creation

Why Netrunner matters

A couple Sundays ago, I took an opportunity posted on a local boardgame store’s Facebook page, ditched football, and took my flimsy, hand-crafted Netrunner decks in for what they termed as “league play.” This was, in every possible manner, a trial run. I had been playing the card game for awhile, picking at it with my girlfriend and eventually turning a few friends onto it. But “deckbuilding,” or the process of assembling a custom deck from the game’s many expansions, was new to me. Deckbuilding only gets a couple pages of description in the dense, 40-page rulebook, but I knew that it was, in many ways, where the game actually begins. I was excited to get my hands dirty, to learn something new.

The first thing I learned was that, literally, my hands were too dirty. I did not have custom sleeves on my cards, which the other denizens of league play loudly bemoaned. When I shuffled my cards in the time-honored, riffle-and-bridge manner, their loud, uncouth slap contrasted the delicate slide of sleeved cards against other sleeved cards. I also lacked a custom, branded Netrunner mat, which inspired one player to note and, with some aplomb, unroll an extra one he had on hand, such that if I was to be an orangutang at a dinner party, covered in my own excrement and drooling on the table, I might at least wear a bowler cap, for the sake of society.

I was dead five turns before she finally pulled the trigger  

I lost every round I played, of course, which I sort of expected. What was remarkable was the manner of my defeat in my final round. As my opponent piled up tags on me, each of which could be converted into a variety of things that would fuck me over, I occasionally had to sort of defer to her as to what my options even were on a given turn. For her, it was probably like programming a machine to lose; for me, it was like asking if I could get blood on my assailant’s shoes. The fundamental ruleset of the game was long gone, and, as a couple of other people near us took note of our game, I had that strange sensation of being made fun of but not understanding how, or why. “Just make a run on R&D,” one told me, laughing, and since I understood those words, I did, to their wild guffaws. A game I had been playing for over a year was suddenly a foreign language. I was dead five turns before she finally pulled the trigger.

I realized, as I shoveled my cards in my bookbag, meekly handed the man back his branded Netrunner mat, and hightailed it to watch some pro sports that at least fucking made sense, that I was essentially a kid who had learned how to dribble and shoot a basketball and had then walked on court at Rucker Park, earnestly enquiring if I could “shoot some basketballs” against a team of semi-pro streetballers. I was trying not to double-dribble while neo-Allen Iversons checked me onto the granite, stole the ball, stepped over me and laid the ball in before I could get back up.

My point is not “fuck those people,” although that’d be easy to say. Netrunner is in a lot of ways the direct descendant of Magic: The Gathering, the uber-nerd game of the past quarter-century, and it’d be easy to paint my defeat as, perhaps, a Star Trek fan tearing into someone that didn’t know the difference between honorable and dishonorable Klingon assassinations. Revenge of the Nerds, in other words; a place with no real-world consequences where the picked-on can feel superiority.

But I do not think this. I think quite the opposite. I think, rather, that these people are acolytes, privy to the knowledge that in Android: Netrunner exists one of the singular cultural artifacts of our time. I am very, very sorry that I wasted their time, because what was going on in that game store was important.

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If I’m going to sell you on this, one thing you need to accept is that hacking is awesome. Things about hacking are awesome. That’s a fundamental, assumed opinion in Netrunner circles, and, although you can still love the game even if you don’t share that opinion, it’s worth addressing. In popular culture, hacking was most aggressively abused in the summer of 1995, in which both Hackers and The Net popularized it as the act of typing quickly while listening to the Chemical Brothers. These movies are to cyberpunk what, say, a movie like 300 is to historical fiction. It counts, perhaps, but it’s a far cry from I, Claudius.

