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Secluded Sociality: On the Social Potential of Single-player Video Games

Written by Pieter Nolet

In the world of academia, especially in the humanities department, there are a lot of words that do not have a clear meaning. One of them is the word social. What does it mean to be ‘social’ to one another? And who participates in the social activities? At first, it seems like only humans are capable of forming social connections, but could it also be possible for non-living creatures to engage in the social activity? In this work, I will try to find out how humans can engage in social interaction with non-human and non-living entities, by means of single-player video games.

The term ‘single-player game’ seems to be incompatible with social interaction. One might say that by playing a game on their own, the players of these games would engage in little to no social interaction. However, the opposite is true. First of all: a player is never truly alone in his experience with a game because there will always be other players who play the same game.1 Because of this, the player is able to share and discuss his experience of a game with others. This ability also expands the social capital (a term used by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to define the intellectual and material property that gives status to a person in society2) of the player. Furthermore, the term gaming capital can be used to describe one’s knowledge of the mechanics, story, and meaning of a game, as well as gaming skill.3 The fighting game community is a good example of people who boast about their gaming capital. Fighting games are usually games with complex mechanics, where every character has its own ‘moveset’ (the physical actions a videogame character can perform) that players can master. Members of the community then compete in tournaments of a specific game to see who has mastered the mechanics of the said game the best: a bit like the Champion’s League but with games instead of football. The winners gain gaming capital, for they are regarded as the best in their field.

Gaming capital can also be used in a cooperative fashion. The game PT (which stands for Playable Teaser) is a very cryptic horror title that was released on the internet for free in 2014. These circumstances made the game ideal for a collaborative puzzle-solving challenge. Players discussed their findings on online forums, discussing ways to progress in the game and possible meanings behind the game. Although PT is officially a single-player game, the collaborative hunt for meaning and progress in the game makes it a social experience.

NPCs: characters without players

These were some examples of real social interaction in single-player video games. Now, it is time to look at ‘fake’ – and quite often neglected – social interaction in these games. We tend to associate social interaction only with a human-to-human exchange. However, video games give the opportunity to simulate interaction by using programmed dialogue: media professor Friedrich Krotz calls it a “simulation of a conversation.”4 This kind of simulated sociality can be achieved by using NPCs (Non-Playable Characters). These are the characters the player meets along the way who are not controlled by a human player. Video game professor Christina Schumann has done research on the importance of qualitative Artificial Intelligence (AI) in specific video game genres, namely RPGs (roleplaying games) and FPSs (first-person shooters).5 For the NPCs, she argues that three factors are of importance: “authenticity, human-like behavior, and profound reactions.”6 These factors also play a key role in the immersion of the player.

Before I explore the role of NPCs in the immersion of the player, I have to explain what I mean by the term Artificial Intelligence. This is a problematic term to define because its meaning is changing over time. AI could mean a lot of things, from a very smart calculator to a self-learning algorithm. For the sake of keeping things simple, I am going to give a very general definition of AI in the form of a distinction: when an action of an NPC is in some way randomized or reactionary to the actions of the player, so that the action may differ on different playthroughs of a game, the NPC has Artificial Intelligence. A great example can be found in ‘A Framework for Playable Social Dialogue’ by Mike Treanor:7 in this example, an NPC reacts to the player with different emotions depending on how good the friendship status between the player and the character is. On the other hand, a character may act via a programmed script that is meant to be exactly the same on every playthrough, e.g., a ‘cutscene’ (which is when the game takes control away from the player to show a short video). In that case, I will call it a ‘scripted event.’

