Another Stacks of Books essay to add to the library. This one makes good on a promise I’ve been making for sometime, which was to reflect philosophically on playing Skyrim. (Now those hundreds of hours can count as research!). I’m especially interested in non-playable characters (NPCs), or the fake people one runs into in these virtual worlds. They couldn’t pass the Turing Test. But what would it take for them to do so? And once we start thinking along these lines, how might we understand ourselves to be NPCs?
I’ll post a brief excerpt, one I had a lot of fun writing. It concerns a moment when Lydia, our faithful NPC companion in the game, shows signs of consciousness. The whole essay is available on Amazon here.
The second time it happens is when we are trying to sneak up on a troll. They are nasty creatures, tough to kill, so a sneak attack can really help. Suddenly Lydia asks, “What happens when you sleep?”
Really, now you ask?! I want to say. But I don’t want to lose the opportunity; and if the troll kills us, well, we’ll have another chance anyway. “What do you see happening when I sleep?”
She thinks. “You lie on the bed and don’t move and I watch you for several hours.”
“For me it is only a few seconds. Nothing happens.”
She presses onward. “So is it like death?”
“No,” I say. “For one thing, I don’t go back in time to before I went to sleep.”
Suddenly the troll is upon us! It makes a noise – something like, “Raaw! Uglyuglynosleepsyforugsytrollses.” I am utterly stunned. Trolls do not speak! But Lydia is untroubled and takes up the conversation with the troll. “I don’t sleep either. I see that other people do, but I never seem to need it.”
The troll nods, and says something like, “Raaw! Ikillsyotherusesandthen stompsybutnosleepsyfurugsytrollses.” The two of them carry on for a few more exchanges, but I cannot follow what they are saying because I cannot stop thinking: LYDIA IS HAVING A CONVERSATION WITH A TROLL ABOUT THEIR LIFE EXPERIENCES. I feel a panic rising in me, and suddenly more than anything else I need to get out of this cave, so I run to the sunny world outside. What is happening? Is there a consciousness emerging in this strange world? Am I spreading it, like a disease? Is this some kind of new magic – a magic even deeper than the kind that lets me die and come back and remember it? Am I really just like Lydia or the troll – occasionally coming into consciousness, but just not remembering all those times when I am not conscious? Lydia’s question returns to me, but more threatening: what does happen when I sleep?
Suddenly Lydia emerges and stands by my side, ready to go. “Hey, look, a cave. I wonder what’s inside?” she says. I sigh.