Human-shaped polygonal surfaces in videogames are not people, no matter how well rendered, animated, and voice-acted. They are literal shells. They do not think, nor feel – they just react according to their programming. They are not Cylons where their programming is so complex that one could posit that they are alive, because computers aren’t that good yet – not by miles. Obviously. Nor are they complex enough that they “appear” to be alive, because computers aren’t that good yet either. It’s going to be a while before a videogame NPC is going to be able to pass the Turing test inside the context of a believable game world.
I find it odd that there has been discussion about certain NPCs being described as “objects” given that all elements within a game are objects. Everything is there for the benefit of the player, to use and interact with as a play-thing. The fact that some toys say, “I lub yoo” when you pull a string does not make the act of throwing the toy across the room, or pulling its leg off, unconscionable because it’s just a toy. It’s not real. When we pull the string, the toy is not thinking it’s just repeating one of a number of pre-recorded messages. When we interact with NPCs in a videogame, all we are doing is pulling on a more complicated string.
Were it possible to develop game characters which could convince us, to some degree, that they were people – with sophisticated A.I. and reams of dialogue such that each and every character had a fully fleshed out life story, hopes and dreams, then the concept of killing anyone in the game would suddenly become horrific, as in Austin Powers when a henchman dies and we’re treated to a scene presenting the grief of the henchman’s family. While there’s room for a game which explores these concepts, these would be the exception not the rule.
Which brings me back to animals. While we can’t get close to convincing players that videogame humans (or human-like characters) are real people, we can get a glimpse of how it would feel to murder them were it possible with animals. If, like me, you’re rather keen on animal welfare and hate the concept of hunting for sport then, like me, you might feel a pang of discomfort when instructed to kill an animal in a videogame.
The reason I feel this way, is because with animals you can program behaviours for them which make them really rather believable. All the problems associated with believable humans disappear – animals are less complicated, bird flocking code is easy to write and can be convincing. Fur rendering has reached the point that animals can be rendered with close to photographic quality. All the uncanny valley problems associated with humans are not present – a well rendered and animated tiger could, in theory, trick you into believing it was real if you weren’t aware that a game was being played.
We arrived at photo-realism first with static environments. We’ll get there next with (so-called) “lower” lifeforms and we’re pretty damn close already (with pre-rendered effects, we’re already there). So being forced to kill an animal in a game (when that animal is rendered and animated well) makes me a little uncomfortable. Your brain knows it’s not real, but those morality chips get activated regardless. It’s a peek into the window of what games would be like, were we able to create humans as believable as we can create animals. It would be horrific.
So when we talk about videogame characters being objects, yes they are – and a flupping good thing they are too. So let’s get back to dragging them across the floor and pulling their arms off.