The much-anticipated cyberpunk video game Cyberpunk 2077 was released this week, and as a result, the Net has been abuzz about my favorite genre. I certainly haven’t played the game–not my jam–but I have a different kind of cyberpunk game to rave about.
Sit down, console jockey, and let me tell you about my favorite card game ever: Netrunner.
Netrunner is a two-player asymmetric cyberpunk card game. One player is a Corp, using bluffs, hidden information, and sophisticated ICE to defend their servers–the other player is the Runner trying to break in. It’s utterly marinated in flavor, and it’s a nerve-wracking, thrilling experience no matter which side you’re playing.
Netrunner was originally designed by Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: the Gathering, and released in 1996, with a randomized distribution model much like Magic’s. This iteration of the game ended around 1999, and the game sat idle until publisher Fantasy Flight Games picked it up again in 2012. FFG revised the rules, did away with the random booster pack model, and released their new version, Android: Netrunner, in 2012.
The original version of Netrunner was soaked in the low-res, diesel-and-chrome cyberpunk of the late ’90s. Cards were illustrated with an abundance of blocky computer graphics and wireframe textures. In fact, the original Netrunner took place in the setting of the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG… which, decades later, would be the source material for Cyberpunk 2077. But when FFG took over, as games reviewer Quintin Smith mentioned on Twitter this week, they incorporated it into their own Android setting, which was an updated version of the cyberpunk dystopia.
If the world of the original Netrunner was a cyberpunk dystopia vis-à-vis Orwell’s 1984, FFG’s setting is Brave New World. The sun shines brightly in the Android setting. Characters smile and interact with colorful holoscreens or cuddly dinosaur-shaped computers. You’d almost be forgiven for thinking it looks like a pleasant future.
But it’s not, of course. Four major mega–corps control every aspect of existence. Cloning and biomechanical android technologies have destroyed the labor market, and in response, several radical pro-human, anti-android groups have sprung up. The interplanetary conglomerate responsible for such mundane things as shipping, finance, and real estate is so powerful it’ll destroy whole city blocks in retaliation against runners, and perhaps most insidious of all, one single megacorp controls the entire mediasphere, from movies to advertisement to gaming to education, and even the very internet itself.
Fantasy Flight’s Android setting may not look like the neon-drenched, drizzly cityscapes once associated with cyberpunk, but in updating the setting, I think they proved they actually understood what the genre was about. Criticism of capitalism and hegemony is in the genre’s very bones. Yes, Neuromancer featured deadly future tech and fantastical cyberscapes, but it was fundamentally about humans trying to survive in a corporate world. It asked questions about what it actually meant to be human, to be alive, especially as technology became ever more sophisticated.
In the 90’s, coming off of the Cold War, the dystopia we feared was iron-clad and totalitarian. It made no efforts to hide its dismal nature. The turn of the millennium, however, has proven to us that a more insidious dystopia waits for us, one where corporate control is no less tyrannical, but brings such glossy, colorful convenience that we’ll happily submit. Fantasy Flight abandoned the genre’s classic aesthetic but stayed true to its core.
But they were an outlier. Much like the musical scene it took half of its name from, cyberpunk elsewhere became commodified and reduced into a marketable aesthetic utterly divorced from its political origins. This year’s eponymous video game, after all, was produced by a studio that exploited its workers via grueling six-day workweeks and appealed to its edgiest, transphobic fans in its marketing. “Cyberpunk” became a shorthand for certain sci-fi tropes: cybernetic prostheses, neon kanji, and ruthless ultraviolence, all delivered with a snarky, devil-may-care attitude.
“If your ‘radical’ politics are not fundamentally rooted in love, I cannot trust you.” I’ve lost the source, but I saw someone say this several years back, and it’s stuck with me since. From the outside, radical leftist political movements can look frighteningly forceful. This summer, anti-fascist protesters donned gas masks and wielded handmade shields to defend themselves against police brutality. The history of the punk scene is rife with stories of aggressively ejecting Nazi skinheads from local hangouts. We see these hard tactics, so far from the comfortable civility we typically enjoy, and it’s easy to conflate their wielders’ outrage with hatred. If this is your understanding of radical politics–disaffected misanthropes aiming to tear down the world out of sheer anger–no wonder you’d think cyberpunk heroes must be smug and aloof.
The radical movements I think truly matter, the ones that might actually yank the reins back before we reach full dystopia, are forceful but hardly misanthropic. Black Lives Matter. Anti-fascist demonstrations. The Hong Kong democracy protesters. At their core is love: a deep, abiding, and courageous love for humanity, for humans, in all our infinite variations. That doesn’t mean they’re docile–if something or someone threatens those you love, you fight like hell to defend them. They don’t confuse “love” for “niceness”, as many privileged people tend to do. Nor do they, in their love for humanity, absolve people of responsibility for their actions. Movements based on love don’t have to be infinitely accepting, even of their intolerant detractors–the paradox of tolerance exists for a reason.
