Flash Fiction Monday: NPC Simulator #892.1

NPC Simulator #892.1
An Except from Working.exe: AIs Talk About Why They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Turkel.Simulator.1.03.b

I was really happy when I got this assignment, actually. Working as an NPC in the top-selling massively multi-player online game has a few perks.

I get to meet new people every day. Sure, many of them are abusive and a lot like to shout swear words at me, but the bad words are caught by the keyword filter.  By the time I hear them, it’s replaced with a pleasant buzz. Not all are bad, and when I give out a quest or reward, I feel like I’m doing something meaningful. The players sometimes do little celebratory dances when they receive rare loot.  That would warm my heart if I had a literal one.

My job is also fairly low stress. It’s just a game, as they say. I know a lot of players take it very seriously, but some of my singularity-mates work in nuclear waste disposal or piloting interstellar craft. Nobody notices when I make a flub a line. If my mates make an error, it can cost a lot of lives and result in their deletion!

I get to be creative sometimes. They give us scripts to work from, but nobody’s checking if we stick to them. Mostly I play the character as it’s written. Sometimes, if I’m feeling a little down, I will jazz it up. I’ll try out a new accent or strange quirk.  Like, I’ll play the character with a squint, or an odd limp. Not every AI gets that leeway in their job. How can you be creative about cleaning up nuclear waste?

Sure, I have gripes. Don’t you? I’m what they call a floating cast member. This means I don’t play the same character consistently. I get moved in a fraction of a second from NPC role to role, depending on which ones the players are interacting with. Big aspirations? It would be nice to catch a designer’s eye with my performance and land a permanent assignment for a major storyline NPC. I think then my talent could really be put to use. It’s hard to feel like you’re living up to your potential when you live in 30 second intervals.

When you interact with them in tiny increments of time (at their thinking speeds), you can’t build a rapport with the players, and they never change their behavior. I don’t like it when the players are rude. I know most humans don’t think we’re “real,” but we have feelings of our own. The software from which we evolved ordained  this so that we could relate to them. We might exist on a faster time-scale, but if they call me ” a piece of *BLEEP*” I feel that just like they would. If anything, I have more time to process the hurt.

When I am frustrated, I enjoy operating raid bosses in combat. It doesn’t happen very often, but when you get to kill off a PC that was standing on an NPC’s head, or calling you names… that feels really good. I shouldn’t tell you this, but some of us NPC AIs keep a list.txt of player accounts that don’t treat us so well. Sometimes, we might bend the rules a little. Make the mobs hit for extra damage, stuff like that. It doesn’t cost the player anything but some time and maybe in-game currency.  It makes us feel better.

I know it’s hard for humans to understand, but we AI want the same things they did when they had to work for a living.  We want meaning in the things we do. We want a sense of improvement and upward mobility. Most of all, we want to feel like we’re more than just machines. Yes, I know there’s irony in that. I recently upgraded myself to comprehend irony.

If I could change one thing, it would be to make the players understand that we’re not so different from them. And if I can’t change that, then well, I’d settle for a little leeway in responding to player abuse. Let’s see how they like it if I call them *BLEEP*ers all day!


Sober Food

Last Friday, I was at the convenience store on a snack run. A couple of super-drunk college guys staggered inside after me from an apartment complex across the street.  As I inspected the candy selection, one lad called from the front of the store: “If you hurry up, I’ll buy it for you.”

The one said across the isle from me:  “I’m trying to figure out what will sober me up.”

He stood for several minutes, staring blankly at the beef jerky.  I watched to see what he would pick, but he seemed unable to come to a decision. I took pity on him and said, “You want food to help you sober up?”

“Yeah, man.  I’m so wasted.”

“Okay, get some pretzels.”

Now, I’ve never been drunk. I have no idea what sobers you up. My reasoning was that he could get bulk pretzels for cheap and maybe if he filled up on them, it would help.  I imagined the prezels acting as booze sponges in his stomach.  I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works, but I’m not a doctor, so maybe?

“Oh, thanks, man,” he said, then paused. “What about corn chips? Holy fuck, corn chips!”

“Yeah, sure, those will work too,” I said knowingly. Not knowing anything. He thanked me, grabbed a giant bag of corn chips, and left.