Real cyberpunk—what those movies bastardized—dropped like a neutron bomb on science fiction in the early 80s, thanks largely to the work of William Gibson, whose early novels traced a sex-filled, noirish path through a world of increasingly unclear humanity. Murky and neon-lit, they explored transhumanist ideas that have grown more relevant by the year; they asked where the conception of self begins long before we decided that it began on Facebook, and they questioned our reliance on machines long before iPhones attached them to our hands. Cyberpunk updated science-fiction to better match an increasingly digital culture, transforming the robots-and-warring-planets stories of the 50s and 60s into a world of megacorporations and icy inhumanity. It’s a genre of people at the margins, of cyborgs and drug addicts making their way through the red-light district.

Hacking, in these works, ranges from a central to a minor element, but it always pops up. The stories revolve around hidden information; it’s a fiction of conspiracies, whodunnits, and heists. In Neuromancer, hacking plays out as a psychedelic odyssey into a dream-world, all laser colors and infinite grids. In Blade Runner, it’s Harrison Ford saying, “Enhance” in a smoke-filled neo-Angeles bungalow. In videogames like Deus Ex or Watch Dogs, it’s a fiddly minigame of Pipe Dream or number-matching. In 1999’s The Matrix—in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of cyberpunk as an aesthetic idea, commercially and critically—hacking was extrapolated and literalized until turned into actual kung-fu (to which Keanu grunted, “Cool”). The Matrix took the act of hacking so central to the cyberpunk mythos and made it both a far-reaching metaphor for societal transgression and a means to execute slow-mo high-kicks.

All of which—the lasers, the minigames, the high-kicks, as well as the weekends I found myself increasingly giving over to Netrunner—got me curious. Specifically: what the fuck even is hacking?

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“RATS RATS RATS RATS RATS”

If you want to trace the glowing wire of hacking’s history all the way up to its source, these are the words you’ll find. It was 1903, and Guglielmo Marconi, who is widely considered the inventor of radio, was showing off his latest work in a theater in London. He was actually corporeally in Cornwall, 250 meatspace-miles away, and the plan was to tap out a message in Morse code to his assistant at the theater in London. With its successful transfer, Marconi would illustrate not only the power of his new wireless communication but also the security of it—that nobody who wasn’t on the exact frequency could interfere or intercept the communication. But the message as it came through in that crowded theater was just the word “RATS,” over and over again, followed by a more specific goad at Marconi: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily.”

The perpetrator of this prank was a man named Nevil Maskelyne, a 39-year-old Londoner. If we want to call someone the first hacker, I’d say it’s him. It’s not just that he “gained unauthorized access to a system,” to quote ye olde dictionary definition of hacking; it’s that in the very tenor of his attack we see the seeds of the hacker persona: the absurdity of RATS ad infinitum, followed by crass rhymes, plants the seeds for a prankster organization like LulzSec, who crippled corporations, they said, for the laughs. But Maskelyne also anticipated the modern hacker in his purported purpose: he made a fool of Guglielmo, he said, to protect the public from an easily broken communications platform. This shield of public good recalls many Anonymous-led attacks, on Scientology, for example, or the Parliament of Uganda, which was preparing to pass stringent anti-homosexuality legislation when the hacker group GreySec hijacked some 50 government-owned websites.

But a step even further beyond that is probably the most interesting aspect of Maskelyne’s biography. Behind that shield of public good was a more mean, economic desire. He and Guglielmo were competitors, sure, but Maskelyne had a vested interest in disproving Guglielmo’s technology; Maskelyne wanted to control the technology, to use it to swindle and amaze the public. He might have one of his own assistants tap him information—about which specific playing card someone was holding in their hand, for example. Nevil Maskelyne, the world’s first hacker, was by trade a magician.

