[13 February 2014]
Like so few games on the market, Android: Netrunner lives and breathes its themes. Set in a cyberpunk dystopian future, the game captures in cards the struggle between power-hungry mega-corporations and freewheeling hackers. Like the best cyberpunk fiction, the world of Netrunner is ripe with astute commentary on technology, society, and politics. From its broad theme to its card design, Netrunner provides ample proof that game designers can meld strong game systems, clever design, and political rhetoric into a fantastic and playful creation.
As an asymmetrical game pitting corporate bodies against rebellious individuals, Android: Netrunner is inherently political. At its broadest scope, Netrunner is about power struggles between agenda-seeking megacorps and individuals living within their dominion. Corporations, were it not for the law-breaking runners, would effortlessly advance their agendas and grow in power. In many ways, playing Netrunner is a exercise in roleplaying the maniacal forces of corporate greed against the dubious ethics of internet outlaws.
In that way, while Netrunner is inherently political, it is not necessarily biased. Even in the cyberpunk future of the game world, a future rife with corruption and oppression, runners can seem like they are merely out for their own good. Take the three runner factions for example: Shaper, Anarch, and Criminal. The rule book describes Shapers as motivated by the pure joy of hacking. They are makers and tinkerers in it for the marvel of creation. Anarchs, as the name implies, just want to sow chaos. Criminals, the rule book describes, are in it for personal gain. Yes, the struggle between individuals and corporations is a very real and ongoing one, but Netrunner also is playful with its themes in many regards.
Even so, Fantasy Flight Games does not shy away from the more openly political aspects of their narrative design. For example, the card art for Motivation, a Shaper resource, depicts Exile, one of the game’s identities, sitting despondently holding a picture of a presumably deceased loved one. The flavor text at the bottom is a musing on cyber-criminal motivation, clearly off the mark based upon the card’s tone. Another card, Interns, pokes fun at a modern labor trend with flavor text: “They’re the only labor cheaper than clones.”
The regularly released card packs consistently feature some tie-in narrative, often connecting back to existing cards as well. As the card pool grows, opportunities for tidbits of political commentary grows. The cards act as interactive political cartoons, artistically and mechanically. TGTBT, A recent addition to Netrunner, features an enormous digital logo that looks remarkably like the symbol for Bitcoins. The card’s title stands for “Too Good To Be True,” a hilarious and obvious prod at the digital currency fad. Perhaps more importantly though, the effect of the card gives runners a tag, which signifies their location has been traced by the corporation. When in use, TGTBT is both snarky commentary and minute lesson about privacy in the digital age.
Yes, Android: Netrunner a simple card game, one of many, and its fictional universe draws upon numerous science-fiction tropes established years ago, but the tiny ways that the game becomes political is important. The cyberpunk genre has always melded a sense of political revolution with technological revolution, and these themes resonate heavily today. Today, hackers literally shape global politics and breed fear in corporate oligarchies. We carry around tiny digital products that move us ever further along the cyborg spectrum. We watch as spy agencies run amok and whistle blowers are threatened with life in prison. We live in a cyberpunk present.
Few games try to incorporate political commentary at all, and few do who achieve such a thorough success. Netrunner is unique for so many reasons, not the least of which is its invitation to play in realms of political extreme, to exercise our agency in power structures we rarely have an opportunity to influence. If a tabletop game can present compelling political experiences with such force, then games as a whole are still ripe with opportunities to explore the politics of the present and the future.