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NPC I: Rant / To Escape a Reality

Picture: NPC
An NPC is a character in a computer game who is not the PC- the latter being represents you in a computer game, the former are almost everyone else who populates the game world. This term usually refers to characters who constantly inhabit game worlds with digitally created personalities (AI packages) and fulfill a role therein. They occasionally contribute to the narrative development of the game, or player character development - in many cases not through peaceful means, and mostly serve as extras in the game world. The main difference between a Non-Player Character and the Player Character is that their agency and role within the world they inhabit is limited to following scripted behaviour while the player is not- in theory.* 

When it comes to gaming, there are two parallel theories at work in my mind: One is the thought that we might be living in a computer simulation in our main shared reality*, the second is that there exist an infinite number of parallel and divergent realities. This may seem a very philosophical premise for a personal rant on computer gaming, addiction, escapism and modding, does however offer a strenuous, yet compelling motivation beyond gameplay to spend time and sometimes save these worlds- even if at first glance, they do not seem real. 

These have been occupying my seemingly idle hands very busy for the past year- so busy that it would not be wrong to suggest that I escaped into parallel universes. Mentally, I have- which does not account for the body that surrounds that mind, nor the life this body and mind have outside the box. 

Addiction is a pathological condition which you pursue quick and successive fixes of satisfaction, often to the detriment of longer-term life goals**. Aside from the (al-)chemical substances classically cited, there are a host of “new” addictions linked to digital and screen media. Most of these are, as yet  appendices to behavioural disorders linked to the ways the human brain process rewards and how happiness is achieved chemically. The processes are probably very similar, whether your fix is food, sex, fitness or excitement. The personalities that fall into these traps are as similar- those with low self-esteem, a sense of social failure, and the bored, seeking excitement that will not manifest in their lives without much personal effort. In my words- it is taking the easy way out from your actual responsibilities in and expectations towards life, abdicating meaning and fulfillment from it towards a semi-vicarious experience lived through a digital avatar in a pre-fabricated non-linear narrative. 

I am defining from experience, and ongoing wonderment why I continue engaging in such behaviour, having studied, and occasionally returning to some of the literature on the topics of addictions, mental instability and obsessive-compulsive behaviour to understand and break with my patterns. 

I had been toying with the idea of writing something similar to this for a while, but found myself waking up to continue my game, and its ongoing development, while consuming news, series and many op-eds on the side. This has been my pattern throughout the past year- progressing and increasing throughout until I realised that entire days (and winter) had passed me by without either contact to another human being or moving my body further than the confines of my flat.

Digitally, I was covering many leagues, miles and kilometres, on foot, horse, grappling hooks and in boat journeys. I was talking to people, helping them, making lives a bit better- for one person at a time- and generally charming my way into every NPC’s heart through monumental feats of epic daring and proportion, consorting with beggars, the occasional royal character, confronting evil-doers, ne’er-do-wells and occasionally saving entire worlds. In other words: taking the easy way out and unconsciously putting aside life decisions in favour of many in-game decisions that seem more meaningful in the moment of play, but don’t affect anything outside of the progress of a save-game. 

As an occasional escape, just like occasional escapes into cinematic, literary or even drug-induced alternate realities, this is not entirely unhealthy****. When it becomes a realm of constant escape- the handy Narnia in everyone’s closet- it becomes an addiction. When this progresses to the point at which you identify and interact more with your digital avatar and the NPC’s within a game world, it is a testament to the power of the mind to create a subjective reality out of whatever ongoing narrative it is exposed to, and the power of individuals to choose which narrative reality they follow.

Meanwhile, several real-world narratives are unfolding outside my windows. The civil war in Syria, ongoing for the past five years seemed to be drawing to some kind of close- devolving into a proxy war between world powers and revealing the true extent of destruction and wanton killing that those five years have inflicted on the country and its many people, in the country and without. The US elect their first orange president, and the ongoing consequences thereof, reminding me of Egypt, ca. 2012-13, except with a more unpredictable outcome. Hosni Mubarak was released from jail- another nail in the coffin of Egypts 2011 uprising. Less world-shaking, but more importantly: Friends begat children, others got married, and yet others have moved on in their lives- graduating, immigrating, creating, travlling, exhibiting, curating, breathing… Writing their own stories, and sometimes being written about. 

I find myself watching that world at a distance and at an angle, after having been somewhat active in parts of it for a long time. At the end of 2015- after a long sequence of restless public, private and professional events - I was exhausted. There was too much world and too many people inhabited it on a daily basis for me to accord each the time and attention I feel they deserve. I was turning into an email machine once more, while feeling very much disgusted with many of the people I interacted with and what I perceived to be a global attitude of increasing narcism and polarisation. I also began to feel very much out of place in everything I was doing- neither artistic fish, nor academic fowl, nor any kind of flower I could recognise. Constantly following the news did not provide me with any peace of mind or a perspective on how I would be useful in the world henceforth. Some experiences had led me to fear the energy I would need to put into a new beginning, and I did not find within myself the energy needed to continue as I had been- which was not a bad path, but. The same experiences had left me general distrustful of people and their motivations towards me, and myself and my own motivations in life. In short: I was burnt out, paranoid, in need of a holiday and tired of fighting myself and they way I see the world. There are probably even more unflattering way of describing myself and my ongoing state- it is far from over. 

