Asymmetry and ‘Netrunner’

There is a beauty to asymmetry, well, at least in playful systems. We may find facial symmetry arousing, but symmetry in game is just so normal. No matter which side of the monopoly board you are on, you play by the same rules as everybody else. It is the rare game like Android Netrunner, which features divergent rules for each player, that offers something special, something thematically rich and mechanically unique in the ways that it evokes satisfying play.

What is Asymmetry?

For the purposes of this piece, I define asymmetry as a disjuncture between the rules governing one player’s behavior and the rules governing another player’s behavior. An overarching set of rules might govern the entirety of a game, but if parts of those rules apply different to each player, then asymmetry defines play.

I like to think of asymmetric games as capturing two different systems within one larger system. Take Left 4 Dead multiplayer as an example. Human players struggle to overcome the mundane zombie hoards in front of them. Ideally their teamwork produces a well-oiled killing machine that speeds through a level quickly and efficiently. Each human player is one part of their zombie-killing-speed-running system.

The special infected have their own goal and win condition: incapacitate all the humans. Their system works differently. Each player may have a unique power that works in conjunction, perhaps, with the others. Their system looks more like a complex trap. One player initiates an attack and the rest follow. Their system is defined, established, and maintained differently than that of the humans, but where these systems meet, one impedes the efficiency of the other.

Asymmetry in Android Netrunner

From the abstract systems perspective, Left 4 Dead and Android Netrunner share certain traits that make asymmetry compelling. Netrunner, the collectible card game designed by Richard Garfield (of Magic: The Gathering fame), also pits one system against an assailant that seeks to impede the first system’s progress.

One player in Netrunner takes on the role of a maniacal cyberpunk Corporation. This corporation scores points by advancing “agendas,” which they hide, facedown, and surround with “ice,” firewall-like pieces of software that protect their cards. They also create and sustain their own economy with assets and operations, which in turn lets them advance agendas and install ice more quickly and more often.

The other player operates their own unique system. Known as a Runner, this player creates an economy with the sole intent of cracking into the corporation’s system. They install programs known as “icebreakers” to work their way into the other players servers, demolishing their assets or stealing their agendas. While one player designs a defensive system, the other designs an offensive system.

What Makes Asymmetry Special?

There is something uniquely satisfying in maneuvering through an asymmetric gaming experience, but what is it? Certainly there is an added challenge for Netrunner players. They must master not just their own system, but sufficiently understand and predict the machinations of their opponent and adapt accordingly. Asymmetric games demand high amounts of empathy.

But this is true of any competitive game. You could argue a sniper in Call of Duty: Ghosts, by virtue of in-game weapon and loadout customizations, plays by different rules than an assault player. If a sniper wants to maximize their kill count, they should think like their opponent and predict their movements and locations and vice versa. You could make a case that the modern shooter is by definition an asymmetrical experience.

However, Netrunner’s brand of asymmetry obfuscates opposing systems in a way that shooters do not. The corporation hides many of their cards face down when played, and, of course, their deck, like the runner’s, is made of an unknown combination of cards. There is joy, of course, in the exploration of systems, particularly when those systems are not your own. The joy in mastery, then, is two-fold: mastery over your own system and mastery over a hidden system that demands interrogation.

Still, this answer to the question feels lacking. Magic: The Gathering and many other competitive card games hide opposing systems but are not commonly considered asymmetric. If my deck, unknown to you, relies on graveyard manipulation and your deck, unknown to me, relies on summoning massive creatures, are we effectively playing by different rules? These games might be great, but it does not offer the unique asymmetrical experience offered by Netrunner.

So what makes this asymmetry special?

It’s All About Power

The mechanic that I return to when searching for Netrunner’s unique core are the agenda cards. When seven points worth of agenda cards are scored, the scoring player wins. The thing is that runners don’t actually have any agendas in their deck, only corporations do. The corporation player, while a bit restrained, ultimately decides what types and values of agenda cards to include in the game. The corporation has all the power.

Were it not for the runner, the corporation would build a powerful moneymaking system and advance its agendas quickly and without harassment. But without the corporation, the runner has no way to win. Thus, Netrunner’s asymmetry is one defined by an inherent power imbalance. The struggle in the game is about either retaining or capturing this finite source of power.

Of course runners have their own “power” of a sort. Indeed, on the competitive scene, runners win slightly more often than corporations. Yet the source of their win condition, the ultimate power, is still defined and controlled by the corporation. Cognitively, the corporation player is the power holder even when facing an terrifyingly efficient runner deck.

The joy in asymmetric games is in the safe practice of lopsided power struggles. In Call of Duty and Magic: The Gathering, the rules define an equal playing field at the start of a match. Theoretically, regardless of your class or regardless of your deck type, at the start of the game, we have an even chance of winning or losing. Often when we think of well played games, we think of fairness on this front.

The fact is, like the parental adage, the world isn’t fair. We live in lopsided systems of power in tiny ones and big ones, personal and global ones, and the negotiation for power is ongoing and relentless. In an abstract way, asymmetric games let us roleplay safely an open struggle to reclaim or retain our power against a skilled opponent. This is true of other asymmetric games as well, from Battlestar Galactica, in which the game system itself is the source of the cylon player’s power, to A Few Acres of Snow, which constructs power differentials into the geography of the board.

Perhaps this is why Netrunner succeeds so beautifully in weaving its rich themes into its gameplay. In the dystopian cyberpunk world of Netrunner, power is obscure and diffuse. Corporations flex their influence invisibly across the world and underhandedly work on their own selfish agendas. It may be set in the future, but the concepts are not so strange. We are increasingly accustomed to the digital life, the way corporations affect our lives and livelihood and the way the struggle for power is often invisible. Netrunner is a marvel of a game for a lot of reasons, but it is particularly special because through its asymmetry it allows us to engage in a familiar struggle.