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Non-Player Character: Can you be mistaken for an IRL-NPC?

Uploaded: Oct 15, 2018
An NPC is a character in a computer game whose actions are determined by an automated script or set of rules, as opposed to being a character controlled by a player. These can range from the very simple to ones utilizing substantial Artificial Intelligence. A claim making the rounds on the Internet is that 17% of people don't have have an inner voice or other forms of inner consciousness, and thus may be equivalent to IRL-NPCs (IRL: in real life). The claim is based upon multiple misinterpretations of a 2008 psychology research paper.(foot#1)(foot#2) Henceforth, I will shorten IRL-NPC to "NPC" where supported by context.

The idea of NPCs is quickly evolving in many directions, and there are many explanations of why they exists.(foot#3) What I found interesting were the observations given as ways to spot an NPC.(foot#4) Initially it may be fun to be snarky about whether someone else could be an NPC, but that should lead to your inner voice saying "(insert your chosen expletive here), I do that too!" If you don't, you might be an NPC.

This is the flip-side of the mid-1960s program ^ELIZA^ -- the best known version--DOCTOR--simulated its side of a conversation with a real person using simple transformation of what the person had said. Many people thought that ELIZA was a real person, leading to a variety of hilarious stories. ELIZA influenced the development of computer games by demonstrating how easy it was to fake intelligence in advantageously constrained situations. The hard part can be getting people to not recognize the importance of those constraints (similar to magic tricks). So, not only can actual people be mistaken for NPCs, but actual NPCs can be mistaken for people.

----Theory of Mind----

The ^Theory of Mind^ is your ability to have beliefs (Theory) of how another person thinks (Mind): their knowledge, beliefs, intentions, desires, ... It also includes introspection about your own thinking, which is used in thinking about what other people's beliefs are about your thinking. This capability is important for cooperation and other types of social interaction. A classic example is when someone says "It's warm in here." Is that simply an observation? Or is it an indirect request to adjust the thermostat?

Over the years -- and on this blog -- I have had many interactions with people who don't understand that what they intended to convey was not how it was perceived, even when I explain it to them. Some have even explicitly declared that any misunderstanding is not their fault, but that of others. Having even a semblance of a Theory of Mind is a very difficult problem for Artificial Intelligence, so an easy workaround for an NPC is to not have one and force actual people to adapt to it.

On indicator of an NPC is that, when it is moved to a different context, it uses terminology that it should have realized would be misunderstood. For example, decades ago Neo-Nazis created the term "White Genocide" for the decreasing proportion of Whites in the population (due to declining birth rates, ...) and not the ^official meaning^: "the deliberate and systematic destruction/extermination of a racial, political, or cultural group". The Far Left picked up the term and that meaning as a positive. Among their tweets and placards you will occasionally see statements such as "All I want for Christmas is white genocide". In response to the negative reactions to that particular tweet, its author, a university professor, claimed to be baffled that a word ending in "cide" was taken by the public to mean killing.

An example from the physical world: Many years ago, I was driving home early on New Years Eve. As I was about to pass a parked car, it started to pull out at a shallow angle. I gave a short beep on my horn, but he continued unfazed. I then gave a longer blast on my horn, and he flipped me off. Concerned that he was drunk, I pulled over and went back. His explanation: He knew he had heard the beep, so why didn't I? The woman with him obviously wasn't impaired, so I walked away. I routinely see situations where people put themselves in danger by failing to signal their intentions. For example, someone on a sidewalk suddenly turns and steps into the street, giving traffic very little time to react. The laws of physics preempt the written law that gives pedestrians the right-of-way.

Aside: Since the earliest days of computer gaming, most players quickly deduce the limited programming behind the game's NPCs and create an analogue to a Theory of Mind for those NPCs, often anthropomorphizing them. For example, in the classic Pac-Man, each of the ghosts (NPCs) is guided by simple, but distinct, strategies (rules).

Back in inter-personal gaming, an interesting piece of advice from a famous chess master was that it was often better to not make the (technically) best move, but the move that will cause your opponent the most trouble. That is, don't treat your opponent as a sophisticated automaton, but figure out his weaknesses and play to those.