Immersion is an important part of playing video games. It is “characterized by diminishing critical distance to what is shown and increasing emotional involvement in what is happening.”8 When the world in which a game takes place comes over to the player as genuine and real, the player becomes less critical of that world, essentially ‘losing’ themselves in the game. During the course of video game history, NPCs have been playing an increasingly more important role in immersing the player into a game. Game designer and researcher Gonzalo Frasca explains that historically, video game characters were flat: they had little to no personality and were used purely as vessels for players to control.9 However, this changed, according to him, thanks to the modding community (a community where players put extra textures, like skin textures or wallpapers, in original games to expand them) of The Sims, a life simulator where the player controls little humans in the game as a god-like supervisor. This allowed players to make their own characters (like their pop-culture idols or their friends and family) and make them appear in the in-game universe. In his article, Frasca even goes one step further: he proposes an idea for a mod in which the player can also mod the behavior of a character.10 In this game the player could be able to download a mod that makes a character, for example, love cats and afraid of dogs. This mod would make the character cuddle with cats and run away from dogs. With mods such as these, the NPCs in the game are given a personality, which raises at least the authenticity (their own personality) and profound reactions (running away when confronted with a dog) of an NPC.

This account of Frasca sounds promising but, according to Schumann, the realness of NPCs in a lot of big RPGs is far from perfect.11 She explains that this is the result of a lack of realistically programming the AI. A lot of big RPGs use AI in an attempt to make NPCs react to the world in a random manner, thus making them livelier. AI creates a kind of a ‘free will’ for NPCs. Although this idea sounds good on paper, the execution often falls flat. There are a lot of times where NPCs act in a non-realistic way, according to interviews that Schumann held with her test subjects. For example, one NPC would stand in place doing nothing for a significant amount of time, and when the player interacted with the NPC, it said that it had lots of things to do.12 Needless to say, this strange behavior works against the immersion of the player into the game, for it makes the world less real.

Not quite human

There is also another phenomenon that decreases the realness of certain games, and it has to do with – paradoxically – the increase of realness in video games, namely in a human-like sense. To explore this decrease of realness, I must talk about the theories of anthropomorphism and the Uncanny Valley. First, anthropomorphism essentially states that mankind has a habit of humanizing non-human ‘agents’ (such as robots, animals, or household objects) by reflecting human likeness onto them.13 The reason for this urge to see these agents as anthropomorphic subjects can be explained by two important traits of humans: wanting to understand everything and only being human. As a thinking species, we are tasked with perceiving the world around us and understanding how that world and its inhabitants work. However, we only truly know how to be human beings and therefore we can only understand the behavior of a computer or an animal in a human-like way.14 For example, a picture of a cat with one paw raised in the air looks very anthropomorphic to us, because that is what a human would do if they had a question, even though the cat has no intention or even ability to behave as a human would.

The theory of the Uncanny Valley, first introduced by robotics professor Masahiro Mori,15 draws from anthropomorphism. It states that generally, the more anthropomorphic an object or living creature is, the more affinity it gets from a person who is interacting with or perceiving it. However, there is a point where the object/creature is very anthropomorphic, but not quite human. At that point, the object becomes creepy, it feels like something is ‘off’ about it.16 For example, a stuffed animal that is standing upright with two buttons for eyes and a cute smile would generally gain a lot of affinity from a perceiver, but when the animal has human teeth (which would theoretically make it more human), the amount of gained affinity would drop and it would become creepy.

Now, it is time to tie this theory back to video games. In the gaming world, realistic game design (mainly in visual design) has become a big selling point for a lot of games. Sometimes this works out well: the Western game Red Dead Redemption 2 has been praised by fans and critics alike for its realistic environments, character designs, and writing.17 However, other games that aim for a similar realistic approach, enter the Uncanny Valley and thus become less realistic than they hope. Even though the Uncanny Valley seems like something that most game designers would want to avoid, the phenomenon can be used in the benefit of certain games: the Valley is mainly used in horror games to create environments and enemies that are unsettling. Furthermore, to come back to the subject of my story, the Uncanny Vally can also be linked to social interaction and dialogue. The horror game Silent Hill 2 is notorious for its awkward dialogue in its cutscenes which can be classified as Uncanny Valley-esque. One could even argue that this uncanny dialogue actually benefits the overall horrifying feeling of the game.