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If we were playing Netrunner, and you hadn’t before, I’d try to be kind. We’d be sitting somewhere, and I’d be shuffling a deck, and then I’d hand it to you and say:

“For this round, you’re the ‘runner,’ or hacker, and I’m the corporation. We both have totally different decks of cards, but the goal for both of us is to score seven agenda points. I’ll do that by installing various cards, which may or may not be ‘agendas,’ and then protecting them with ice, which are basically just anti-hacker programs you’ll have to beat. Then I’ll slowly advance those installed cards until I score them. In the meantime, you’ll just be building up a super-hacking rig that you’ll use to get through all my layers of ice and uncover those agendas before I can score them. You get four clicks, or actions, per turn, and I get three of them. We’ve both got some money, which we can talk about as it comes up. And that’s pretty much it, except for the fact that each card in your hand is a hit point, and if you run out of them, I’ll have killed you. And I’ll try to kill you.

“Okay, so let’s both draw five cards to start,” I’d say, and then we’d do that, and we’d start. And I would definitely try to kill you. I would not be kind.

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“It’s just a beautiful game,” Frank Lantz said. Lantz is the director of the NYU Game Center and the designer of several world-renowned games, and, like most game designers, he is a huge Netrunner fan. His colleague Naomi Clark told me that this year the game has “become the golf of game designers”—what they’re all playing, discussing, and working on. I knew that Lantz loved the game, even though he is not, he says, very good. My opening question to him—“When did you start playing Netrunner?”—tipped off a 15-minute monologue.

It was a cult hit for a niche audience

“I like games that shouldn’t work,” he was saying. I’d caught him at some point in between various appointments, and I pictured him sort of yelling as he walked down the street in Manhattan. “I’m a game designer, but I’m really skeptical of Design with a capital D. We have this kind of arrogant claim to what does and doesn’t work, what makes a good game, what you should-or-shouldn’t do. I like games that shouldn’t work, because it humbles us as designers.”

This is sort of the thing: as Lantz will say later in our conversation, Netrunner is really, really hard, and also really weird, and also—indeed—really uncool, but it’s also really popular. When I compared it to Magic: The Gathering up top, that’s partially because it shares a designer and partially because it is world-conqueringly successful, at least among the people who pay close attention to such things. But it wasn’t always that way. When it was first released in 1996 as Richard Garfield’s direct follow-up to Magic, it earned a reputation as a difficult, cerebral, overwhelmingly wonky game. Building a deck in Magic was one thing; building two, to even compete here, was something else. It was a cult hit for a niche audience. In 2012, a new designer retooled Garfield’s original for a new publisher, and the result was an immediate, earth-shattering event. That publisher doesn’t reveal sales info, but look at any game store’s calendar, no matter where they are, and they’ll have at least one dedicated  Netrunner night.

My question for Lantz, then, was this: What makes Netrunner work? And why has it seemed to click so widely now, in 2014? “It’s a game of difficult, back-breaking numerical calculations, deliberate mechanical thinking,” he was telling me, amidst car-horns and cashiers, “where you have to be counting your resources, looking into the future, calculating the space of what could happen, keeping track of this stuff and making deep strategic choices based on this very specific kind of quantitative analysis, like you would do in chess. It’s also at the same time this game of huge, random variance. You should not be able to put these ingredients together. You can put an hour into a Netrunner game—an hour of hard, mind-bending, deep strategic analysis—and then the outcome is determined by whether you draw the cards you need. And yet, somehow, the game still works. And it doesn’t just work, it’s awesome. It shows that it’s a great combination of flavors. It’s like putting gin and vermouth together. That shouldn’t work, but it turns out it does work. It’s not for everybody, but for the people who have a taste for it, nothing else matches,” he told me. And then: “I love it.”

His colleague Clark put it even more simply: “I wouldn’t be surprised if it became one of the games that future designers look to study and learn from in the years to come.”

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Thirty years after Maskelyne, in Richmond, London, the common conception of a hacker took an enormous step closer to existence when a man named Alan Turing came up with the idea of a “universal machine,” a tape-based monstrosity that he posited thusly:

“It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence. If this machine U is supplied with a tape on the beginning of which is written the S.D [‘standard description’ of an action table] of some computing machine M, then U will compute the same sequence as M.”