----Chatty Cathy's----

The Chatty Cathy doll of the early 1960s had a set of 11 pre-recorded set phrases that were played at random, triggered and powered by pulling its string. In computer gaming there are many NPCs that are little more than technologically advanced Chatty Cathy's. And IRL, I see people who are potential NPCs.

News shows such as the PBS NewsHour have interviews on issues of the day with people serving as spokespeople--surrogates--for their political faction or tribe. I stopped watching those segments when they invariably contained little more that the talking points-- the script --established that morning for them. With the Web, there were just so many ways to get those talking points that were more efficient and less annoying. At the time, I thought that robots or holograms would be effective surrogates for those surrogates, but now I see those surrogates as potential NPCs.

The 2016 Republican Presidential Primaries provided two outstanding examples of candidates who might as well have been NPCs. In the 2016-02-06 debate, Marco Rubio got called out by Chris Christy for relying on a small set of talking points. His programming wasn't prepared for such an input and he entered a loop of repeating the same talking point. Virtually unnoticed was that his script hadn't been fully updated since the 2012 election: Rubio was talking as if Barack Obama was the Democratic candidate.

The second example was provided by John Kasich in an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In a brilliant move, Colbert included in his introduction Kasich's primary talking points. With his script being exhausted, Kasich froze up. I could visualize the spinning Busy icon superimposed on this face. Compare that to Bill Clinton: The problem was that he would keep bringing up interesting topics, making it difficult to keep him within his allotted time.

On this blog, I get many commenters who are going to say what they want to say despite it having been explicitly declare off-topic in that blog. Now, I don't think these people are NPCs, but their behavior is that of an NPC.

This blog gets a certain amount of SPAM. Most of it is trivial to identify. Other I am not certain of until I hit the web link at the end. Some of it is more on-topic and better structured than comments by some (apparently) real people. I have no idea how the SPAM bot came to include an article with my level of readership.

----No awareness of their own actions----

Another type of NPC is given a specific goal and programmed with techniques to achieve that goal. In a conversation, that goal could be the conclusion the NPC was to advocate for. It would then reason backward, gathering and structuring facts to support that conclusion. This can work well if there is only one such chain of reasoning. But the algorithm may support building multiple such chains, and one of those may be inconsistent with other. Why does this happen? Because checking for that can be very computationally expensive.

A comment on this blog during the 2014 City Council campaign provides a nice example. There were four Residentialist candidates running, but they had decided to not run as a slate -- I know because I was at that meeting. However, the opposition kept insisting that they were a slate (even though the opposition was engaged in similar behavior). One of the opposition's NPCs "proved" that they were a slate by pointing to one person who had given small donations to each of the four. For added proof, he pointed out that another person had given small donations to three, but not the fourth. I was disappointed that he didn't carry this to its illogical conclusion: citing someone who had not given a donation to any of the four as proof they were a slate.

----Counter-NPC NPCs----

Then there are the NPCs that are primarily intended to interact with competing NPCs, and not actual people, or should I say "non-NPCs" (double negatives are such fun). Their rules and scripts are created based upon expectations about those of the other NPC. In my previous blog, I posed the question to readers about their reaction to the Democrats' delaying tactics, and in that same paragraph I expressed my disapproval of the Republican delaying tactics during the Obama presidency, for Merrick Garland and other nominees (both for executive branch and lower courts). A possible NPC was unprepared for such a pox-on-both-parties position. Spotting the criticism of the Democrats, its rule was apparently to respond with ^WhatAboutism^, (falsely) criticizing me for not mentioning the Republican actions. Note: I deleted that comment because it consisted of what I had explicitly declared to be off-topic.

Of course, some of this may simply being someone want to chime in despite having nothing new to add. They wind up giving what appear to be merely talking points -- because the statement ignores what has already been said and seems to have been triggered by a point that has already been dealt with.
"Everything's been said, but not everybody has said it." - Senator Morris "Mo" Udall (D-AZ) explaining overly long debates.


Looking for behavior suggestive of an NPC can provide amusement and self-improvement. It can also be educational, sharpening your skills in detecting the rules ("Standard Operating Procedure", "^Modus operandi^", ...).

Although I haven't tried this yet, it could be a technique for stress reduction. Instead of "How could they be so stupid!!!", the reaction might be "Sigh, more NPCs."

