Luxuries Bought With Others’ Lives: NPCs, Dehumanization, and Pandemic Ethics

Opening monologue:

This is Free City.
Look at this guy. He’s one of the sunglasses people.
And the people who wear sunglasses? Are heroes.
They have a devil-may-care attitude and they run this town.
Bombshell:You are so hot.
Revenjamin Buttons, dropping into driver’s seat: Oh, I know.
See? That’s not even his car. Or his wife.
For the sunglasses people, they get to do anything they want.
They go on all sorts of missions, they got cool hair, cool clothes.
I mean, laws aren’t really laws to them.They’re more like mild suggestions.
Like, I don’t think he’s gonna return that car.
Or that nice lady.
See what I mean? Hero.

A still from the movie Free Guy, featuring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer. Image copyright (©) 20th Century Studios or related entities. Used for publicity and promotional purposes.

Thus begins Free Guy. 105 words of thesis statement.

(This will contain extremely spoiler-lite commentary — if it’s not in the trailer, I won’t reveal it, or I will make fairly vague comments and will mark them as spoilers.)

The opening monologue establishes the central theme of the whole story: that in Guy’s world, there are Sunglasses people — Player Characters (PCs), and everyone else — Non-player characters, NPCs. Guy’s people are the NPCs.

The game in which the NPCs live is a Nietzschean horror show. Quite literally — Dionysian excess, nihilism, will to power, even eternal return is built into the game. It rewards all of the most antisocial aspects of human behavior — greed, brutality, sadism.

But for the NPCs, it’s just existence, how the other caste lives. The NPCs are fully aware of the massive, repetitive violence around them; they just have no conception of a world without it.

The Player Characters beat up, shoot, stab, kick, rob and run over the NPCs, without shame or penalty. You can’t even call it malicious; that would require the PCs to acknowledge the NPCs. It’s the cruelty of indifference taken to its absurd extreme.

The NPCs, however, treat each other with kindness & display remarkable pro-social behavior with each other. They have relationships amongst themselves, not simply because they’re coded to be friends. They have homes, desires, networks amongst themselves, empathy.

But those relationships are completely invisible to the Player Characters. That the NPCs even have interior lives does not occur to the humans driving the Player Characters. Why should it? To humans, the NPCs are nothing but code.

It’s important to realize that Free Guy is not a pandemic product. The original skeleton of the script was built in 2016, it was rewritten in 2018, and principal photography was the spring and summer of 2019. Yet, it is an exemplar of a behavior the pandemic has made all too clear.

In our world, as in Free City, almost everyone sees themselves as a Sunglasses person, a Player Character. Quite often the central PC, under the principle of “everyone is the hero of their own story.” And in both worlds, PCs build small bubbles of other PCs around themselves.

In both worlds, everyone outside of the bubble is treated as an NPC. We don’t acknowledge their agency, their relationships, their aspirations, or most importantly, their fragility. NPCs don’t count as people who can be harmed.

This is far more common than we like to think.

Fr’ex: Thursday evening, your throat is a little scratchy, you’re sneezing a little more often than usual, you feel tired. You stop at your usual convenience store, and sneeze on the clerk while checking out.

Friday morning, you wake up feeling terrible, and pop positive on a strep or Covid or flu test. You know you were contagious, you know exactly where you’ve been.

The question: do you call the convenience store to both warn & apologize to the clerk you infected?

You have a voice and the ability to use your phone; you are not that sick. It costs you 3 minutes of your life total. You know if someone exposed you and could tell you, you’d prefer to be warned, so you could take precautions and get treatment as soon as possible.

The honest answer: no, nobody ever calls. Nobody does this.

Congratulations, that’s NPC-ing the clerk.

Yes, we all need to sit with this. This is what most people do, every single day of their lives, to almost everyone else.

To quote Granny Weatherwax: Sin, young man, is treating other people like things.

Or in the context of Free Guy, like NPCs.

We’ve been doing it for decades, if not centuries. But the pandemic gave us clear, daily examples of our monstrous behaviors.

I mean, if we’re going to preach for the cult of personal responsibility for public health, it means being our own contact tracers, and having the responsibility and humanity towards others to own the harm we do.

Yeah, no, that was a deeply bitter joke, because it would require that people actually think about other people as other fragile people, and that doesn’t happen.

I started thinking about this deeply when a caller on the psych triage line compared themselves to Guy and Buddy. This person, a health care worker, said they felt like patients treated them like an NPC who only exists to hand out health boxes.

The term the caller needed but did not have was dehumanization. The people coming to their clinic did not see a human being, they saw only a vending machine robot. A particularly useless one, since there aren’t many take-home treatments for Covid.

This person has been suffering abuse for months, and was at their breaking point. Let’s be clear: no health care worker calls their mental health help line when they’re merely tired. They only call when their soul is crushed and they have no resources left.

My good days are when I can convince someone that, instead of quitting their profession, they just look for another job where they’re not in the front trench. The okay days are when they must quit their job, but decide not to quit their life or hurt themselves.

