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Space the Nation: Who plays the NPCs in real life?

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Dec 4, 2018, 3:11 PM EST (Updated)

The alt-right’s latest meme-able insult is a reminder of the movement’s roots in Gamergate. They’ve decided that their enemies — progressives, “Resistance” members, “social justice warriors” — are NPCs, or “non-playable characters.”

InfoWars’ Paul Joseph Watson posted a glassy-eyed, brittle explainer on the idea in October, explaining — over images of Women’s March participants and Black Lives Matters protesters — that these people could be called NPCs because they use the same phrases over and over again, because they don’t have original ideas, and, ultimately, because “their actions are determined by their coding.”

Watson treats the notion that IRL NPCs literally “aren’t human” as an arch aside, noting that it’s probably not the case, but “what else could explain the success of The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother?” I don’t doubt, however, that in the darker reaches of Reddit, there are posters speculating about this very possibility. More to the point, “You’re just an NPC” is actually an ancient argument for oppression modded for the Xbox generation: People who aren’t white/straight/male/Christian aren’t just inferior to the dominant class, they are also less human. And sadly, this ancient argument is also just as current as Twitch; Watson himself doesn’t just call SJWs brainless, he believes that when white people moved to “the Northern Hemisphere,” their “brains grew,” and thus “there are differences between races when it comes to IQ.” You can see how the claim that limiting one’s exposure to sunlight can make you smarter might appeal to the same crowd that loves a good video game trope.

The gaggle of lumpen proto-fascists at /r/Donald and the conspiracy-mongering solipsists at InfoWars have been so pleased with this metaphor-masquerading-as-revelation that they recently inflated it beyond crude Photoshop jokes to an actual attempt at election tampering. In October, Twitter wound up banning hundreds of accounts using the NPC “Wojack” avatar that posed as woke activists but disseminated misleading information about the midterms (giving people the wrong date for the election, for example).

The Twitter stunt twisted the usual role of an NPC as an in-game explicator to fit the immediate goals of some conservative pranksters and it betrayed a fundamental flaw in their critique: If progressives are supposed to be NPCs, aren’t they the ones who “know” more than the players? Aren’t they the ones with access to the game’s underlying design? In the world of a video game, they know what their role is, and they can’t, by definition, make mistakes. It’s the video game player who can win or lose. NPCs may not be as “free” as the game player, but — in the Urban Dictionary sense of the term — they’re not the ones being played. Have none of them seen Westworld?

But let’s get back to people shouting that black lives matter or that women should control their own bodies: to see that repetition as a function of intellect or humanity is to ignore the content of the echoing phrases and to be incurious about why the same ideas keep getting put forward. They’ve mistaken a cry for freedom as a verbal tic.

Using the fact that marginalized people have less agency as proof of their deficiencies isn’t just a tautology, it’s cruelly clever bullying— “stop hitting yourself” on a historic scale.

However well the NPC meme fits into the well-worn grooves of white supremacy, the trope bumps up against reality in some meaningful ways, illustrated most vividly by Fallout 76’s experiment with eliminating NPCs completely. It has not gone well!

Here I need to disclaim that I am not a gamer myself. I play video games, sure. But I am terrible at them and I am familiar with Fallout 76’s missteps mainly because they happened exactly as the alt-right forced political journalists to figure out what NPC means; in other words, searching Google News for stories about NPC will bring back hits relating to both. But the stories are very different. Basically, the assertion that our real world is filled with NPCs has gained currency even as gamers have damned an NPC-less artificial environment is being unrealistic, “empty and soulless.”

No disrespect to game connoisseurs, but NPCs aren’t what make a game feel realistic; they’re what make a game feel like a game. In the real world, not every character you meet has bearing on your individual quest. In the real world, not only is it possible to meet people who don’t give a crap about you, your existence is peripheral to 99.99 percent of everyone who has ever lived. You are constantly reminded (if you pay attention) that your own personal story is just one of billions of others. It is only within the boundaries of a game can everyone be a protagonist — and the vividness of their personal narrative can only exist because other characters are (sometimes literally) muted.

There’s something to be said for that experience, especially for people who can’t access it easily in the real world. The delight of being centered can attract marginalized folk, who sometimes look to video games as places to experiment with power—and why reactionaries and Gamergate types are so upset by these in-roads. In fact, Fallout 76’s most sensational problem with a lack of NPCs wasn’t a boring game, but a group of assholes targeting and harassing other players as “queers” they sought to “eliminate.” They wanted those are sometimes dismissed (or worse) in real life to be diminished in the game. Gamemaker Bethesda eventually banned the malcontents from participating in the game for life — a gesture that only heightens the contrast between the lawless wasteland of Fallout and our supposedly more civilized real world, where harassers often face no consequences at all.

Ironically, Bethesda taking action is likely to elicit whining about "the PC police" from the exact same people who would have you believe that historically oppressed people are should remain marginal. Really, this modicum of justice just shows that the oppressed's repeated pleas for justice do get heard in some quarters, that their activism has loosened the historic hold of straight white men on the levers of power. They are starting to play the game themselves. Which is to say, alt-right’s real complaint about social justice warriors and civil rights activists isn’t that they’re behaving like NPCs, it’s that they’ve stopped behaving like them — they want to be recognized as heroes of their own stories, too.

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