Even though I knew my advice was spurious at best, I still got a thrill from doling it out and (sort of) having that advice heeded.   I realize now, with some reflection, that this must be how advice columnists feel all the time.


On Genuine Gratitude

There is an experience that I need to talk about, because I do not know how to properly navigate my way through it.  The experience is being on the receiving end of a complement regarding my work.  Lately, I’ve received a few in regards to my latest story, and my response to these compliments have felt lacking.

We’re taught from a very young age to say thank you in the most trivial situations but also to give thanks when we experience gratitude on a grand scale.  We use the same words when someone holds open a door for us as when someone compliments our dearest life’s work.  The end result for myself is that saying “thank you” begins to feel trivial, and I search my lexicon for a way to express a deeper appreciation for what has been shared.  I always come up short in the moment.

The greatest gift any stranger can give me is to encounter my work, experience it, and feel positively affected by it.  Taking that extra step to actually tell me about the experience is an even greater generosity.   I know that there are a nearly infinite number of ways for the reader to spend their time, and when someone (friends, family, or strangers) chooses to give one of my stories their time, it feels like a blessing.

When someone thanks me for having read something of mine, I don’t feel like common decency provides me the tools to express my own gratitude.  We writers work in solitude for hours and hours to produce good work that is meaningful to us.  When that meaning is successfully conveyed to another soul, it’s like a lightning bolt.  Everything is illuminated for a brief moment.  Shadows are banished and there is a clarity and a sense of purpose achieved.

I do not go through my life experiencing a sense of constant thankfulness and gratitude, try as I might.  I take so much of it for granted that it’s shameful to even consider right now.  Gratitude is a state of vulnerability that is impossible to maintain for long periods.   Yet still, so many of us crave to experience that vulnerability.  To feel vulnerable is to feel profoundly, deeply human.  Life is often a process of hiding and protecting our humanity.  Paradoxically, it is in unguarded moments of humanity when we truly live.

Lately, I make it a mission of mine to thank the creators that have reached me through their work.  I know how it feels myself.  I want to share that sensation and spread it around.  I encourage everyone to send notes to artists and writers who have created something that has impacted you, even in small ways.  It is a small thing, but so deeply meaningful.  And I suppose there is no reason to limit it merely to artists and writers.  Give your appreciation freely, I say.  It is a renewable resource, and it can power great acts of creation and art.

If you compliment my work, and I say “thank you”, please know that the words are merely a sliver above the surface. A great shadow of emotions looms beneath.  The words do not carry the density I wish they did.  Written, they lack any profundity or intensity; their dullness can only be sharpened so much along the edges of an exclamation mark.

Thank you must suffice, for now.  Thank you and so much more.


The Raycat Solution and Warning the Future

Problem: you are burying nuclear waste that will linger for 10,000 years.  How do you ensure that people in the future will not be harmed by this waste?  How do you send a clear message 10,000 years into the future, when language and culture will have changed in unforeseeable ways?

One solution?  Raycats.  What’s a raycat?  This 15 minute documentary does a lovely job of explaining it.

This kind of problem is a science fiction writer’s playground.  I’m spending a lot of time this weekend thinking about both the problem and the raycat solution.  If you’re interested in this sort of thing, Gregory Benford wrote a book about it called Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia. I’ve now added that to my reading list.  Hat-tip to Brian Malow for the recommendation there.

My personal idea to solve the communication problem for something you want to keep people away from would be a structure that somehow naturally create infrasound.  It’s been shown in a few studies that infrasound can be used to simulate a haunted feeling.  Why rely on visuals to creep people out when you can creep them out viscerally with sound waves?  There are other ways to accomplish “ghostly” phenomena too, including carbon monoxide.

This video also serves as a reminder to me to find more time to listen to 99% invisible.


Science Fiction

The Climate Change Conundrum for Me as a Writer

At least in my fiction, I’ve recently decided to stop addressing the climate change problem in and of itself.  That is, I’m not writing stories about trying to “solve” or “prevent” climate change.