Let’s just say there have been a lot of very, very bad days in the past few weeks. Case counts were down, which was good, but that meant health care workers don’t have the routine adrenaline to get through the shift. Slow shifts are when the processing happens.

And processing two years of disappointment in almost every other human? Recklessness beyond measure? Willful, spiteful ignorance? Distrust in colleagues who went to Antivaxville? All while their 6th sense for Covid tells them BA2 is bad, and coming fast?

We’re very, very lucky that we have any health care workers left. The instinct to help other people that draws most people into health care is both deeply rooted and deeply protective of their souls. Burning it out takes massive greed and cruelty from society.

Accomplishment unlocked, society, for about 10% of health care workers. (To be clear, I’m in these trenches, too. Just not the front-most trench.) So far. The percentage will keep growing, as more of their colleagues fall to Long Covid and workplace injury and despair.

There is no replacement pipeline. The US used to offer visas and better pay to healthcare workers from abroad; expect that pipeline to be dry. Not when our 5% of the world population were such giant, whiny titty babies that we caused 20% of the world’s infections & deaths.

There are other countries who need healthcare workers, who will pay equally well, who will offer better benefits, better hours & conditions, safer societies, fewer gun shot wounds, less contempt.

The student pipeline will dry up, too. The bright, empathetic high school students who want to help other people have been shown clearly how badly they’ll be exploited in US health care. (And teaching, and hospitality, and…) It’s not worth 6 figures of debt to be abused to death/disability.

We’re going to end up with a health care system built entirely out of sadists and burnouts who could not possibly care less. Today is not the bottom for US health care. It can get so much worse if the only ones left are the ones skilled at abusing back.

And health care workers? We’re *lucky*. We have job security, health insurance, often a union, a human resources department that knows it costs 3-8 times as much to replace a worker as to preserve them, and thus pays for a psych triage service.

That clerk at the convenience store? No union. Likely no insurance, or none they can afford to use. Usually not a living wage, or sick time, rarely even a consistent schedule from day to day or week to week. Often, they don’t even have protective equipment.

Same for line cooks and servers.
Same for hotel workers.
Same for cleaners.
Same for drivers, taxi and Lyft/Uber.
And service workers are the ones bearing the brunt of the dehumanization.
Even from people who have their own history AS service workers.

So, is it clear yet why so many people are so utterly furious with almost everyone? I happen to be one this week who can transform my rage at this utter recklessness and depravity into thought and words.

We expected better of almost everyone else. I doubt most of us were naïve enough to expect highly prosocial behavior, but it really wasn’t too much to expect some basic respect and rules following.

We’ve been disabused of that naivety.

Now, I know my personal context alters my moral compass. I grew up in a different pandemic. HIV’s mode of *transmission* was more complicated than an airborne virus, but Immune Deficiency is right there on the label. Infection control was necessary.

Infection control is also not difficult; a 1980s 8 year old can learn it. Handwashing, vaccinations, and wearing a mask for the sake of others was, and remains, easy. Almost all of my conscious life, I’ve been aware of what it means for people I love to be vulnerable.

Fragile people taught me the ethics of a pandemic. I was criminally neglected as a child; the people who seemed to care most were dying gay men and the lesbians who cared for them. I know I was tolerated because I was useful, but the moral education they shared tells me I was loved.

They were kind enough to build an ethical framework for an 8-14 year old. They knew my circumstances and wanted better for me. And the basis of those ethics was simple.

“We do not buy our luxuries with other people’s lives or health.”

My parents are a gambling addict and a compulsive spender, so the easy lesson was buying expensive shoes instead of groceries for the children, or taking the mortgage payment to the casino. But there were more complex ones — the defense budget vs homelessness.

Of course we did the Trolley Problem, in most of its permutations. We did a lot of work on consent — and the LGBTQ community was decades ahead — and communication. But it always came down to don’t treat others as things, and nobody can sell a life.

This lesson became my moral foundation. More than the few weeks at a random church when a parent had a fit of penance, or the sporadic Quaker meetings, in winter, when the 55+ trailer park had enough Quaker snowbirds.

Not buying luxuries with other people’s lives fit neatly into the Quaker principles of Simplicity, Equality, Integrity and Stewardship. And so this lesson lived in my soul, a legacy from the dead, a memory to carry forward as HIV treatment slowly improved and fewer died.

And now, another pandemic. More easily spread, more widely transmissible, somewhat quicker to kill, but with the same denial and contempt, with the same long suffering, and the same governmental neglect and embrace of eugenics.

Which was and remains an accomplishment in social failure, given the Reagan administration. It takes a monstrous world of monstrous inhumanity to do worse than Ronnie Raygun, and we had layers of negligence to call on.

We do not buy luxuries with other people’s lives.
It’s a simple rule.
It demands we recognize humanity.
It demands we place as few people as possible in the NPC bubble, and keep the PC bubble as open to all as possible.
It demands we try to see each other’s fragility.

I know that’s not a 100% on ability — humans evolved for smaller communities.
We can keep 200-1500 people in working memory but beyond that, other people start to become background noise. Thus, we use ethics and moral frameworks to compensate for our inattentions.

