When William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition came out, some of his long-standing fans lamented that he had abandoned science fiction and set his novel (the first in a new trilogy) in the present day. After all, Gibson’s Neuromancer is considered a foundational novel in cyberpunk genre. But the more astute readers realised that, in his new trilogy, Gibson did not abandon writing about the cyberpunk future: the world simply caught up to the future Gibson has been writing about all along! In Pattern Recognition, “the future is here.”
Late on October 3rd, a group of Netrunner players from the SF Bay Area, members of the group known as “the Glass House”, confessed that they had been using an exploit on unofficial deck-building site NetrunnerDB to scrape the decklists of top-tier competitive players. By their own admission, they did this so as to gain competitive advantage at next month’s Worlds Championships. I’m not going to go over the facts in any more detail, there’s better articles you can get those from. I just want to point out the hilarious irony of a website being hacked to help the hackers cheat in a card game about hacking! Netrunner has always referenced real world cybercrime, and, eventually, it seemed as if the real world was starting to reference Netrunner cards! However, this is the first time a case of life imitating art emerged from within the game’s own community, and whose target was the game itself!
It may seem flippant to laugh about this, and to post a “flavour review” of a real life incident (“Flavour Notes” was supposed to be a series of flavour reviews of cards, but I’ve only done one so far so I guess there’s no pattern to break), especially one which has damaged and divided the Netrunner community, and cast a pall over the upcoming Worlds Championships. I certainly don’t want to trivialise the severity of this event: “deck sniping” is unsportsmanlike behaviour (though no longer outright cheating, having been removed from FFG’s tournament rules due to being hard to enforce) and could incur a tournament ban. Many people worked hard testing and refining their decks, and felt cheated and violated to have had them stolen. The fallout is ongoing, with some members of the San Francisco community publishing their own decks on NRDB in an effort to level the playing field, only for other players to accuse them of posting decks that were heavily based on the information they had gained by scraping, thereby exacerbating the harm they’ve done by spreading that secret deck tech even further. Some of the hackers have recused themselves from Worlds, feeling they did not deserve to participate or could not face the community. This incident was definitely serious, and I don’t wish to come across as downplaying it just by pointing out its humorous and ironic aspects.
Fundamentally, however, this is also exactly why Netrunner is more than just a fun and silly card game. Its very conceit is that the uses and abuses of technology can have life-changing consequences, whether that’s savings disappearing, or, as in this case, friendships ruined and tournament success compromised. And while this case is over something pretty trivial (winning at a card game), there are many instances of real life hacking that had truly tragic consequences: Aaron Schwartz, for example, was prosecuted under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for using a bot to request and download JSTOR articles which he was actually authorised to access (he had a JSTOR account). Not that I’m comparing people trying to cheat at a card game with a hero of open access and activist of technology freedom, whose prosecution tragically led to his suicide. I’m just saying their methods are superficially similar, both having used bots to download freely-accessible data. Netrunner is just a game, and, as such, presents a lighthearted take on some pretty grim themes, but the issues it deals with, of freedom and control, of the virtual’s impact on the real, of having and of want, are very much real in our “cyberpunk present”, and have tangible and sometimes tragic consequences on our world – far, far more tragic than not winning Netrunner Worlds!
To me, this incident was a sobering reminder of the power of technology, that everything populating the narratives of our Netrunner games is only a hair’s breadth from being real, that, just like in Gibson’s novels, the future has snuck up on us, and, 20 years after the launch of the original CCG, the world has finally caught up to Netrunner. However, it was also the funniest thing I’ve ever seen happen in any card game. Long after people’s rage at their decks being stolen has subsided, they will remember today as the day Netrunner disappeared up itself in a recursive cycle of self-referential absurdity, and they will feel that something special, awesome, and hilarious happened!
What makes the incident even more ironic is that the game even has not one but several cards themed around CHEATING AT ACTUAL CARDS, as anyone who read the flavour text on Sure Gamble has noticed! And if you glance back at the image I posted at the top of this article, you might notice something strange about it apart from my stupid logo. Seen it yet? That’s not my handiwork, as you can tell by looking at all the terrible image editing jobs around this blog. Rather, that is an Easter Egg inserted by Lukas Litzinger into the first edition of Netrunner’s FAQ (downloadable here). Clicking on the right spot shows Oracle May (if that’s who that is) to be no longer playing cards, but playing (and cheating at) Netrunner!
I can only hope that the person sitting across the table from Oracle May is one of the Glass House crew. Maybe they tried to hack her NRDB account to snipe her decklist, but Oracle May won’t be fooled by that: that Apocalypse Chaos Theory jank you saw on there was nothing but a honeypot! Her real deck was safe and sound on Meteor all along! She’s really playing Alice with Maw, and you’re simply not prepared for that!
They thought it was a sure gamble, but they were pushing their luck!