Anarchy in 'Netrunner'

If each card in Netrunner is a political cartoon, then each deck is a political paradigm.

Last year I described each card in Android: Netrunner as a sort of "interactive political cartoon." The card game from Fantasy Flight Games is set in a dystopian cyberpunk world in which mega corporations advance hidden agendas while hackers break into secure servers to steal information. The world of Netrunner is ripe with political themes relevant to its fiction and to the real world alike. If each card is a political cartoon, then each deck is a political paradigm.

Take the Anarch faction of runners (hackers), the most recent recipient of a Netrunner deluxe expansion, aptly named Order and Chaos, featuring three new faction identities and a slew of new cards to add to their arsenal. What is an “anarch”? The term conjures up images of masked protesters inciting violence or punk rockers with mohawks, leather jackets, and an attitude. Indeed, there are in fact people in the real world who identify as anarchists but whose political activism only goes as far as refusing to vote. I think we can safely assume the existence of an anarchist aesthetic at least among some disaffected youth.

The Anarch identities of 'Order and Chaos'

This visual representation of the anarchist is captured in the MAXX (Maximum Punk Rock) pictures above. The multicolored rocker represents the jubilant chaos popularly associated with anarchists. Her flavor text, “**** you, mother******,” gives her the aggressive edge that we also relate to the iconic pop cultural image of the anarchist. Her passive ability that trashes cards each turn makes every game as MAXX as aggressive and daring as the street anarchists that inhabit Netrunner’s dystopic future.

The political history of anarchism is of course far more complex and varied than we might presume from punk rock mantras. Fantasy Flight actually respects the concept’s diversity in the rule book's description of anarchs: “Whatever the exact target of their rage, their unifying characteristic is their anger. At their worst, Anarchs just want to watch the world burn. At their best, Anarchs are tireless champions for the downtrodden and oppressed.” Anarchism in the popular lexicon is a bad word, but Netrunner shines a light on the social good at the heart of some anarchist beliefs.

The venerable Noam Chomsky offers this nuanced description of the heart of anarchism:

Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified. It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can't justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just.

The structures of domination in the world of Netrunner are maintained by the game’s mega-corporations. If anarchy is about exposing the injustices built into structures of hierarchy, players are welcomed to build a deck around those elements of anarchism. Valencia Estevez, another new identity, begins each game by giving the corporation bad publicity. She is a hacker that liberates information, not cash, to undermine the existing oligarchy. Cards like Investigative Journalism, which gives the corporation even more bad publicity, and Itinerant Protestors, which hamstrings the corporation based upon the amount of bad publicity accrued, represent this non-violent bucking of corporate domination that exists in some strains of anarchism.

Of course, we also associate anarchism with violence, and there is certainly a history of violence within some strains of anarchism. Emma Goldman, an early political anarchist (and general bad-ass), advocated for the use of strategic violence (even assassinations) at times. Likewise, the Haymarket Affair of 1886, in which several police and protesters were killed, is a pivotal moment in labor history surrounded by a fervent fear of "the villainous teachings of the Anarchists" that resulted in the hanging of potential conspirators. The initial protest was over the fight over the eight-hour work day (I know. The audacity!) against corporate interests.

Bloodshed and anarchy are close acquaintances in reality as they also are in the world of Netrunner. Corporations can blow up your apartment building, so naturally folks like Edward Kim, the third identity of the latest expansion, can destroy androids with a huge sledgehammer. The ability to import cards from another faction also enriches the political narratives in deckbuilding. It might make sense for Edward Kim to borrow from the Criminal faction and use Drive By to achieve his goals.

This disruptive element of anarchism (from stealing information to committing assassinations) is an idea that we commonly associate with anarchist tendencies. Some anarchists offer more than just critiques of modern tyrannies, including collective alternatives to the state. As Emma Goldman describes in Anarchism and Other Essays, “anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth.” The belief in a collective alternative to existing structures, no matter what “-ism” you associate with, is powerful and certainly difficult to depict in a card game.

Nevertheless, Netrunner’s anarch faction is home to even this element of anarchism. The as-of-yet unreleased Street Peddler is, if nothing else, a nod to an economy that exists outside of the fiction’s corporate controlled world. Power to the People, with its reference to a shanty town full of life, represents a humble faith and appreciation for those living outside existing structures of power. Even Wyldside and Duggars, two nightclubs in the Netrunneruniverse, fit within the liberating elements of anarchism. As Goldman decreed, she did “not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand denial of life and joy.” Even in the dystopian future of Netrunner, hackers can have a good time and fight tyranny at the same time. The anarchy of Valencia Estevez and the anarchy of MAXX are complementary.

Regardless of your political affiliations and beliefs, Netrunner lets you play with surprisingly diverse themes and ideas. To build a deck, especially of anarch cards, is to encourage motivations and tactics that are fundamentally about upsetting the status quo. We are playing, of course, in the fictional world of Android: Netrunner, but the landscape of corporate power and individual interests is a familiar one. The roots of anarchism in Netrunner are found in our own history and the ideas are as powerful and interesting in the game as they are in real life.

Sense and Sensibility at the World Cup

I've sworn, after learning about the latest kleptocrat billionaire to buy a club, or scrambling from the clash between hooligans and riot police, or hearing a homophobic chant rise up from the stands, I would give up on the game. Anyone with sense would.

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