Who You Calling ‘NPC’?

‘Non-Player Character’ Has Become an Insult. But Its D&D Origins Tell a Different Story

Born out of early tabletop role-playing games, “Non-Player Characters” were never intended to imply actual humans were mindless automatons, or to erase anyone’s personhood, writes columnist Jackie Mansky. Courtesy of Dave Klegman/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

I tripped over the term NPC, quite literally, on my way to an event the other night. Rushing to get there, I fell right in front of the venue. Embarrassed by how many people had just watched me eat concrete, I texted my friend Claire.

“They’re just NPCs,” she wrote back instantly. “Who cares what they think?”

NPC, the acronym for “non-player character,” is a gamer concept that’s been around for 50 years now. Often thought of as a background character—a villager, a barkeep, a shop owner—who helps to flesh out the world around the protagonist, it can refer to anyone in a game who is not controllable by a human player.

But the way Claire used it speaks to a modern trend: referring to real-life people as NPCs.

It’s no surprise that the concept has taken off today. At a time when chatbots are doing everything from helping you buy a pair of jeans online to answering insurance questions, the idea of interacting with someone who turns out not to be, well, human, is no longer the stuff of science fiction. It’s likely one of the reasons that NPC has been gaining prominence, with “non-player character” even making it into the Merriam-Webster dictionary last year.

As the term enters our everyday speech, though, it’s worth asking what we’re actually saying when we call someone an NPC. Already people have weaponized the concept, seized on the NPC label as a means of distinguishing “free thinkers” (themselves) from people whose thoughts and actions were, supposedly, pre-programmed (pretty much everyone else).

But to understand the history of the term NPC is to recognize that this kind of dehumanizing discourse hijacks its original conceit.

Born out of early tabletop role-playing games (RPGs), NPCs were never intended to erase anyone’s personhood or to imply actual humans were mindless automatons. Rather game-builders developed NPCs to do the very opposite: help RPG moderators build a world of possibilities for players.

The term NPC was first popularized by Dungeons & Dragons, created by E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974. The genre-defining collaborative storytelling game allowed you to play as your alter ego in an imaginary world brimming with adventure. You could be a fighter, magic-user, cleric, or chief; a human, dwarf, half-elf, or hobbit; and lawful, neutral, or chaotic. A designated Dungeon Master (DM) facilitated the game, developing and fleshing out the campaigns you embarked on, and serving as referee and judge when necessary.

Anything (really, anything, the game stressed) could happen. That’s how non-player characters took off; DMs leaned on NPCs to broaden and further story arcs. The original D&D rulebook even included a section dedicated to the “non-player character,” which touched on basic rules of engagement, like what happens when you hire the services of an NPC (they could help if they “receive their pay regularly, are treated fairly, and are not continually exposed to extra-hazardous duty, and receive bonuses when they are taking part in some dangerous venture”).

A longtime goal of game designers and programmers has been to make NPCs more believable, and they’re getting closer.

Signifying the importance of NPCs, the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons released “Non-Player Character Records” in 1979. The booklet of blank character sheets helped formalize the concept, allowing DMs to keep track of the abilities, combat skills, descriptions, possessions, and backgrounds of the characters. “No longer will the DM need to worry about lack of continuity or lost records on non-player characters, for these sheets provide the DM with easy-to-store records of the many non-player personalities which populate his or her campaign,” the introductory text promised.

D&D is generally credited by game scholars as the first commercial tabletop RPG. As the genre grew in the late 1970s and ’80s and from there started expanding beyond kitchen tables onto computers and video games, conventions from D&D, including NPCs, followed suit. On screen, these characters could be especially comical, limited by computer programs’ rudimentary movement algorithms and scripted responses. That’s how NPCs gained a reputation for being goofy and robotic. Think of the tavern owner in a video game who never moves from behind the bar, or the stranger on a road who can only repeat canned lines, like, “Hello, fellow traveler, have you heard about the werewolf destroying the crops?”

People have had fun with these characters over the years, dressing up as them and channeling their jerky movements and clunky expressions. Today there’s enough of a niche audience for this kind of content that influencers even imitate NPCs for money.

An anonymous poster on 4chan was likely drawing on this clunky version of the NPC concept in 2016, when they shared a “theory” about a fixed number of souls on Earth, designating non-player characters as “the soulless extra walking flesh piles around us.” Pro-Trump supporters seized on this depiction of the NPC as a means of denigrating liberal activists.

What makes the slur more loaded than, say, “sheeple”—surprisingly not internet-speak but a term that dates back to at least the 1940s—was that NPC implies that the person you’re in ideological disagreement with is not just wrong, but incapable of independent thought and action. This distinction meant that a “mass outcry against, say, serial harassers, racial injustice, or Trumpian ideas,” could be “dismissed as not just inherently uncritical but prima facie evidence of a lack of human consciousness,” wrote journalist Cecilia D’Anastasio in 2018, as an NPC meme featuring Wojak (a blank-faced cartoon character recycled from an earlier 2010 meme) gained prominence.

Far-right watchers have since characterized NPC as a fascist “dog whistle” and a way to dehumanize people. They’ve noted that it’s part of a broader kind of rhetoric that’s leading to extremist violence around the world.

This use of NPC could have a natural expiration date IRL, as the in-game characters themselves evolve. A longtime goal of game designers and programmers has been to make NPCs more believable, and they’re getting closer. Take the simulation game Animal Crossing, which took off during COVID lockdowns; its anthropomorphic villagers are capable of doing most of the same things that playable characters can, and even are assigned specific personality types, like lazy, cranky, sisterly, and smug. While we’re still far from seeing the kind of NPC character promised by “Project Milo,” the graveyarded Microsoft Xbox 360 venture that claimed to have invented an “emotional AI” more than a decade ago, new technological advancements promise to continue to stretch the idea of what an NPC can look like.

Maybe in time, this will push the concept of NPCs in the culture, too, returning it closer to its foundational definition—not someone without free will, but a player like any other in this world we build together. One who, I’d hope, still wouldn’t care about an errant sidewalk stumble.


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