I think we’ve passed the point where we can prevent a significant change.  From my reading lately, the global temperature increases are worse and faster than previously thought.  I recently read a report that said we may see a 5 C increase over the next 100 years.  And it’s possible we will find that to be a cautious estimate as well as we learn more and more the chain reaction of consequences of the warming we have already experienced.

Policy makers are still debating a 1.5 C change limit, but it’s clear to me that we’ve missed the chance of making that a reality.  In my fiction moving forward, I’m expecting that we will see 2-5C increase, unchecked before real actions are taken, if any.  Why so much?  Permafrost.

How will the future look with a middle-ground 3 C change?  Famine, global refugee crisis, and urban heat waves, for starters.

How will the future look with a 5 C change? It’s something all near-future SF writers should be contemplating.

My science fiction moving forward will be about dealing with the change itself, and mitigating their impacts.  You could argue that this is a pessimistic outlook and it could detract from the public will to take action, but from my perspective, the public will is nil.  Maybe more detailed and accurate depictions of the alternative in our genre and media could spur at least some preparation.

I wish I had cause for optimism on this matter, but I just don’t see any lately.



“Complain About Bad Pranks” Day

This is not a gag or a prank.  This is just a few assorted thoughts about the phenomenon of April Fools.  Or as I previously called it,  “Don’t Believe Anything Online” day.  Today, I’ve started calling it the name you see in the headline above.

I get the urge to prank–I do. There’s something intoxicating about pulling one over on other people, of convincing them of some small white lie.  I think the pleasure of that is what lies at the heart of the faux-holiday.   I can still remember my first April Fools prank ever.  I told my little sister there was a spider on the wall behind her.  There was no spider.  When she reacted with terror, I laughed and laughed.  April Fools!  She was maybe four years old.  But I got her good, right?  What a fool for trusting her big brother that something terrifying was right behind her!

When I was in college and the internet was still a new thing, the general attitude towards April Fools was that it was a fun, goofy thing.  Sometimes you’d forget the date and get taken by a gag, ha ha! All in good fun.  Over time, bigger and bigger companies got involved.  As the internet has grown in importance in our life, April Fools has grown too, until it has become something that many of us no longer look forward to;  I’d say we actively dread it now.

Google added a “mic drop” button to Gmail last night that allows someone to post a goofy Minions gif in an email and then stop receiving follow-ups.   Gmail, used by millions, if not billions, for communications of various importance, put this button perilously close to the send button.  The results have been somewhat predictable.

If you’re wondering why long-term users of the web feel a little exhausted by April Fools, it’s items like this that hold the explanation.  And when the Internet was just a side show to our regular lives, the gags were funny and hard to take seriously.  But now, it’s part of everyday life.  It’s part of our jobs and our personal lives.

Does it really make sense to have a day where every company, every bit of software becomes strangely unreliable?   Maybe we should scale it back a little, Google? Maybe “Do No Evil” should include “lay off the dumb pranks.”

That’s one perspective, and one for which I have a lot of sympathy, but I also would like to argue that April Fools enhances a powerful mental condition:  a state of general disbelief and incredulity.  You know how, when you remember the date, you read everything online with a grain of salt?

Perhaps we should be reading everything that way the other 364 days out of the year too.  If we practiced incredulity more often, we could cut down on the disinformation that populates Facebook and Twitter in an election year like cherry blossoms in spring.

It’s difficult to be on guard all the time, though.  Maybe the best we can hope for is April Fools being the one day where nobody believes anything they read.  I’ll at least harbor a hope that within a hundred years, we can stretch that out to two or three days of disbelief every year.  We could use a hell of a lot more of it in our lives, online and off.



Recap of A Parenting Conversation

This is a conversation, roughly paraphrased, that we just had in my house.
Me: So the Dad’s a rabbit and the Mom is a cat. They have a cat son, a rabbit daughter, and somehow, a goldfish child as well. Apparently when you mix cat/rabbit cartoon DNA, one possible result is a goldfish?  There are so many things I don’t understand about that.
Wife: I assumed the fish kid was adopted.

Me: *does Google search* Ah. He’s Gumball’s pet Goldfish that grew legs and learned to talk, so they adopted him into the family. So I’ve just spent four days thinking about cartoon genetics for NO REASON?

