Non-Player Dynamics: Agency Fetish in Game-World

Roberto Alonso Trillo, Marek Poliks

Research output: Other contributionpeer-review


Non-Player Dynamics: Agency Fetish in Game-World
— a taxonomy of the Non-Player Character (NPC), a role-relationship or an implicit position-taking within a game-world for which a character, whose interiority is incomplete or unavailable, moves within heavily circumscribed and delimited fields of action —

As Anil Bawa-Cavia[1] puts it, “the Turing Test is ours to fail…”

The NPC is experiencing a well-documented[2] moment in various corners of global digital culture as a performative mode that prolapses into variously “real life.” The game-world is delivered to this NPC through game-interfaces, through a dizzying verticality of cascading virtualizations and abstractions, archetypes and presets, low-res environments, compressed bodies, quantized identities, boundary conditions.

The game-world’s characteristic transaction involves subcontracting this or that human cognitive thread for data aggregation and validation (typically in exchange for dopamine). Gameplay[3] ranges from the various exigencies of social media, wellness technologies, or the integrated home, to more sophisticated games such as the theatrics of labor under a regime of capitalism[4] less and less concerned with labor or production as traditionally conceived. Humans play many simultaneous games more or less advertently.

The game-world our contemporary NPC resides in bears heavy trackmarks from feedback-loops of algorithmic determination and reuptake. Humans impersonate machines who impersonate those humans, every layer of subtext and irony blown out into further codes of mutual impersonation. Weird and paralogical lines of flight emerge through the Bayesian wandering of these iterative loops at scale. The deep learning toolchain is one of many computational paradigms entangled with these feedback dynamics, accelerating the return rate of the loop between game and player, burgeoning new plateaus of flattened, normalized experience. There is a pervasive sense of withdrawal, as the human moves from the active target (on the subjective level) of games to an observer of the autonomous interplay of bots, ad-serving tools, SaaS modules, and generated content all variably modeled on human behavior and consumption habits.

From the being-baby Millennial to the wine and benzo Moshfegh protagonist to the varying-ironic dream-reader (the Amalia Ulman to Neri Oxman social media spectrum), from Tiqqun’s Young Girl to the idpol parenthetical assemblage to the stan bot army, from the Zombie formalist artist to the reaction wojak to the GPT-pilled LinkedIn techsales MLM guru, from the nodding full-bore overdoser (the Angelicism to Pinkydoll to TikTok hyperseller to the embodied hentai camgirl accelerationism spectrum) to the outrightly socially-suicidal NEET, Milady,[5] doomer, blackpilled incel, or hikikomori – a cast of characters emerges all through which the horizon of passive spectatorship collapses into a kind of stark realism.

Questions for us to engage with include:
● what are the upstream effects of bot emulation on the model-of-a-model stack of artificial intelligence?
● given the disintegration of a modern subjectivity constructed around agential capacity, what is the opportunity of the NPC phenomenon, not as an ironic detournement of a very real agential limit, but instead as a rejection of the normative priority afforded to agency in questions of thought, experience, and imagination?
● how is the dispositif of creativity bound to agency and its affective field? how have the mechanisms of the “creative economy” engendered the preconditions for the NPC?
● assuming that the game-world is a temporary mode of capture, what is its breaking point and what’s next?

Readings / Content:
Angelicism01. The Vibe Shift 2021 (cw especially w/r/t themes of sexual violence)
Basar, Shumon, Coupland, Douglas, and Obrist, Hans Ulrich. The Extreme Self. 2021.
Bratton, Benjamin. “The User Layer” from The Stack. MIT Press: 2016.
Felstead, Daniel. “The Metaverse in Janky Capitalism.” DIS.
Hookway, Brande. "The Subject of the Interface" from Interface. MIT Press: 2014.
Levy, Honor. Pillow Angels. Heavy Traffic #1. 2021.
Mohaghegh, Jason Bahbak. “Monomania” and “Megalomania” from Omnicide. Urbanomic. 2019.
Nares, Zarina Elizabeth. “How To Be THAT Girl.” DoNotResearch.
Reckwitz, Andrea. ”Society of Creativity: Structures, Dissonance, Alternatives” from The Invention of Creativity. Polity: 2022.
Rossin, Rachel. Lossy. 2015.
Steyerl, Hito. “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation.” e-flux #32. 2012.
Srnicek, Nick. "Platform Capitalism" from Platform Capitalism. Polity: 2016. In hard counterpoint to this, we recommend familiarizing yourself with TikTok shop ecommerce, the Alibaba/Amazon dropshipping pipeline, the basics of affiliate marketing, and various exclusive content marketing strategies.
Weatherby, Leif. “ChatGPT Is an Ideology Machine.” Jacobin. 2023.
Yago Dena, “On Ketamine and Added Value.” e-flux #82. 2017.

A host of related accounts and content can be provided via DM to @dis.integrator. While we embrace the NPC, it still retains negative connotations.

[1] We recommend Anil’s entire presentation at the launch panel for our book, Choreomata, hosted by Foreign Objekt.
[2] See Gallagher, R., & Topinka, R.. “The Politics of the NPC Meme: Reactionary Subcultural Practice and Vernacular Theory.” Big Data & Society. 2023. for a historical subdomain of NPC literature but rather see this Rachel O Dywer substack piece or this Adina Glickstein Spike Mag piece for more up-to-date content less connected to the legacy 4chan connotation.
[3] Some content about this here: Rey, PJ. "Gamification and Post-Fordist Capitalism" from The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Application. MIT Press: 2015.
[4] See episode 4 of our podcast “Disintegrator” on exocapitalism (a capitalism that is in a state of withdrawal from human affairs).
[5] A pretty engaging albeit one-sided perspective on this re: Fast Company.
Original languageEnglish
TypeAgency Fetish in Game-World
Media of outputOnline Streaming
PublisherForeign Objekt
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2024

Scopus Subject Areas

  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Philosophy
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science

User-Defined Keywords

  • Non-Player Character
  • Game Design
  • Gamification
  • Economies of Affect
  • Creativity Dispositif
  • Exocapitalism


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