From my perspective:
The world, which had made little sense before, had grown smaller and bigger at the same time, thus made even less sense than before. It grew larger in that more events in distant places affect perceptions of day-to-day life, smaller, as these perceptions become more homogenous, and reactions to them verbally outraged, yet mostly not actionable. It had, and continues to, become faster, and more fragmented and amnesiac. Most people I encounter have become obsessed with the importance of their opinion and status(es) above anything else and acts of individual and tribal survival over what may be called the common good. I had become blind to acts of simple generosity after being exposed too much self-congratulating exposition veering towards the sensational and incredibly hyperbolic- discovering, once again, that self-interest will trump solidarity (and common sense) in most cases, even and especially in circles that pronounce themselves to be liberal- a stance of automatic defensiveness, rather than openness to alternate opinions. Enforced by reading choices such as Daryl Cunninghams “Age of Selfishness”*****, very alternative listening and news choices, there is a part of me that feels that we are living in a subconscious Randian utopia- that many thoughts contained in “Atlas Shrugged” (which I can talk about, but have never read) have, through linguistic subversion become the values that define co-existence and personal interactions on almost every level- the created and enforced perception of a scarcity of resources engenders competition on every level. The profit motive, while natural, has become the only motive. 

I will not exclude myself from thinking this way, but have secluded myself from it for the past year- into virtual and fictional worlds that made more sense to me than the real one I had come to see. And though these worlds are not devoid of the thinking described above, it is possible to deal with it in a direct and mostly terminal way- you even get directions on how to do accomplish this superhuman and world-changing feat. To save the world, you must accomplish this long and occasionally very entertaining to-do list using the incredible powers and gadgets you will acquire throughout your epic journey through this fantastic land. You will be and do things you would never do (or be) in reality. You will be admired, you will save the world and then it will be over. Roll credits, everyone’s safe and you’re going to be living happily ever after. 

Except for the fact that there’s always another world to save, another puzzle to solve, another universe to be discovered- one last dragon to chase and vanquish. The hallmark of a good gaming experience to me has long been that it presents me with a world I want to continue exploring even after all of the above has happened- a place I want to know more and more about, with characters that go beyond the narrative that has guided me through this world and populate it with engaging, never-ending stories. 

Translated: Wanted- epic adventures with world- and self-changing consequences, loyal friends with a sense of humour, justice and the long haul- cat-creatures welcome, engaging narratives, puzzles to solve and paths to sustainable solutions. Self-employment. Occasional financial profit welcome, but will work for food and smiles when it feels right. Wide skill-set, constantly under development and improvement. A constant joy of discovery and exploration is required ******

This sounds naïve, maybe even childish- yet not neccessarily the worst set of ideas to live a life by. Judging by how many people immerse themselves in these worlds- whether they be the Hyrules (finally of new), the post-post singularity Earth depicted in Horizon Zero Dawn, the beautiful philosophical weirdness of Nier: Automata, or the newest episode of "Geralt gone Wild (And Beard Growth)", this naïve set of ideas offers a sense that is often absent from everyday lives and the opportunity to implement them in some world, with visible effect.

This idea is what led me back to gaming, after a long abstinence from it in favour of more "real" events, and following them, even finding my own sense and position towards them- occasionally expressing it. I can be accused of the luxury of a search for meaning to my life and abusing that to the absolute maximum- though honestly, I can't explain fully why and how I end up reflecting on a year spent on virtual walkabout, or why I feel the need to explain it. This is 2017, after all, and we have much more important problems to deal with than your petty gaming addiction. Go out and get a life, a job, some new ideas and exercise.  Do something. You're not wrong, acknowledged. Followed by insistence that I continue writing this- it's leading somewhere. And the one thing that hasn't changed is that I have a thick skull.

Although the position I find myself in is not what most people would call positive, I refuse to see it as an absolute negative, and wish to draw some lessons from it and move on from there, while I still have the luxury of being an NPC. These lessons revolve around the world of gaming, the people that play and the culture that has emerged around games in the past years, as well as some light reflection on the industry that creates them. It's a method for me to deal with the processes going on in my mind, while sharing observations on what it has absorbed. The topic may even become a bit interesting as words are spent on it. 

In the second part of this rambling personal exploration, I would like to discuss how computer games and the culture that surrounds them has change in the past 20 years.

Part one ends thusly:
We Become What We Behold is a short game by Nick Casey. It reflects the influence of images, behaviours and occurrences that we absorb through media on lives, relationships, societies and thought. It can be found here (and is well worth 5 minutes): https://ncase.itch.io/wbwwb

* Urbandictionary provides us with a much-expanded definition which extends to real life situations as well: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=NPC
*** This is my highly simplified version of the ASAM definition: http://www.asam.org/quality-practice/definition-of-addiction 
**** in fact, there may be some cognitive benefits to gaming- some of which are discussed here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/video-gaming-can-increase-brain-size-and-connectivity
***** Although I paint it in a negative light, it is a brilliant read and dissects Objectivism ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism_(Ayn_Rand) ) and the 2008 financial crisis in digestible chunks and panels. AKA Supercrash.
****** While this is very reductive of the many types of game available, it is representative of the gaming experience I  gravitate towards- when they’re not puzzle games. 

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