David signed for the box at his apartment’s front office. When he saw that it was mailed from Rhode Island, he couldn’t help but smile.
A month and a half ago, he had flown to Hasbro’s headquarters in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to focus test the new My Little Pony MMO, Equestria Online. Most people expected it to be a total mess. When Hasbro first announced that they were going to make an MMO, the idea of applying the WoW “bring back ten rat heads” gameplay to the Friendship is Magic universe horrified everybody who had heard about it. Much fanart was drawn of Fluttershy standing in front of a pack of ugly rats, all whimpering and fearfully standing behind her while she held her arms out to her sides, looking angry and saying slogans like “No more murder!”
And then everyone was shocked a second time when Hasbro announced that Hofvarpnir Studios won the contract to develop the game. The fanart depicting the ponies in spiky chainmail armor smashing each other with electric guitars flowed from the fandom’s collective unconscious. General confusion reigned about what Hasbro thought they were doing. There was a constant refrain of the older fanbase complaining about being pandered to, ruining everything that was great about the show. Hasbro raffled off fifteen tickets for two to try to convince everybody that the game wasn’t going to feature Norse gods.
David had enjoyed the chance to try the game out, and was excited about the next phase of testing. Apparently the game only ran on a dedicated device (marketing bullshit; he had played it on a PC), and everyone who participated in the first alpha would get a “ponypad,” as long as they agreed to play the game for a month. James hadn’t gotten his yet, which was odd since he lived across the hall.
David didn’t have the willpower to wait until his friend got his ponypad, nor did he have the patience to make an unboxing video (besides, he had already seen two linked from Equestria Daily). He cut through the packaging tape on the brown box with his keys, and inspected the inner box. He noticed that the product packaging portrayed Fluttershy in a new pose. He opened the box carefully to preserve the box art, and took the plastic sleeve off the ponypad. The pad was a ten inch tablet and was impossibly thin. While the front screen was black, the back was Fluttershy Yellow; her butterfly cutie mark etched in the corner. He set it aside and continued to look through the packaging. He pulled what looked like a mounting arm out; it had a sticker with instructions to connect the power supply to the arm, and the pad to the arm. Finally, he took out some sort of gamepad with two sticks and a bunch of buttons.
David set the mounting arm on his desk. As he moved the ponypad in front of it, he felt his hands being pulled and the ponypad snapped into place. They must have done some magic with magnets. How did that work? He gave a little tug on the ponypad and it easily came off the arm. Those two forces did not feel equivalent.
He’d worry about that later. He plugged the monitor arm in. By the time he had crawled back out from under his desk, the ponypad had already booted and was sitting at the login screen. After connecting the ponypad to his Internet router and entering his username and password, he logged into Equestria Online.
David had run out of time during the demo, just as James and him had made it onto the hill right in front of Canterlot. He stopped to take in the picturesque view of lush, rolling hills and the far off castle of Canterlot.
He pushed on one of the sticks on the gamepad and started off towards Canterlot. He had gone only half way down the hill when he heard voices. He saw two mares off the main path and went to investigate. The game wouldn’t have drawn his attention to them if it wasn’t important.
“And you can’t do anything right!” shouted the light green pegasus. She was floating in the air, literally looking down on her target. “But hey, I forgive you since we’re such good friends. And since we’re such good friends, how about you give me some of your candy?”
The pastel yellow unicorn cringed. Her light blue mane with darker blue highlights was tied into two pigtails with ribbons and her cutie mark was some sort of wrapped yellow candy. David realized that she was about to cry and couldn’t stop himself from admiring her precise facial expression. If there was a real girl on the other end of that unicorn, the face mapping software could deal with crazy amounts of subtlety and nuance. If this was generated content, some artist or programmer knew exactly what he or she was doing to pull on someone’s heartstrings.
“Hey, come on. Whatever happened to love and tolerance?” said David, glaring at the pegasus. He felt compelled to help. He wondered where that came from; he wasn’t the kind of person to do this in real life.
The pegasus snorted. “This is boring. He’s going to leave you as soon as he figures out how boring you are, Butterscotch.” She turned and flew away.
The two of them just stood there for several moments, watching the pegasus fly off. The pastel yellow unicorn lowered her muzzle. “Th...thank you,” she quietly stammered. “I...I’m Butterscotch.”
“I’m David,” he said without thinking, but then his ponypad made an error sound and a small red X flashed on the bottom, with a message not to reveal personal information. He then remembered James getting admonished by that zebra NPC when he had used his human name. “I don’t have a name yet. I’m on my way to Canterlot to get one.”
