Before there were graphics, there was text: and fake dead people too

I’m still mulling Colleen’s post, Fake Dead People, where she writes about using non-player characters in games as mere ‘mouthpieces’ for architecture:

Turning people of the past into mere mouthpieces for their architecture diminishes the rich potential of reconstructions to impart information about complex lifeways. Using programmable objects such as the previously mentioned mano and metate allows avatars to act as their own guides to the past, populating the re-created ancient landscape with avatars of people interested in the past, interacting with artifacts and taking on roles suggested by these artifacts. This is simple for archaeologists who are accustomed to telling stories through objects and adds another level of interactivity to the virtual reconstruction.

She goes on to say,

[...]fundamentally we are better off wearing Caesar’s crown for ourselves rather than asking a poor simulacrum about the weather in the Republic.  Thinking of Caesar as a non-player character in history is a stretch by any means.  But game developers (and digital archaeologists) will probably not stop populating virtual worlds with fake people.  These NPCs are nonhuman manifestations of a network of agents (polygons, “modern” humans, fiber-optics, and the dead person herself) and the relationships between these agents and as a result should be studied as such.  But does this understanding of an NPC as a network make it ethical to take such liberties with the visages of the dead?

I like the phrase ‘network of agents’, but I wonder about the classification of what agents are. My agent models, though populated with simple & stupid autonomous creatures, are still autonomous… (although I like the idea of looking at the network of connections; that’s a major theme in my research) but that’s a side thought. What really prompted this post is this article from the Brass Lantern by Stephen Granade

One way to categorize non-player characters is by whether or not they act separately from the player. Many NPCs are reactive, living only to respond to player actions (assuming they respond at all). They are there to make the setting more real, provide information, or impede the player’s progress. They’re the cafe patron who doesn’t look up from her paper, or the mysterious man in the tweed jacket who talks of destiny and evil forces arrayed against you, or the guard who won’t let you into the building until you show her the proper keycard.

Autonomous NPCs are both harder to get right and more rewarding when done well. They don’t necessarily wait for the player to do something or stay in one place. They wander around and do their own thing, perhaps making unwanted comments or picking up things you really need.

Autonomous NPCs can be further subdivided based on how they’re implemented. Some NPCs are scripted: The NPC does exactly what the author codes. Others are freeform: They have a collection of rules that define their behavior, and the author winds them up and lets them go.

So I guess where I’m going with this thought: archaeological NPCs, whether appearing in text or in graphics, need to be of the autonomous kind, the kind that move with the emergent behaviour found in agent-based models. Then we’d have some real virtual reality in archaeology!

That’s a tall order. My first stab wasn’t all that successful, but it’s something to aim for.