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We could someday live in our own RPGs alongside beings more intelligent than us

If you've ever wanted to go full god mode in an RPG, this may be your chance.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz Gamer GETTY

Have you ever wanted to go full “god mode” in an RPG and control everyone and everything? What if you could breathe life into digital characters — and what if they all obeyed you?

RPGs and MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are swarming with non-player characters (entities that are not being played by an actual human behind a computer screen) that may try to help you, kill you, or do nothing at all, depending on your quest. There are actually many more of these entities in a game than there are player characters. Now imagine if you could actually create intelligent, sentient characters that can think and feel with no human intervention.

For now, non-player characters (NPCs) tend not to be too smart. That troll over there isn’t going to spontaneously break out into a Shakespearean sonnet or a lecture on astrophysics, but researcher and AI wizard Richard Bartle of the University Essex in the U.K., author of the book How to be a God, believes there could really be a future in which that is possible. The artificial brains that are programmed into these characters might even beat out our own. He believes there is no time limit, and if we don’t do it, someone else will.

"We have the rest of eternity to work on it," he told SYFY WIRE. "Unless it’s computationally impossible to create virtual characters as smart as or smarter than we are, eventually we will do so. If we don’t, then some other species that’s more up for the task will eventually evolve."

For the uninitiated, “god mode” refers to someone taking over everything that happens in an RPG, digital or otherwise, like an unseen deity. It’s against gamer etiquette and definitely not something you should try to pull. On your RPG quest, you need to allow other human-played characters to speak and take action autonomously without giving any direct commands or making implications as to what they should do. Say you’re in one of Bartle’s scenarios and going full god mode, now. Being the creator of sentient beings comes with its own ethical dilemmas.

What is even more unnerving is that there are several ways these living, breathing virtual worlds could overlap with real life. Bartle imagines three scenarios. Robots built in the real world could have control handed over to NPCs, meaning some digital character with fathomless brainpower might hypothetically be able to control a rover on Mars. The only risk in that is if they decided they need time off and switch their server off, which means they’d be switching themselves off. The inverse of that sounds even freakier. We could cross into the digital realm ourselves.

“We listen to what the NPCs have to say about real-world issues and, because we believe NPCs have rights, we pay due attention to what they say,” said Bartle. “We develop relationships with NPCs. Here, the NPCs are overlapping with real life because we choose to allow them to do so.”

If we decide to let that happen, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we end up with a digital best friend or fall in love with someone who doesn’t exist in the flesh. There is a third potential overlap that might give you the creeps. The NPCs could become so intelligent that they would be able to control and influence humans, even their creators. They would be the ones in god mode this time. These things would have the power to manipulate you any way they want, a Borg-like race that would realize Boris Johnson’s fear of robot armies invading the planet.

But wait. What if we clash with the virtual monsters we created? Whether it is ethical for us to just switch them off is a matter of debate. Can they actually die, or do they just sleep until we wake them up again, like the humanoid robot lover in this Y2K-era music video? If they do die, do they have an afterlife? Bartle believes these entities would live in “pocket realities” that can be easily switched off. Sentient NPCs may not even know they exist unless we want to make them aware of it, or unless they get smart enough to brainwash us into keeping them alive.

“Creation of intelligent, sapient, free-thinking beings raises new ethical issues,” Bartle said. “It may help us create a system of meta-ethics that connects moral beliefs with their implications in a clearer manner. This is not about killer robots, but autonomous machines.”