Simply put, ethical frameworks are rules for maintaining a behavioral system of subroutines to protect other people and ourselves. They can be very simple — no gunplay in the house — to extremely complex — the principles underlying a metropolitan sewer system.

In this pandemic, the rules to protect others from our germs are simple and not especially onerous — wear a mask, observe social distance, quarantine if uncertain about exposure, isolate when infectious, stay home as much as possible, limit unnecessary consumption. Don’t buy luxuries with other people’s lives.

Humans have thousands of years of hard-earned experience with preventing infectious disease, because we also have thousands of years of being helpless to treat it. Most of our methods made us monsters so that some could survive. We have not needed those this time.

Compared to the pandemic ethics of previous pandemics?
Nobody’s been nailed into their houses without food and water (even in Shanghai).
We have not abandoned families to die together because we have no means of treating them.
No plague ships or houses.

Being told to stay home & eat the food in our house & watch TV, to drop the recreational shopping, only come to ONLY the emergency room for emergencies?
And having that be too much to handle?
The ghosts of our ancestors would like some words.
None of them will be well done.

An ethical framework recognizes self-care as an essential principle — don’t be a casualty if for no other reason than it will put others at risk when they have to step up to rescue your ass. But ethics also demand self-care not be selfish.

Ethics demand we be honest with ourselves, and assess our needs versus our wants. Responsible self-care is stopping for takeout when you need a nutritious meal you cannot make yourself. Irresponsible self-care is demanding someone with less security than you serve you.

Need a change of space and some quiet? Try driving for a weekend at a lake cabin with poor broadband instead of a weekend at a casino on the far side of a flight.

It’s skipping both the crowded bar and drinking alone, and finding an online substance abuse group.

I happen to have a literal lifetime of practice at this, and yes, I fail. Each time, failure builds a better rule. So while yes, I would love a night of club dancing almost more than anything on earth, I will continue to make do with Just Dance and a Nintendo Switch.

Because I know that if I have been exposed, nobody ever bothers to call and warn.
I know if I’m infected, I will be contagious at least 24 hours before I show symptoms.
And I know that’s true for everyone, including the other 200 people dancing and singing.

Ecstatic dance is as close as I get to a connection with the numinous.
My experience of the transcendental comes at 150 bpm, while wearing black eyeliner.
So this HAS been a long 2 years.

But it’s not ecstatic if everyone else is dead or too sick to dance.

My spiritual health does okay with the simulation, and the joy of a group dance is a luxury not worth someone else’s life.
Very, very little is worth the guilt we carry when we pass an infection to someone who doesn’t survive.

This pandemic means that the margins of socially affordable luxury have narrowed.
If we had a planet of responsible governments, we could have kicked this virus by the end of 2020, with nothing but social distance, masking, quarantine and isolation. 6 weeks. But we don’t.

Each variant gets worse, and repeated infection means more Long Covid, and that means more burden on a health care system that was already operating at 99% efficiency (because redundancy is not profitable). Each wave erodes the luxuries we could once afford.

And it’s not the safe, middle class white people who bear the consequences of being NPC’ed.
It’s the people who are coerced into service, whose shelter and survival depend on a public-facing service job.
The people most likely to be NPC’ed are the ones most harmed.

Now for the spoiler part of the thread. Stop here if you don’t want to be spoiled.

Free Guy has excellent examples of a pro-social society existing inside of a deeply antisocial system. In the first 6 minutes, we see the non-player characters helping each other during violent crimes while providing emotional support & community structure to each other.

(I think it’s also important that the NPCs have emotional and physical security. They live in comfortable apartments, have access to all of their necessities, including self-care and recreation. For them, sufficiency breeds solidarity, not contempt & competition.)

The excess, the LUXURIES the PCs acquire? Those breed contempt and competition, and each level exacerbates the available cruelties. Which we know: wealth reduces compassion. Luxury signaling indicates an empathy deficit.

They definitely wrestle with existential despair, and Buddy’s answer demonstrates better Angel’s speech on the same topic (S2, E16, Epiphany)

“If there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

The NPCs self-actualize, often despite their programming. Ultimately, when facing existential crisis, they do NOT reach for the weapons surrounding them. They call on their internal social networks to protect their world, and they *rescue* each other from (apparent) destruction.

Yes, it’s an action-comedy about a fictional video game. But it’s the best example of pro-social community and ethical behavior since The Good Place. (And Free Guy dovetails neatly with The Good Place’s ethical framework.) And we desperately need pro-social models.

The point of the story is this gif: when faced with an existential crisis, the solution is not to kill one to save five, it’s TO THINK HARDER UNTIL WE REACH THE GOAL OF NOT KILLING ANYONE.

Because there is no such thing as an NPC in our world. Everyone is a Player Character to themselves and the people who love them. Even if we don’t know their specific circle, they are real, and their lives are not currency to buy luxuries.

Ps: watch the movie. It’s funny, emotionally complex, deeply empathetic, safe for ~5th grade and up.
Paying attention to the background and the details is highly rewarding.

Plus the irony of *Disney* putting out a movie with intellectual property theft at its core. #DisneyMustPay. Pay your writers, Mouse.