This, in 1936, was important, because it represented a gigantic conceptual leap, which abstracted the then-popular notion of a “thinking machine” from the normal definitions of “thinking” and “machine,” envisioning only its pure components and possibilities. This thunderclap of inspiration was necessary for humans to eventually produce 1) devices that could store massive amounts of information, leading to what we now call “the Information Age” and the notion that “knowledge is power”; 2) the devices that could hack into those other devices, in an effort to alternately break and reinforce those machine-based power structures; not to mention 3-5) the device I am writing this on, that you are reading this on, and that this very website serves to talk about.

The game never would’ve existed without Turing

(This device, both as Turing conceptualized it and as it eventually manifested onto our desks and into our pockets, is not, notably, the device on which you play Netrunner. That device is called a table.)

Thanks in part to this conceptual breakthrough, a few years later Turing was called in by the British government to engage in probably the most important attempt to “gain unauthorized access to a system,” to again quote ye olde dictionary definition, in humanity’s history. He and a handful of other mathematicians and thinkers from both Oxford and Cambridge would convene throughout the second World War at a regal, secluded mansion to try to hack into Axis code systems. This process was monstrously complex, but Turing’s understanding of information as a discrete unit, as a thing of value, and of the complex language of systems we use to transfer information lead to breakthrough after breakthrough—most notably the cracking of the Enigma code. His ally in these efforts was the mathematician Claude Shannon, who, among other things, had connected the language of these hypothetical computers to a binary code; that is, the reduction of all information to a 0 (“no”) or 1 (“yes). Enough 0s and 1s could convey anything, they realized.

Toward the end of the war, German forces remained convinced of the security of the “unbreakable” Enigma code even as Allied troops could decipher their missives within a day or two. Some of Turing’s papers have been so helpful to British intelligence efforts over the years that they weren’t even declassified until 2012—the same year, as it happens, that Netrunner was re-released. The game never would’ve existed without Turing, whose thinking yoked together code-cracking with computers, pairing the ingredients that define hacking. But it’s what happened a decade after the war—Turing’s death in 1954—that says the most about the very Information Age he helped create.

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I ought to clarify one thing, before we get in too deep, which is that, while I keep saying how difficult Netrunner is, part of the appeal here is how frictionless getting into it is, relatively speaking. Magic and the original Netrunner were “collectible card games,” in which you had to buy packs compulsively in an attempt to net rare cards; the retooled Netrunner, on the other hand, is a “living card game,” which means that all of its cards are equally available for purchase. If you know what card you want, you can get it, legally and officially, on Amazon. For the price of a decent dinner, you can get the core set, which features four corp decks and three runner decks, all of which are wildly different and can last you quite awhile. From there you need exactly one other thing, which is a partner willing to feel out the game’s enormously varied architecture with you, preferably in the neighborhood of a hundred games, before you head to your local store and get your ass handed to you, so to speak.

Most designers and players say that it’s these tiny refinements—made to accommodate the “living” (as opposed to “collectible”) format—that lead to the game’s monstrously successful second life. And those refinements are on some granular, inside-baseball shit: the trace process is more fair, for example, and the different factions combined with different identities within those factions create clear-cut strategies to pursue. And all of the cards are immaculately weighted in this new edition. There are some 700 of them (so far), creating a vastly complicated possibility space, and they all work together like the tiny gears on a $200,000 Audemars Piguet watch. It’s a feat of long-form, technically impressive game-design, sort of what a seventeen-minute prog-rock epic is for guitar players. It’s the hardest-core hardcore game for people who delight in the relatively niche joys of grokking a ruleset’s mysteries. But here’s the thing: I also think it’s more than that.

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The magician and proto-hacker Nevil Maskelyne knew this in 1903; the science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote it down, finally, in 1962; and the game designer Lukas Litzsinger, who retooled Android: Netrunner in 2012 and is thus responsible for its current popularity, said it to me just a few weeks ago. We were talking about how cyberpunk fiction normally punts when it comes to detailing the act of hacking—attempts to literalize it as kung fu, or portray it as laser colors and infinite grids—and how deeply Netrunner, instead, chooses to engage with it. “These hacks have actual consequences,” he said. “You kinda see that in the meatspace. If you get traced, or get tagged, now they’re kicking out your friends, now they’re coming for you.”

