Unpacking the Sausage: Play on, player

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How do you know if you’re winning?

For what I can only describe as “art reasons I do not yet fully understand,” I’ve started following Elon Musk’s Twitter feed with somewhat alarming scrutiny. It feels sick and compulsive and every bit like the deranged hyperfocus that inevitably leads to my weirdest artwork. 

I can hardly wait to see what happens.

Bre KidmanSo, last week Elon Musk tweeted: “If you don’t think there’s at least a tiny chance you’re an NPC … you’re an NPC.” For those who aren’t gamers and/or terminally online (possibly the best actual evidence of realness) “NPC” stands for Non-Player Character — those random guys in the background of the video game that only have a few pull-string phrases and serve a specific function to the player’s experience. They can’t win because they’re not playing.

I’m not going to treat Elon Musk’s tweets like philosophical texts, but I’ll admit it got me thinking. Who does this guy think the players are? 

The answer probably depends on how one defines the game.

For example: when I set out to run for U.S. Senate, I was operating under the delusion that the nominally democratic government of this country was a massive multiplayer game, where everyone could make a character and play if they had the right skills. However, as in most real large-scale multiplayer games, players with the ability to buy limitless power-ups and bonuses have such significantly increased chances to succeed that they’re essentially playing a different game entirely. 

To people who can afford to catapult ahead of the crowd, the average person probably does look like an NPC. But are we actually playing a multiplayer game? Or are we each in our own localized save file, in our own individual copies of an open-world adventure meant for one player?

What if each of us is the god of our own simulation, the only real player in our own game? We choose which quests to go on, and when to procrastinate by taking a side quest or sniffing around for fun hidden surprises like loot or Easter eggs. We customize our characters, and choose our dialogue from the available prompts. Sometimes our hands seem glued to the controls for days, too enraptured by the experience to pause. Sometimes we put the controller down and don’t come back for weeks or months. We fight our own epic battles, with wins and losses unique to us. It doesn’t impact much when we win or lose, though repeated bugs could prompt game developers to adjust the experience.

In all instances, we have no control over other people we encounter in the game. We can attempt to manipulate outcomes through strategic dialogue or by completing certain quests for interesting people we encounter, but we can’t control their response. We can try to make choices that positively impact certain people or groups or we can prioritize killing and robbing our way to all the loot, but the overarching narrative is beyond us. Usually, though, I find the ending of a game more satisfying when I play a character that cares for others and collaborates — regardless of how real those people are.

And maybe that’s the difference in how Musk and I play the game.

I can see why someone like Elon might confuse all of these small-scale epic adventures for a lot of people living as NPCs. From the widget factory where the power-ups are made, what consequence is the life of a person who isn’t manipulating the flow of everyone else’s experience? To a person with the ability to sweep the vitriol of thousands of players into a weapon and wield it as easily as a dagger, how could any of those individual people truly be seen as playing?

Still, that one silly little tweet is a sort of beautiful thing. I cannot fathom a single person with the kind of money or power that Elon Musk has wanting to ask whether they might actually be an NPC in the greater game of humanity. I’ll admit, we’re not playing their game (and we’re not likely to get invited to the table), but I can’t help wondering how it must feel whenever those guys realize how many people are having a richer user experience playing ours.

Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), and the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex at [email protected].

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