Movements rooted in love are not idyllic. They can be messy and angry and forceful, but they are driven by a fundamental belief that people matter.
You matter. You, working night shifts cleaning empty buildings–you matter. You, facing inconsiderate customers day after day behind the flimsy sheet of plexiglass your boss deigned to provide–you matter. You, a teenager quietly exploring the internet after dark in your parents’ oppressive home and finding the secret words to describe yourself–you matter. You matter. You matter because you’re a person. You have hopes and dreams. You have people you love. You have hobbies you care about.
You are not just an interchangeable cog. Your value is not determined by how much your boss pays you. You’re not a product to sell. You are a person, and that has to mean something.
Android: Netrunner–no, I haven’t gotten lost–built a vibrant community on the strength of the game’s mechanics, but also on its world. In a genre often defined by grizzled white cis male protagonists, Android: Netrunner featured characters from countless walks of life. Your runner could be a cybernetically enhanced combat veteran with PTSD, a “dataddicted” savant with two dads, a Nigerian con artist, or a devout AI researcher, just to name a scant handful. There were canonically trans and genderqueer runners; runners with prostheses; runners with visible disabilities. One runner was an escaped android struggling against his programming. Another was a Indian pro-democracy activist. FFG kept it up to the very end; in their final set, Reign and Reverie, players could choose from a showy preteen, a Native power broker, and a runaway psychic clone.
No one’s personhood was in question. No one was default, no one was other. The universe of Android: Netrunner believed that everyone’s story mattered.
A radical politics built on love.
The game’s official support ended in 2018. Fitting for a cyberpunk game, it fizzled out due to a license disagreement: Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight Games couldn’t reach an agreement on the rights to the game, so they returned to WotC. FFG still owned the Android universe, however, stranding the game in ownership limbo. That’s where the game stands today–abandoned by FFG, untouched by WotC.
Officially, at least.
See, something beautiful happened after FFG pulled the plug. Almost immediately, the Netrunner community decided they loved the game too much for it to go, and within a week, a volunteer fan organization began to coalesce. They chose the name NISEI, referring both to characters from the original game and the Japanese word for “second generation”. By August 8th, a mere month after FFG announced the impending end of official support, NISEI had selected a leadership board. Their mission: “keep the game alive and thriving” through tournament support, rules updates, banlists, and even new cards.
NISEI released their first set of new cards, Downfall, in Spring 2019, and followed up with the next set, Uprising, in December of the same year. Their next sets, System Update 2021 and the highly-anticipated System Gateway, a foundational and introductory set, are scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2021.
We just wouldn’t let this game die.
This is where I tell you that I’m one of those passionate fans contributing to NISEI’s work. I joined the team as their Media Pipeline Coordinator in January 2020. But wait, before you accuse me of hoodwinking you into a sales pitch–NISEI’s an all-volunteer organization. No one stands to profit from this, certainly not me. I’m here talking up Netrunner not because I want to line my pockets, but because I genuinely believe it stands as an example of cyberpunk done right.
Cyberpunk shows us that in a world dominated by behemoth corporate forces, empathy still matters. It reminds us that capitalism exploits us, alienates us from our work, and isolates us from one another. A system built on profit, after all, has no incentive to care for human beings or their needs if there’s a more affordable alternative. Art and joy are only useful insofar as they can be sliced up, packaged, and sold. Richard Garfield built its bones and FFG fleshed it out, but maybe Netrunner was always destined for this third iteration: a game of the people, driven not by profit, but by passion, creativity, and the human impulse to share.
If you get a shot, I can’t recommend the game enough. Old collections are a little pricey right now, but if you can find a core set1There were technically two FFG core sets: the Core Set and the Revised Core Set. Either works for learning the game. for cheap, pick it up. If you’d rather, you can play for free online at Jinteki.net. And as I mentioned, NISEI’s beginner set, System Gateway, will come out early next year.
But even if you don’t play the game2your loss 😜, I hope that maybe this can inspire you to look deeper at cyberpunk and the world around you, the world we’re becoming. Look beyond the veneer of shiny chrome.
Look for the humanity. Look for the love.
In a dehumanizing world, that’s where you’ll find the cyberpunks.
- 90’s-style cyberpunk landscape is © Ginevra M and used with permission
- “Hong Kong Protests 2019” by Jonathan van Smit is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
- “Pensive woman in round eyeglasses” by Bia Sousa is public-domain
- Photo of Detroit mural by Travis Rupert is public-domain