The game’s structure is loaded with these thoughtful parallels. Play as the news corporation, for example, and your best strategies involve quickly advancing agendas via special reports or broadcasting the details of a hacker’s location. The three sects of hackers each correspond to different aspects of the hacker persona: Criminals just want money (remember, Maskelyne was a magician); Anarchs are in it for the lulz (“RATS RATS RATS”); Shapers are just misunderstood do-gooders (remember Maskelyne’s shield of public good). Litzsinger, whose degree is in journalism, told me that developing these motivations was one of the big creative breakthroughs for him during the seven months or so he spent heavily working on the game.

People who spend a lot of time digging into Netrunner marvel over these parallels; there’s an uncommon synergy between fiction and mechanic in the game, where each card’s cost, effect, artwork, and name lock together to make sense in that rain-swept neon universe. But the largest synchronicity between Netrunner and the world in which we play it is its very asymmetry. Clark (the designer, not the author) noted that, unlike something like chess, in which the playing field is artificially identical, Netrunner acknowledges that in the real-world there aren’t equals; everyone we encounter in life is, in some manner, an “other,” rather than a hypothetical, perfectly matched peer. Competitive games are normally predicated upon the notion of an equal playing field, but we don’t see fair fights take place in real meeting rooms, on real asphalt, in real chatrooms. We see two “others.”

Netrunner is about interpersonal violence—the tendency thereof

“If you want a picture of the future,” George Orwell wrote, referring to his present, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Netrunner is about such violence—not physical violence but interpersonal violence, the tendency thereof. Basketball is about such violence. Football is literally violent, but not like this; it touts an abstract insistence upon “the player” and “the system,” pretensions of a gentlemanly chess match between two competing coaches. But basketball is about power differences, the imposition of will, and we watch basketball to see these power struggles play out, lavishly and with style. You can win with great style in Netrunner, too—springing a Jinteki trap on a runner, flatlining her before the game even starts, you feel a bit like tiny Nate Robinson, defiantly hanging on the rim after a dunk. Give me the tech, you say, I am become Death. Cyberpunk has always posited itself as the stylist’s brand of sci-fi, the antidote to Star Trek jumpsuits. Cyberpunk’s people on the margins always dress well, and they screw each other passionately in alleyways and on filthy mattresses.

Like all cyberpunk, Netrunner zeroes in on and glamorizes the dispossessed, but the nature of its power differences pinpoints a very contemporary definition of power. Netrunner is a game about a “have” (the corporation) and a “have-not” (the runner), but their difference is not money. Indeed, money is one of the most abstracted concepts of the game. As Litzsinger put it: “There is still physical money, but a lot of times you use physical money almost kind of as black-market currency. It doesn’t leave a digital trace. Thinking about the economy of our current world made me think what, exactly, do these credits and bits and pieces of economy and information and data and power represent? You’re like, wait, am I actually paying money? Or am I buying my bandwidth?” This is what Lantz means when he talks about the game’s brutal economy: money only equals clicks, and they both come and go, no matter which side you’re on.

Instead, what the “have” in Netrunner has—and what the “have-not” is trying to obtain and work around—is, rather, information. Corporations, after all, get to play their cards face down, laying traps and calling the shots, setting the tempo and the shape of the game. The runner can only prepare and then run, prepare and then run, bobbing and weaving through alien territory in a fuck-everything attempt to get that precious agenda and get out. This focus on information not just as a discrete unit but as the core building block of contemporary power is uniquely insightful. Netrunner is a game built around and for the Information Age; as Monopoly reflected the economic anxieties of its era, so Netrunner reflects the economic anxieties of its. It is about the global economy of data. Information, they say, is power.

