How a Universal Game Design Concept Became an Alt-Right Slur

In late 2018, just weeks before the US midterm elections, a term any gamer would recognize began to crop up in political conversation.

NPC (short for Non-Player Character) has become the Internet’s favorite slur from the alt-right for liberals and leftists. But how does a term used to describe computer-controlled townspeople in popular games like Skyrim turn into a political insult? As with most video game lingo, the answer lies in tabletop games which predate electronic games entirely.

Offline Origins of NPC — Modern RPGs like Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Skyrim are based on concepts and rules that guided paper-and-pencil games before personal computers and game consoles existed. Dungeons & Dragons established doctrines that were foundational for generations of RPGs to come, including how to create NPCs.

In 1975, J&D became the first commercial tabletop RPG of all time, giving a legion of gamers around the world a way to play through their own the Lord of the Rings– inspiring story. But unlike video games that come with built-in storytelling, each J&D The game needs a Dungeon Master to advance each game session and play all the fictional characters players will encounter on their adventure.

To date, many J&D sessions are still played on grid paper and require many tables, lists, and dice rolls to perform simple actions. Video games run all of these processes in the background as players navigate seamless virtual worlds. Tabletop players must imagine their medieval adventure, and it’s the DM’s job to set the scene and create colorful characters to engage players.

“It is often highly desirable, if not absolutely necessary, to have well-developed non-player characters (NPCs),” states the 1979 version of the J&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. “In order to easily develop these characters, the tables below are offered for consideration. Note that the various facts and traits are given in a sequence that allows the character to develop – with the legal help of the DM.

In video game terms, the DM would be a team of developers. It’s not just their job to model the worlds they want players to explore, but also to populate them with friendly companions and menacing monsters. But video game design has spawned more techniques and terminology when it comes to creating NPCs.

Although the acronym NPC includes any creature or humanoid in the game not controlled by players, it generally only refers to helpful or neutral characters. Enemies that attack players or can be attacked are called “mobs”, short for “moving object” or “movables”.

Murlocs are an iconic “World of Warcraft” enemy NPC that will swarm players if they walk near their waterfront villages.Snow storm

The co-creator of the first multiplayer dungeon (MUD), Richard Bartle, coined this phrase during his development of MUD1. It has since been used in a multitude of games, and Bartle’s mob code has inspired trolls, marauders, and bandits in countless other realms.

“From MUD1, “moving objects”, I called them that because creatures moving in a controlled but unpredictable way are like the kind of “mobiles” hanging from the ceiling”, he writes in his book Design virtual worlds. “Well, I was in a bit of a hurry.”

It’s this kind of sporadic, aggressive behavior that has given NPCs a reputation for being dumb. Mobs will attack players even if it means imminent death and even friendly NPCs often repeat or go awry. That’s why there’s a big gap between the AI ​​that can adapt, learn, and improve in games like chess or go and the basic AI that goes into NPCs.

Think of NPCs as AI on rails. They have orientation abilities to find the shortest path to where they need to go and can defend themselves if they need to, but that’s about it. They’ll recite the same lines and walk the same paths, much like HBO’s android “hosts” Westworld, less self-awareness. It was this stupid reputation that gave rise to the politically charged definition of NPC.

How NPC Became an IRL Slur — A message titled “Are you an NPC?” posted on the controversial and anonymous 4chan message board in July 2016 first defined what the alt-right would later use as a means of mocking people with different political views.

“If you argue with them, it’s always the same buzzwords and hackneyed arguments,” the anonymous 4channer wrote. “These are the kind of people who pretend to be uncomfortable when you break the status quo, for example by breaking the normed barrier to invoke a real discussion. it’s like in a video game when you talk accidentally to someone twice and they again give you the exact lines word for word.

The meme gained popularity in September 2018 when another 4chan user posted a grey, pointy variant of the Wojak (or Feels Guy) meme. The cartoon became known as “NPC Wojak” and was quickly transformed into countless other memes designed to attack liberal values.

The original image of NPC Wojak posted on 4chan.

A few weeks before the US midterm elections in November 2018, publications like the New York Times, The edge, and BBC all posted stories explaining the origins of the alt-right meme, which has boosted searches for “NPC”, according to Google Trends.

The alt-right definition of NPC is still used today, but apolitical mememers have co-opted the acronym to refer to someone who is sheepish in social gatherings. But the adopters of this alternate definition were clearly never called spam by Roman in Grand Theft Auto IV inviting them to go bowling.

Sure, NPCs can be dumb, annoying, and even let you down in a crucial boss battle, but some of the best RPGs of all time wouldn’t have been the same without them. Non-player characters are the building blocks of our favorite video games. So maybe being an NPC in the real world isn’t the worst thing either.

COINED is your guide to the language of video games and the people who play them. If you’ve ever been told to “rekt” and couldn’t tell if it was a compliment or an insult, we’re here to explain where terms like this came from, what they mean and how to use them in everyday conversation.

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