In Defense of The NPC — They’re Smarter Than You Think

The NPC (Non player character) meme has recently come to internet fame as a way of disparaging people who seem to have nothing new to offer to a conversation, generally about politics, and speak about subjects as if they were dialog trees which were just responses programmed into them. While the most frequent occurrences of the NPC come from certain sections of the political spectrum, the level designers have still populated our simulation with NPCs of many different ideologies.

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Players often find themselves going down the same paths of these dialog trees multiple times with multiple different characters, and sometimes even with the same character. This certainly can be annoying for players, but let us consider why these NPCs have decided to go away from their keyboard and just run scripts for situations where they run into players discussing politics.

Have you ever stopped and really wondered what a political conversation gets you? What is achieved by thoughtful discussion of politics? Does the world change? Have you impacted government policy by discussing it? I know we all like to tell ourselves that debate isn’t for the player you’re talking to, but for the those reading the discussion… But have you ever actually measured that? Measured how many people’s minds you’ve changed rather than who already agreed with you? And what effect would changing someones mind even have on policy? In all likelihood, the amount of policy any of us have changed by discussing these things is minuscule.

So then why are you, the player, really devoting time, energy, and thought into this? Don’t get me wrong. I do it too (I’m clearly doing it right now). There are a few reasons why, but none of them have to do with changing government policy. First, it’s very enjoyable to me. Mentally sparing is like playing Chess, Starcraft, or Street Fighter, and often leads to discussing my opponents absurdity, usually with humorous results. The risk of my own absurdity being exposed is what makes my heart beat faster, and the thrill of avoiding that is immensely rewarding. Much like any video game, the game itself is its own reward.

Also, it’s a way of building an audience. If I am arguing for things that NPCs already agree with, I can provide them with larger dialog trees, which in turn makes it more interesting for all of us. My rewards for providing additional dialog branches are getting more and more NPCs to site me, often leading to more NPCs subscribing. If my audience gets big enough, my reward can include advertiser dollars and the renown to get the word out about any future projects I might have.

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NPCs on the other hand have no interest in the game we’re playing, and aren’t likely to build an audience. Their scripts are there to achieve their other goals. They gain social capital by agreeing with their peer group. Their decision on peer group is informed by their own discovery of what they already are inclined to agree with. These inclinations can be formed early on in religious affiliations, later on in the form of indoctrination in school or college, or even programmed into them by their DNA. However those inclinations are formed, it’s important for their own well being to fit in with people they’re programmed to agree with. At the end of the day, their individual opinions about politics don’t change policy, but those opinions can cost them relationships and even jobs.

But beyond that, NPCs are still able to simulate the same feeling I get from debate by running their scripts, and getting social affirmation from their peers on running the script correctly. While this leads players to disparage NPCs for their lack of critical thought, what players fail to see is that NPCs are just unconsciously economizing on discussions that they have no real interest in. It costs time, research, and cognitive dissonance when our research conflicts with our pre-existing beliefs to get good at critical thinking, all of which you, the player, have invested in. By the way, that cognitive dissonance is your own programming warning you that you’re going off the reservation, about to disagree with the NPCs in your own peer group. If you’re not high level enough at it to reprogram the NPCs that your new argument really aligns with their other beliefs, or you can’t sway the NPCs by convincing other players, and remove some of the NPCs own cognitive dissonance, you’re risking being ostracized.

NPCs have other, more productive things to sink their time into. Whether farming for resources, developing relationships, or gaining rank in their peer group by chanting into a megaphone “hey hey, ho ho, something we dislike has got to go”, they’ve deprioritized the inconsequential. While I like this game that you and I play, I’m grateful for the NPCs doing other things that matter. You may dislike that the majority of NPCs are programmed with certain dialog trees, but that’s either because of the innate programming in most humans, or because other players are simply better than you are at reprogramming the NPCs, and developing patches around the incentives of the NPCs to believe what they do. Your complaints about what NPCs believe are nothing but the whining of scrubs wishing the developers would create a balance patch.

Your best bet to change NPCs isn’t to get them to start thinking critically. They won’t be very good at it, it won’t be rewarding to them, and thus it wouldn’t be very sustainable. Consider instead becoming a developer and creating a balance patch. The last such developer who patched what NPCs believed was the truth was Satoshi Nakamoto, who created a way of canonically checking which NPC owned a resource in the form of a blockchain. Other examples of devs patching NPCs are Johannes Gutenberg, Guglielmo Marconi, and Tim Berners-Lee. All of these devs changed how information and beliefs were formed and spread to NPCs. The longest lasting shifts in ideas held by the NPCs has always come from these types of developer patches. There’s no need to encourage them to think for themselves, because honestly…

P.S.if you’re interested, my dialog tree about political conversations and NPCs comes mostly from one of my favorite books, “The Myth of the Rational Voter” by Bryan Caplan.

Software Engineer @Go figure it out if you want to

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