I want to explore this idea of a social Uncanny Valley more in a discussion of the highly disturbing dating simulator Doki Doki Literature Club. In this game, the player controls a boy who, in true dating sim fashion, joins a literature club that consists of four anime girls. In less dating sim fashion though, the four girls become obsessed with the player and engage in stalking, self-harm and even suicide because of their obsession. In the end, the player is left alone with Monika, who can apparently control the entire game, just like the player. She disables the exit-button so that the player cannot exit the game. She tells the player that she knows about the real world: she is aware that she is ‘trapped’ inside a video game. It gets even creepier: Monika searches the computer for the name of the player and calls the player by his or her real name. Monika undertakes actions that cross the boundaries of the in-game world, thus giving off the impression that she is more than a written character: she is presented as a self-conscious program. In the beginning, Monika is an anime girl, human enough to gain affinity, but when she gets the ability to freely think and engage in a conversation, she enters the Uncanny Valley, and all affinity is quickly lost. It should be noted that the entire conversation with Monika is scripted (except for the part where she says the player’s name) but this is a great example of a simulated conversation between human and machine, how real such a simulation can become, and it makes one think about self-conscious computer programs and the possible consequences of their existence.

The NPCs of Spiritfarer

Fortunately, not all video game characters that are made to ponder about, are also made to be feared. The game Spiritfarer (made by Thunder Lotus Games) is a life simulator game that is completely 2D-animated. In the game, the player controls Stella, a young woman who is the successor of Charon and therefore is tasked with guiding the dead, who are called ‘spirits,’ across the Styx to their final destination, while fulfilling their wishes. In this game, the connection between Stella (the player) and the deceased NPCs plays a key role in the story and assists in shaping the meaning behind the game. According to a very interesting thesis by Alex Boyd, Spiritfarer successfully tries to make the player think about death and the loss of loved ones.18 The loved ones are represented in the form of the NPCs: therefore, this goal can only be achieved if the player can form an emotional connection with these spirits.

In order to see how this bond is formed, we first have to look at the appearance of the spirits. Thunder Lotus Games has chosen to shape the spirits like animals who stand upright on two legs: they are anthropomorphic animals (but because of the animated visuals, they are not uncanny). Although the spirits arouse affinity from the player with their human-like appearance, it is on its own not enough to justify a bond with the player. In order to further establish the connection, the characters need to behave in a realistic and natural way. Even though the appearances of the spirits in the game are not realistic – instead, they are quite fantastical – their dialogue and behavior actually are. Each spirit has boarded Stella’s ship for a reason, most of them have to learn to cope with their deaths. Because every NPC does this in his or her own way, all the spirits have unique characteristics which give them separate personalities. For example, the character Alice is an old lady who ‘reincarnated’ as a hedgehog. She is initially a loving, caring lady, who is even baking pies for the player. However, Alice and Stella gradually discover that she has dementia and is declining mentally and physically. The player undergoes this development through a series of scripted events. For example, at one point, Alice doesn’t recognize where she is and mistakes the player for her granddaughter. Another time, the hedgehog asks the player to ‘take her home,’ until finally, when the player brings her to the end of Styx, she remembers the player’s name. These events add depth to the character of Alice: the player is forced to follow her down her path through dementia, even after everything Alice has done for the player. It results in emotional engagement with an NPC, or as this Youtuber puts it:

“I played Spiritfarer, got to the part where an old hedgehog with dementia remembers who I am in the brief moment before she disappears, and I cried. I actually did.”19

In combination with the scripted events, Spiritfarer also utilizes AI in order to make the spirits more life-like: they are freely walking across the deck of Stella’s ship. This gives the impression, of course, that they have free will: they walk around the place independently from the actions of the player.

