Dr. Dehumanization or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Commodifying NPCs
Games make use of abstractions to codify and standardize interactions between players and non-player characters. This exists in every capacity and level of articulation. From the greatly simplified children’s board game where your only power is a six sided dice and you’re pretty limited to forward/backward, all the way up to some modern games where you can define your character in a multitude of characteristics broken into abstract, discrete steps. The stat systems that many games use to define characters in games allows for a distillation of the myriad of facets that make up a person into usable numbers, which makes for a more fair and actionable game system.
This streamlines the math involved in determining the outcome of interactions between those characters, but it represents a subtle dehumanization of those characters. While “Objectification” gets a bad rap, it can be more clearly articulated as “Converting something to or considering something in it’s state as an object”. Since all things exist in physical space, this is less of an affront to it’s potentially more nuanced characteristics than Commodification. Commodification is the act of converting something beyond what it’s constituent physical properties are and instead into what that object is useful for, to you. While objectification is dehumanizing, it’s still acknowledging the physicality of a person. Commodification is reducing someone to merely “What can you do for me?”, which is a whole other level of depravity. However, in the context of identifying and articulating characteristics of people in media, it’s an important step in quantifying and converting the nuances of expression into digital and discrete measurements for recording and comparing those aspects. It’s an unfortunate reminder that, in the context of these games, these individuals are not, in fact, human.
Dehumanization is a scary word and it can be a super dangerous concept, but it also illustrates the underlying implications of these participatory narratives (parasocial interactions, of course, are involved here). The very nature of these sorts of characters is fundamentally dehumanizing.
On the one end of the spectrum, we have the reduction of how strong someone is to a rank or level, which allows easy computation of results in any given scenario (this particular obstacle, whose precise weight is irrelevant, requires a strength of X to move it. A particularly sharp individual may be capable of outsmarting someone if they’re not more intelligent than Y). On the other end of the spectrum, the complete conversion of an entire person into a series of characteristics and uses.
Shopkeepers, for example, rarely exist as anything more than vaguely anthropomorphized vending machines. The majority of NPCs are walking billboards with one or two sentences of speech, which can’t even be referred to as dialogue since it’s as passive as can be. The antagonists and protagonists tend to be a little bit more deep, of course, as these are the actual characters in the story, but when you consider the sheer number of “people” in these worlds, there are so many that exist as nothing more than window dressing or stuff repositories. This isn’t really an intrinsically awful thing, even though it may seem so. If every single person that you encountered in these games was a fully developed and articulated human being, the number of relationships you’d have to keep track of, as well as care about on an emotional level, would be untenable. This is not unlike what we talked about before, with Dunbar’s Number. Basically, it gets to be exceedingly difficult to handle that many relationships, even within the parasocial interaction context.
So, in the end, the streamlining implications of converting people into characteristics and numbers not only allows for logical constructs to work smoothly, but also frees us from the burden of the myriad of emotionally charged relationships we’d be forced to deal with. Morally, this may sound somewhat problematic, but in the arc of storytelling and in terms of our social methodology for interacting with the world, it’s probably more an example of training to choose which relationships we’re going to invest all our energy in and which we aren’t.