are likely holographic projected representations of data stored on a flat disc. I’m not saying that this is true, it’s just a theory.  But this could be ‘just a theory’ in the same way that evolution is ‘just a theory,’ and evolution is a damn good one.

SimCityFor the sake of the rest of this article let’s assume that this theory is true. That we are, as the theory states, holographic projections and that this is in fact our reality.  This means we’re essentially living in the craziest and most complex simulation I could possibly fathom.  Ideas regarding religion and philosophy would be turned on their head as our understanding of existence would change fundamentally.  Our creators would not be some nebulous idea of a divine creator but instead replaced by users, players.  The very concept of free will versus fate is corrupted, replaced instead by the question, “Are my actions my own or the result of scripted programs and events?”  Weirder still is the idea that someone, not programming, controls our actions.

It all starts to become a bit mind blowing and overwhelming, especially when you think about our own advances in technology, then apply this idea of living in a virtual world to video games and how we behave in them.  If art mimics life, then this is art mimicking life mimicking life because we are, in our little simulated world, building simulated worlds.  The Sims, SimCity, Civilization and even the latest Grand Theft Auto V are essentially open world simulations with programs running around and living their little program lives.

The Sims 4 high res

The background looks eerily realistic. Maybe this is us though!

For example, I know that I can feel. I feel joy, pain, anger, sorrow and everything in between.  I can think critically to solve problems and form opinions. If all I am is a program, and I can experience all of these things, what is preventing Joe Program that works at Cluckin’ Bell in San Andreas from having the same experiences?  Am I actually killing a person when I inconsiderately run him over as he walks home after a shitty day at work because he got in my way during a police pursuit?  It begs the question, “What kind of impact do my actions in a video game really have?”

Civilizations, for lack of a better world, and their cultures can rise in fall in our games, just like in real life

Civilizations, for lack of a better world, and their cultures can rise in fall in our games, just like in real life.

The simple answer: “None, they don’t think because they’re simple programs that rely on simple artificial intelligence scripts of, ‘If X happens then the program does Y. If B happens then the program does C.'”  The same could be said about us though.  For all we know, we could be slaves to these same ideas and rules, but on a larger and more complex scale.  Or maybe they’re alive, just as we are and have no idea that their world was created by us. Or maybe it’s like that cartoon Reboot or Tron!  The idea to me is fascinating on various levels and has caused me to at least reconsider how I approach a problem when I’m playing video games.  I already feel a great deal of empathy for video game characters as they behave and look more and more human, but I am curious if the idea that NPC’s could be alive would change gamer behavior on a larger scale.

Does the question of lethal versus non-lethal options to solve a problem become a question of real morality instead of a question of achievements or trophies?  Would more gamers take the pacifist route if given a choice?  Do you think it’s possible for there to be actual life in our video games?  I’m interested to know what other people think about this. Please let me know what you think in the comments!

About the author

Nelson Hernandez

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