Hardly Working, the life of non-playable characters


What digital life forms are still hiding in the folds of virtual worlds, living an unseen life that is still animated by code? And what do they represent from a sociological perspective in our digital anthropomorphic ecosystem? These are questions that easily arise before Hardly Working, a work developed as part of the EMAP/EMARE framework by the artist collective Total Refusal, which defines itself as a “pseudo-marxist media guerilla”. Produced as a 4-channel video installation and subsequently as a film, Hardly Working focuses on so-called non-playable characters (NPCs), the video game characters who are not part of the game dynamics and script, but who are nonetheless integrated, often in loops, into the game scenario to reinforce its reality and details. Their digital identity is barely perceptible as they are relegated to the background of the players’ attention and to the periphery of the game system’s structure. The collective instead places them at the centre of the stage, in the spotlight, and analyses their repetitive movements in detail. The four main characters (a laundress, a stableman, a street sweeper and a handyman) are referred to as “Sisyphus machines”, alluding to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, condemned to push a huge stone uphill for eternity only to experience its inevitable descent. Their existential status is undoubtedly similar: eternally trapped in loops that can be viewed from different perspectives. The irony that speaks from the narrative voice should not detract from the value of the digital ethnography critically presented here. In a supposedly political gesture, the social economy of these characters and the balance of power they represent in their virtual worlds symbolises how marginal workers have historically been demoted by capitalist society. Their repetitive gestures, repeated for hours on end, no longer produce a particular good, as on the physical assembly line, but they serve a different and still depersonalising purpose: they make the visual landscape more believable and detailed, acting like pointlessly working human tapestries with a live encoded spirit.


Total Refusal: Hardly Working (Excerpt)