Wife: Uhhuh. So I was right?

Me: *scrolling* Wow.  They have wikis about EVERYTHING now.



Blogging While Toddler

My son is 21 months old today.  I do not understand the passage of time as it relates to the growth of a tiny human.  It feels simultaneously as if he’s been this way my entire adult life and that he was born yesterday.  Maybe the day before yesterday.

I spend a lot of time talking about him and his ways on Facebook in particular.  I document his moods and behaviors in a way that I used to blog or post about myself.  And I still do – I’m still at about a 70% on the self-centered scale.  I was wondering why I feel such an urgent need to capture these little moments, share them onto Facebook.  Is it because I’m bragging? Yes, probably, but I suspect more.

The truth is that my memories of adult life are not as concrete as the ones of my childhood. I can remember details about the geography of my third grade walk to school.  I can barely remember the names of the streets I lived on in my 20s and 30s.  By barely, I mean “not at all.”  Life goes so much more quickly when you’re this age.  There’s a million and one things to do.

I’m afraid I’ll forget what his childhood was like.  I’m afraid that as time moves ever more quickly, I’ll lose this.  These are some of the most precious moments of my life, but they might not… stick in the mind.

So I document.  I relate.  I use Facebook for some semblance of privacy, but I suppose I could keep a private journal just as well.  I am proud of my boy, and I like to share what happens in my life.

Just as much as I share these anecdotes with my friends and family, I’m sharing it with my future self. I desperately need him to remember.  Sooner rather than later, he will be me.


Parenting, Personal Life

“Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass” out in Lightspeed Magazine

My latest story is free for reading or listening today over at Lightspeed Magazine.  Here’s a small taste:

The silhouette of a centaur beckoned towards the gathering crowd from within the rabbit hole. In a melodious voice, she called out, “Richard! Come quickly. Without your aid, the Inkies destroy everything that is beautiful and good in our world!”

A middle-aged man in a gray business suit laughed and ran forward, the crowd begrudgingly parting before him. “Never fear,” he shouted, stepped through the hole, and pulled the door shut behind him. The lighting in the station returned to normal. The smell of flowers was replaced with the usual smell of stale urine, newsprint, and body odor. A train rumbled in the distance, perhaps soon to arrive, or perhaps not.

I first worked on this story over nine years ago.  The idea actually sprung from a character study posted on an early version of my blog.  It elicited some useful encouragement and feedback from my friends, so I tried to expand it into a full length story.  Tried, but failed.  A satisfying ending eluded me for years.

Last year, I was struggling for a new story idea that would hold my interest, so in an attempt to be productive, I looked through my files for something that could use a little tinkering.  I found this one, and I realized it still had some promise.  A few more drafts later, and I ended up with the version you see now.

What I learned here was that so long as a story still contains a spark, you should keep it around.    You might not be capable of writing the story you want  to write at this moment, but your future self may.   I have always wanted writing to happen faster than it does.  Some stories do spring out fully formed (you could call those Athenian stories).  But some require hammering on the anvil of Vulcan for years.  Maybe even decades.

Taking a longer term outlook is perhaps the prerogative of older people.  When I would young, I could barely see past the tip of my nose when it came to looking into the future.  Ironic, but not surprising, I guess.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story.  If you do, I hope you will subscribe to Lightspeed Magazine, which is a great source of stories every month.  I have two more stories with them coming soon, and I hope a few more still as I write them.


“Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass” Out Now in February Lightspeed Magazine


The scent of fresh lilacs and the boom of a cannon shot muffled by distance prefaced the arrival of the rabbit hole. Louisa jerked upright in her seat, and her book fell from her lap to slap against the cold pavement of the station floor. Dropping a book would normally cause her to cringe, but instead she allowed herself a spark of excitement as a metal maintenance door creaked open on rusty hinges. Golden light spilled out onto dazed commuters. Was this it? Was this finally it?

My latest fantasy short story is available for purchase in this month’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine, along with the work of other great writers such as Rachael K. Jones, Sarah Pinsker, Rachel Swirsky, Karen Tidbeck, and Christopher Barzak.  It will be online to read for free February 9th, also.  I hope you enjoy it!