Is It OK to Torment Non-Player Characters in Video Games?

SUPPORT REQUEST: I am playing a sim-style video game. The non-player characters you use have specific skills, weaknesses and likes and dislikes. Sometimes I put them in uncomfortable situations, such as sending a man who is afraid of space to explore an asteroid. These can lead to some hilarious results. However, I feel uneasy about allowing them to live their best lives. Am I being unethical?
Dungeon Master

Dear Dungeon Master,

These games allow ordinary mortals to fantasize about playing God. You can become the demigod of your digital universe, controlling the fate of the characters whose lives, as they are, remain in your hands. They can raise questions that have been long posed by tragic and theological literature.

Since the beginning of writing, humans have believed that they are pawns in higher beings' games. Hector in the Iliad complains about men being playthings for the gods. His wills are subject to change every day. Gloucester, in King Lear, also draws the same conclusion as Hector when he wanders across the heath after being brutally blinded. We are like flies to wanton boys. They kill us because of our sport.

CLOUD SUPPORT Spiritual Troubleshooting in the Digital Age

Satan and God bet that Job, a righteous man, would curse God if he suffered enough hardship and suffering. Satan then kills Job's children, his servants and his livestock, and causes his body and skin to burst with boils. Job, who doesn't know that Job's suffering is just a matter of chance, can only conclude that his woes reflect divine punishment. He cries out that my flesh is covered with worms, dust clods, and that I am unable to eat. My skin has become a burden My life is wind.

These passages are difficult to read without feeling empathy for the victims. You may feel the same discomfort when you provoke your characters. This could be a sign that you are making them suffer for entertainment. Non-player charactersNPCsare algorithms without minds or feelings. They can't feel pain and discomfort. This is the consensus. Humans, as you know, are notorious for underestimating the sentience and abilities of other animals (Descartes believed that animals were machines and could not feel pain), so it is worth taking a moment to consider algorithmic suffering.

Many NPCs rely on behavior tree algorithms that follow rote if-then rules, orin more advanced charactersmachine-learning models that develop their own adaptive methods. It is common for the ability to suffer to be tied to neuronal opioid receptors and nociceptors. So it seems that videogame characters don't have the necessary neurological hardware to produce a pain response. From a neurological perspective, emotional distress (our ability feel fear, anxiety and discomfort) is more complicated. However, emotion in humans and animals often depends to some extent on stimuli external to the five senses. These algorithms don't have sensory access to the outside world, so it is unlikely they can experience negative emotions.

Neurology isn't the only consideration when it comes down to the ethics and suffering. Moral philosophers argue that real suffering is defined by the ability to have preferences, the ability to view the world as positive or negative outcomes and to make decisions about them. Preferences can be observed, whereas pain is subjective and felt only by the sufferer. Because cats recoil from the bathtub and sometimes run away when dogs approach them, we know they have preferences. Your NPCs may have particular skills, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. This is something you can observe, but it's not hard to see. Do they fight or resist being put in unfavorable situations? Are they prone to making facial expressions and body movements that are associated with fear? While you might argue that they are programmed into their behavior by their designers, animal preferences could be considered a type of algorithm developed over evolutionary history.