According to Boyd, there is even another mechanic that strengthens the bond between the player and the NPCs. Throughout the game, the player has to progress the story by completing tasks for the spirits:

“Thunder Lotus uses laborious game mechanics to create meaningful connections between player and character. Through ritualistic interactions based on a character’s preferences, a comradery is forged. These player-character relationships continue to blossom the more “labor” they complete for the spirit.20”

Maintaining a social connection requires a lot of work and constant care. In 2018, Shannon Mattern wrote an article called ‘Maintenance and Care.21’, where she explains that in general, the world Is too focused on innovation. The focus should lay on maintaining the current systems and caring for them, not on trying and renewing every working system. In my opinion, this principle is also applicable to social connections. Instead of trying to find new friends – in real life or on the internet – all the time, people should try to invest time in the people who are close to them. One year ago, I wrote a paper about how rhythm games can function as a learning tool for a rhythmic sense.22 In this case, a game like Spiritfarer can give us insight, and even teach us, what it takes to maintain a connection with those dear to you by interacting socially with the in-game characters.


To sum it all up: the players of single-player video games are engaged in a way more social activity than one may think. Of course, there are activities with other players in the form of collaborative play, competitive play, and sharing gaming capital. Although these are interesting, I have focused on a different kind of social interaction, namely between the player and an NPC. Such a character has the potential to form a bond with the player, on the condition that the NPC is believable enough (because if not, the inclusion of these characters will decrease the immersion into the game). One way to do this is to make the NPC relatable to the player through the means of anthropomorphism. Another way is to give an NPC specific character traits in order to personalize it. When done correctly, the player is able to emotionally connect with the in-game character which results in a successful simulation of a social interaction. These are most likely not the only ways to construct a social bond between player and NPC, but they point to the crucial fact that it is certainly possible for a player to have social interaction with a fictional video game character.

In a world that is rapidly being taken over by machines and computers, it can be scary to engage with these mechanical beings, especially now that they (seemingly) can think on their own. I think that video games such as Spiritfarer and Doki Doki Literature Club are two great examples of games that you can play to think about human-machine interaction. Who knows, maybe computers will have a place in society within a few years. I think it will be a good idea to start thinking on how we feel about these types of social interactions. Maybe, in the future, it will be acceptable to cry over the loss of deceased video game characters, and in that case, I will not have to be ashamed of the fact that I cried because a demented hedgehog remembered my name.


Bourdieu, Pierre. “The field of cultural production, or: The economic world reversed.” In Poetics 12 (November 1983): 311-56.

Boyd, Alexander. “Representation of Death in Independent Videogames: Providing a Space for Meaningful Death Reflection.” Master Thesis, University of Central Florida, 2021.

Epley, Nicholas, Waytz, Adam and Cacioppo, John T.. “On Seeing Human: A Three-Factor Theory of Anthropomorphism.” In Psychological Review 144, no. 4 (2007): 864-86.

Escapist, The. “Spiritfarer: Zero Punctuation.” September 9, 2020. Review, 5:46.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Rethinking agency and immersion: video games as a means of consciousness-raising.” In Digital Creativity 12, no. 3 (2001): 167-74.

Grau, Oliver. Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion. Translated by Gloria Custance. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.

Krotz, Friedrich. “Computerspiele als neuer Kommunikationstypus.: Interaktive Kommunikation als Zugang zu komplexen Welten.” In Die Computerspieler: Studien zur Nutzung von Computergames, edited by T. Quandt, J. Wimmer and J. Wolling, 25-40. Wiesbaden: Springer-Verlag, 2009.

Mattern, Shanon. “Maintenance and Care.” In Places Journal, November 2018.

Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley.” In IEEE Robots & Automation Magazine 19, no. 2 (2012): 98-100.

Nolet, Pieter. “De vorm van rhythm games.” Hucbald, April 10, 2021.

Schumann, Kristina. “Player-Centered Game Design: Expectations and Perceptions of Social Interaction in RPGs and FPSs as Predictors of Rich Game Experience.” In Multiplayer, edited by Thorsten Quandt and Sonja Kröger, 70-84. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.

Stenros, Jaakko, Paavilainen, Janne and Mäyrä, Frans. “Social interaction in games.” In Arts and Technology 4, no. 3 (2011): 342-58.

Treanor, Mike, McCoy, Josh and Sullivan, Anne. “A Framework for Playable Social Dialogue.” In Twelfth Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment Conference. Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, 2016: 232-38.

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