“Oh,” Butterscotch said. She looked up just a bit. “I...umm...why did you help me?”
Why had he helped her? This wasn’t like him. In such situations, he was usually a socially awkward penguin. He looked at his pony’s face on the screen and there was no way that David looked that confident. “I don’t like bullies,” he said, noticing that his own voice came out more firmly then he thought it would have. “Butterscotch...are you okay?”
“No. I’m not,” she said, her head still lowered.
David thought for a moment. “I need to get my ponyname,” he started. Butterscotch started to look even sadder. “But if you want to come along with me and talk, I’d love the company.”
Butterscotch looked up, obviously surprised. “Oh that would be wonderful! I mean...if you wouldn’t mind me.”
“Of course I wouldn’t mind,” he said. He pushed the sticks on his gamepad, and his pony slowly trotted back to the road. “So how are you finding Equestria?” he asked casually. “You already have a ponyname so you must have been here longer than I.”
“Equestria?” she repeated blankly. “Oh, it’s fine,” she said hesitantly.
“So Butterscotch, what’s your special talent?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s just making candy. I’m actually sort of a failure. I use my magic to make candies and sweets. I love doing it,” she sighed, “but some ponies pick on me for not competing in magic classes. They want to cast bigger and flashier spells, and I don’t care.”
“If that happens often, why don’t you just block that person?”
“PONY,” corrected the ponypad in David’s voice. David paused. How did that work? Reliable text to speech that could synthesize an arbitrary person’s voice with only a few minutes of training data? Was it just looking for the word ‘person’ or was it doing some more complex analysis?
“Block...” repeated Butterscotch, obviously confused.
David fiddled with the interface, to verify that he was remembering things correctly. “Open up the social tool. Touch the icon of two ponies side by side with a heart in the top left corner of the screen. There are two tabs, one for friends and one for blocked ponies. Go to the blocked ponies tab and type in that pegasus’ name. She won’t be able to interact with you again.”
Butterscotch stopped; she seemed to be looking at something David couldn’t see. Her head turned a little as if she was reading something right in front of her. “Okay, I’ve found it....oh! It even suggests her name! Oh, and I just drag that to here...um...ok...so she’ll really never be able to bother me again?”
“If I understand the block tool correctly, neither of you will be able to interact with each other.”
“Oh,” Butterscotch said. “Is...is that alright?”
“What do you mean?” David asked her through the screen.
“I mean...won’t she be lonely if she’ll never see me again?” Butterscotch asked.
“Maybe, but why should you care?” David blinked a few times in confusion and saw his pony do the same. “She didn’t seem to care about your feelings.”
“And that makes it okay to ignore her?” asked Butterscotch. Her eyes went just a little bit wider.
“Well...yeah,” David said. “She bullied you because it didn’t cost her anything. I doubt that you’d fight back, and it doesn’t sound like you have any social allies to back you up. Did you notice how quickly that pegasus turned tail when I intervened?”
“I...” she started, and then looked down. “I just want everypony to be happy. Why can’t they understand that?”
“I think she did understand that. Think about it like this. Each of you can either be friendly or mean to the other, so there are four possible outcomes. If both of you are friendly, you can both be friends, but both of you will have to share things. If one of you is aggressive while the other isn’t, the aggressor will probably feel really good about herself. And if both of you are aggressive, there’s a good chance a fight will break out, which I bet would be painful to everypony.
“So if that pegasus knew that you wouldn’t fight back when confronted, wanted your candy, and had a demanding personality, why wouldn’t she bully you for your candy? It won’t cost her a fight, and she wouldn’t have to share her own stuff with you. Also, didn’t you say that ponies call you a failure for making candy? That they’re now trying to take from you?”
“That’s...that’s terrible! Are you saying I have to fight back? I don’t want to. I could get hurt,” whimpered Butterscotch.
“But you don’t have to stand up for yourself and maybe fight. You have a third option here: you have a blocklist. You have a quick way to say ‘I never want to interact with this pony again’ with no costs to you. If you don’t want to be bullied and don’t want to fight back, it’s the obvious response.”
“But...” she muttered. “But she’d be lonely.” She looked at him. David guessed she was asking him to tell her that it was okay to use the block tool.
“If that pegasus ends up lonely, it’s because she drove everypony away from her. It’s more likely that she’ll be a bit nicer to other ponies to get what she wants. You may have actually increased civility by blocking her. But either way, it’s no longer your problem. You can now look for ponies who aren’t going to bully you.”