But where Monopoly envisioned capitalism as a game of one absolute winner surrounded by losers, Netrunner’s asymmetry wrests some control back to the have-not. Monopoly was a game with an equal playing field about a world that was not one; Netrunner is a game with an unequal playing field about the world’s attempt to balance the scales. It lets us play-act the singular story of our time: that is, the reclamation of power through digital culture. In not just its wide-reaching, worldly fiction but in its very mechanical possibilities it is a game about the crumbling of old media, the power of the Arab Spring, the shield of good will wielded by Anonymous, not to mention the consolidation of Comcast with Time-Warner Cable, the cloud of information attached to your IP address, and, of course, the rupturing of American power from within, as enacted by the system’s own Edward Snowden, draped in the American flag.

It lets us play-act the singular story of our time

All of those narratives paint the technologically enabled have-not as David and the corporations and governments as some sort of abusive, iron-fisted Goliath. But Netrunner is surprisingly equanimous. “I don’t think there are necessarily good guys or bad guys,” Litzsinger told me of his game’s fiction and design. “We strive to portray both sides as shades of both. We hope to have kind of a gray area. In a way, it’s up to the player: the cards they play and decisions they make. Is trying to turn a profit as a corp inherently evil? Probably not. Is blowing up the runner’s apartment block?” He laughed. “Yeah, maybe.”

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It’s thought that the British government killed Turing because they feared he knew too much. A wave of homophobia had swept across Europe following the war, under the thinking that such moral weakness could leave an agent open to Soviet infiltration, and Turing, who had been in a relationship with a man named Arnold Murray for several years, found himself on trial for “gross indecency.” His punishment for this was estrogen therapy, or, as it has since been called, “chemical castration,” rendering him impotent and causing him to grow breasts. He accepted this humiliation so he could stay on staff at Manchester University, where he had access to one of the world’s first computers, a marvel borne of his ideas.

On June 8, 1954, after two years of such “therapy,” his housekeeper found him dead, a half-eaten apple by his bedside. (This poetic detail recalls humanity’s first “unauthorized access to a closed system,” in the Garden of Eden.) For years it’s been said that Turing injected the apple with cyanide in a final moment of despair, but the apple was never tested for the poison, and today that narrative is widely questioned. Some think it was an assassination. At the time, the coroner merely said, “In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.” More recently, and with significantly less disdain, the director of the Turing Archive of the History of Computing has concurred, saying, “The exact circumstances of Turing’s death will probably always be unclear.”

Most information is buried, and some of it stays that way. But much more is uncovered. Turing—who thought of data so singularly, as an element to be both sought and obscured, and in so doing helped turn the tide against Nazism—died in captivity because of such uncovered information. He was, suddenly, that most frightening of things: an other. A single discrete field, marked 1 in his case instead of 0, which the larger crowd of 0s found punishable by castration. The orthodoxy always wrenches its data back onto the binary it trusts. The thing about the haves and the have-nots in the Information Age is that it’s all gray; since we all have secrets, we’re all potentially corporations, and so potentially victims. All the might and furor of a post-war British Empire can still feel undermined by the knowledge of a man’s sexuality and rise up to uncover it. The internet has not made this clearer, for all its redistribution of power. All of our various 1s are just a wire away from the roiling sea of 0s on the other side of the glass. In Netrunner, as in life, we doxx and are doxxed.

Which is the final, sort of shocking thing you realize about the game: it is all aggression. There is no good or bad side, no good or bad team, and there is no defense. The corp is building and protecting, sure, but it’s a game of endless feints, and that’s just another one. What you realize when you start building a deck is that you’re actually building a weapon, a calibrated little stack of laminated cardboard assaults. It’s a perfectly competitive game—mean, brutal, and elegant—and so a perfect reflection of the attitudes of the digital world. We live in magical times, and we are killing each other.

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Rotos image via brewbooks

Scaffolding via Kevin Dooley

Wireframe city by BLADERUNNERcity

Glitch lines by Diego Avila