Is it okay to torment non-player characters in video games?

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REQUEST FOR SUPPORT: I play a sim-style game, and the non-player characters you deploy have particular skills, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. So I put them sometimes in situations that I know will make them uncomfortable, like sending a guy who is scared of space to mine an asteroid. The results can be hilarious. But I also feel a little uncomfortable not letting them live their best lives. Am I unethical?

Dungeon master


Dear dungeon master,

Games of this kind allow ordinary people to live the fantasy of playing God. You become the demiurge of your own digital cosmos, dictating the fates of characters whose lives, as it is, remain subject to your whims. Playing them tends to raise the kind of questions that have long been addressed by theological and tragic literature.

Ever since we humans began to write, it seems, we have suspected that we are pawns in the games of higher beings. In the Iliad, Hector, realizing that he is facing death, complains that men are toys of the gods, whose wills change from day to day. This is a conclusion echoed by Gloucester in King Lear, as he wanders the moor after being mercilessly blinded. “Like flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.” / They kill us for their sport.

In the book of Job, Satan and God bet that Job, a very righteous man, will curse God if enough suffering and hardship befalls him. After obtaining God’s permission, Satan kills Job’s children, his servants, and his cattle, and boils his body apart. Job, who has no idea that his suffering is simply the subject of a gentleman’s bet, can only assume that his misfortunes are divine punishment. “My flesh is clothed in worms and clods of dust,” he cries. “My skin is broken and getting disgusting … My life is a blast.”

It is difficult to read such passages without sympathizing with the human victims. And I imagine the discomfort you feel when you provoke your characters means that you suspect that you also make them suffer for your own entertainment. Of course, non-player characters – NPCs – are just algorithms with no minds or feelings, so no ability to feel pain or discomfort. In any case, this is the consensus. But humans, as you probably know, have a bad history of underestimating the sensitivity of other creatures (Descartes believed that animals were just machines and couldn’t feel pain), so it’s worth taking a moment to really consider the possibility of algorithmic suffering.

Many NPCs rely on behavior tree algorithms that follow rote if-then rules or, in more advanced characters, machine learning models that develop their own adaptive methods. The ability to suffer is often linked to things like nociceptors, prostaglandins, and neural opioid receptors, so it would appear that video game characters lack the neurological material required for a pain response. Emotional distress (our ability to feel fear, anxiety, discomfort) is more complex, from a neurological point of view, although emotion in humans and other animals often relies to some extent on external stimuli processed by the five senses. Since these algorithms have no sensory access to the world – they cannot see, smell, or hear – they are unlikely to be able to sense negative emotions.

Yet when it comes to the ethics of suffering, neurology is not the only relevant consideration. Some moral philosophers have argued that the ability to have preferences – the ability to see the world in terms of positive and negative outcomes and to develop decision-making processes regarding those outcomes – is a definitive yardstick of actual suffering. One of the advantages of talking about preferences rather than pain is that while pain is entirely subjective, experienced only by the sufferer, preferences can be observed. We know cats have preferences because they recoil from the tub water and sometimes run away when approached by dogs. The fact that your NPCs have, as you put it, “particular skills, weaknesses, likes and dislikes” suggests that they actually have preferences, although this is also something you can test by simply observation. When you put them in unwanted situations, do they resist or struggle? Do they exhibit facial expressions or body movements that you associate with fear? You might object that such behavior is simply programmed by their designers, but animal preferences could also be seen as some kind of algorithm programmed by the history of evolution.


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