1. IRL-NPC psych paper:
I recommend against reading this paper because it is uninformative and irrelevant to this blog.
Basic problem: A sample space too small for anything other than planning a larger study: 30 students, 2 days, 5 samples/day of a randomly chosen moment.However, if you are interested:
^The phenomena of inner experience^ (PDF) by Christopher L. Heavey, Russell T. Hurlburt - Consciousness and Cognition 17(3): 798-810, 2008.

2. Critique of above paper and IRL-NPC:
It presume that you have not read the research paper.Its focus is on the problems of the design of the study,its reporting and the misinterpretations.The video's creator is a young research scientist in psychology.She talks fast but has a well-structured presentation,and includes not just critiques, but data and publication citations.
Video: ^Proof of Real-Life Non-Player Characters^ (24:31) - Aydin Paladin, 2018-10-13.

3. Why IRL-NPCs exist:
My favorite explanation is that there are a limited number of "souls"and the IRL-NPCs are biological humans for whom there isn't a soul.As a teenager, I encountered science fiction stories using this idea,for example, the birth of a baby resulted in the death of an older person to free up a soul and the consequence of that on societies and international relations and war. Another example involved reincarnation where a placing souls in lower animals as punishment left too few souls for active use by humans.

4. Philosophical foundations for NPCs:
For a deeper, more rigorous consideration of the idea behind NPCs, see "^Philosophical Zombies^"I have chosen not to go down that rabbit hole.

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Former CA Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 15, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Haha I love it Doug. Have you been hanging out at The Donald lately?

In all seriousness, I think people who spend too much in college become NPCs. An NPC is an overeducated person. Hillary Clinton was definitely NPC-like: robotic, programmed, giving the "correct" answer every time and not daring to say anything unexpected. NPCs which are all over the mainstream media seem to always say "what they're supposed to say" based on unproven/ambiguous/outdated "data" instead of speaking in a way that is original.
Another place full of NPCs are many corporate stores, where employees are meticulously trained to toe the line and literally speak and behave like obedient robots with no individuality, due to fear of being fired. Their own personal convictions never matter. Do some people lack conviction?
I see this all over our culture, and I think academia is the culprit.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 15, 2018 at 2:22 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "Have you been hanging out at The Donald lately?"

No. I had seen, and ignored, various headlines in my news feed about it until it popped up as a "bad science" item. From the headlines I am seeing, conservatives and the right-wing are using it as a partisan meme, but its occurrence is wider than that.

> "An NPC is an overeducated person."

No. The expectation of behavior vs the reality is larger, making it more prominent.

Posted by thrasher, a resident of another community,
on Oct 16, 2018 at 2:58 am

Thanks. I enjoyed this article. I became aware of the NPC meme but didnt know what it was all about. Some searching lead me to this. Very insightful.

*expletive* I do that too. LOL Maybe there's hope for me.

Greetings from Canada.

Posted by TruthHonestReality , a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 16, 2018 at 11:20 pm

The NPC term is used by anyone that is sick of how today's leftists think and what they say. If your talking to a coworker about something and if it's not the traditional leftist response then the leftist always says “oh, because of your white privilege" or “that's because you're racist" or “rape culture" or “wage gap" etc, you get the point right? Because nowadays it doesn't matter what your saying because leftists have no desire to debate you because they will lose so the easiest way out of a debate is calling someone racist. I can't tell you how many times I've seen videos on utube of leftists carrying out this exact response even if that person is black or Asian or someone clearly married to someone Asian or black.

[[deleted: ad hominem. Preceding qualifies as credible observation by the commenter.]]

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 16, 2018 at 11:44 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Readers: Most of the current content related to NPCs seems to be coming from the political Right. They are pushing it hard as a meme. Consequently that meme'ing may dominate your search results.

Posted by Tim Buck II, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 17, 2018 at 6:33 pm

"My favorite explanation is that there are a limited number of "souls"and the IRL-NPCs are biological humans for whom there isn't a soul."

Given the recent geometrical growth of the world population, it is therefore mathematically guaranteed that the vast majority of contemporary human life forms are IRL-NPCs. Your favorite explanation explains a lot of our recent history.

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