Butterscotch paused mid-trot for a moment and then caught up with David’s pony onscreen. David hadn’t noticed because he had been thinking, while pushing forward on his joystick. He had also blocked that pegasus while Butterscotch was trying to figure out the UI. How did that affect the world? The tooltip text suggested that blocked ponies could have no effect on you, and did more than just blocking communication. So what would happen if that pegasus and him were trying to do the same thing in the same area? Could they walk through each other now?
Butterscotch pulled him off his train of thought. “But will she have any friends?”
“I think she’ll be fine.”
Butterscotch stopped and looked down. “But will...I...have any friends?” She paused. “I’ll be lonely.” And then she said very quietly, “Being bullied is better than being alone.”
From the camera angle David was looking at, he had seen Butterscotch stop and look down. Only after she spoke did David’s pony turn around and nuzzle Butterscotch. “Hey, hey, hey,” said his pony without his input, which gave him a few moments to figure out what he wanted to say.
“It’s easier to find friends online, since distance and physical location aren’t concerns. And speaking of making friends, Butterscotch, right now my Friends List is empty. Do you want to be my first friend?” David’s pony put his forelimb around Butterscotch’s neck to comfort her. David hadn’t commanded his pony to do that, though it was the contextually correct action...
Butterscotch looked at him, surprised and he noticed there were tears in her eyes. “Are you sure...I mean...” She then looked down for a moment, lost in thought. “Wait. If you...why...why are you really doing this? Do you really want to be my friend?”
David didn’t smile, but his pony had a slight smile on his face as he said, “We become the ponies we see in our past actions, Butterscotch. We look back on what we have done and tell ourselves stories about why we took the actions that we did. Today I scared off a bully for you. Now why did I do that? Obviously, because you’re my friend! You must be because I did something for you. Why else would I have stood up for you? Sure, the real reasons were probably snap emotional decisions caused by me being bullied as a child, but the part of my mind that tells stories isn’t going to accept that.”
The look on Butterscotch’s face melted his heart.
“And besides...you’re kind of cute,” he said weakly, but his ponypad repeated it in a much more confident voice. Butterscotch started blushing.
A dialog popped up on David’s ponypad: “Butterscotch has requested to be your friend: [Accept] / [Reject]” David clicked the Accept button with a smile. Large green text scrolled up over his pony: +2 KINDNESS, +100 XP
Butterscotch giggled despite the tears running down her face. “It says I’m now friends with Unnamed Unicorn #14.”
As the two of them trotted off to Canterlot, David noticed that she was sticking closer to him. “So I’m Butterscotch. I make candy...” she started and David listened about what this girl did when she was role playing a pony online.
Three hours later, David forced himself to sign off. He wanted to keep playing as his blue pony, Light Sparks. He knew he had a statistics exam tomorrow and he wasn’t prepared.
Oh, he wanted to spend more time with Butterscotch! The two of them had spent hours together. She had given him some of her candy, which apparently buffed his joy. He wasn’t sure if that was a game mechanic or if it was supposed to be taken literally. She had insisted on showing him around Canterlot after he had reported to Princess Celestia’s throne room to receive the name “Light Sparks.” They had talked for a long while about all sorts of things.
David really needed to study for his statistics exam. Instead, he gave in to his curiosity and opened a web browser on his laptop. He googled for “My Little Pony AI” which was unfruitful. He then realized that he probably wanted the game’s manufacturer. The search query “Hofvarpnir AI” brought him to their corporate website, still decked out in Norse Gods, with only a small Pinkie Pie sticking out from a page curl in the top right corner.
On the “About Us” page, he read the corporate story about how Hanna had founded the company after quitting her post at the University of Helsinki, how she wanted to bring advanced technology to the gaming world, leveraging synergies, blah blah blah. The whole page reeked of empty marketing-speak. But if the founder had come from academia, she probably had some publications. Publish or perish, after all...
David then searched for Hanna’s full name on Google Scholar to see if she had any interesting papers. “General Word Reference Intelligence Systems,” he muttered to himself, reading the results. The journal article was written in the same year Hanna had started Hofvarpnir. He downloaded the PDF and started reading about a generalized method of making predictions from past sensory data.
The camera in the ponypad tilted ever so slowly to focus on David’s laptop. David wouldn’t have heard the motors unless he had put his ear right up to the ponypad. Princess Celestia observed the article on his screen and generated new predictions.