Thursday, March 14, 2013


As I was puttering about a few mornings ago, I ran across this comic.  As someone who has worked in retail customer service and as a gamer, and perhaps as too much of an affective reader, I found myself in sympathy with the core message imparted by the cartoon: the realization of unimportance.

I suppose some context needs to be provided.

The term "NPC" in the comic derives from role-playing games and means "non-player character."  The term--and the thing labeled by it--exists only in its deviation from another thing--the player character or PC--and is thus necessarily and inherently devalued.  And it is true that the PCs in a role-playing game are the protagonists.  They are the primary characters of the stories told in role-playing games; the games are fundamentally about the PCs, with NPCs relegated to the roles of antagonists to be defeated--and servants to be exploited.

For the character in the comic to refer to himself as an NPC therefore is a recognition of abjection--and, again, having worked in retail customer service, I am aware that the job lends itself to that impression.  It is easy when one is a low-paid wage-worker to perceive one's self as abject, for corporations are uncaring for all save their profit margins, managers are out to ensure their own jobs, and customers are unwilling or unable to vent their spleen at those who can actually effect change--but they still vent it.  The work is devalued--it is not paid well, it tends to offer few benefits, and there is little job satisfaction to be had in working with customers who demand exaltation despite deserving far, far less than that.

More, though, is the thought of being an ancillary character in someone else's story.  It is easy to believe--and not only as a retail worker--that things are *really* about other people.  The stories of others are recorded and told to others, written in books and broadcast to televisions, projected on screens and seen through them on the internet.  Many of our own deeds are barely attended to, barely noticed, and then only by others who are in situations similar to our own--situations that escape the notice of those who are created for us as high and mighty, as exalted and deserving of attention and adulation.

I, too, am an NPC, and not usually the one who, as the antagonist, offers the conflict that drives narrative (although many of my students, no doubt, view me as formidable opposition to their desires).  No, I am the kind of NPC who exists to offer...something that the people about whom the stories are told can use to do what it is that they do that makes them worthy of narrative remembrance--if I am that lucky (I am probably more like the nameless, faceless NPCs who populate cities and towns in role-playing games, there for flavor and an attempt at verisimilitude but not having any information or items useful for the continuation of quests).

I have seen PCs, though, once or twice.

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