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Breaking gender and racial barriers in Netrunner

Netrunner is one of the most progressive games in terms of gender and minority representation, but its playerbase doesn't reflect that diversity. I talked with the game's lead designer about that discrepancy and the toxic nature of some competitive games.

Eric Caoili, Blogger

October 20, 2014

14 Min Read

If you play Android: Netrunner as a male character right now, more often than not you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. I doubt that’s the result of an agenda Fantasy Flight Games, Netrunner’s developer, is advancing; that’s just the current landscape of this constantly evolving card game, a quirk in the male-dominated tabletop community.

Netrunner is my favorite game right now. Never mind that it’s not a video game; I can explain its appeal with the same string of words I’d employ to vouch for a great RPG: it’s a collection of clever systems that combine to offer more complexity, as well as a huge sense of accomplishment when you manage to make them all work together efficiently, like a digital tinker that’s built and modded a personal, intricate machine into its perfect form.

Other reasons I’m enthralled by Netrunner? It’s an asymmetric two-player competitive game, pitting hackers (or runners as they’re called in the Android universe) and monolithic megacorporations against each other, each side working with different tools and rulesets to take each other down. Each match is filled with the tension that comes from guessing what cards have been played face-down or kept in hand — hackers charge into unknown security measures corps have installed to protect their priorities, while the corps try to predict what tricks runners can use to kick in the door.

Netrunner is a lovely and beloved experience for all those reasons, but the game is worth championing for other ideas that go beyond its smart design too. It’s also worth celebrating because Netrunner is one of the most progressive games in terms of gender and minority representation today.

While the playable “identities” on the corp side are represented by the company’s divisions and initiatives, the runners are presented as individuals with unique backgrounds, motives, and traits that define how they play.

For example, Andromeda, one of the most popular runners at the moment, is a woman described by her card text as a dispossessed member of the corporate aristocracy. Her advantage is she starts the game drawing nine cards instead of the standard five, allowing her to consistently establish a strong network of contacts, a suite of hacking tools, and a healthy bank account faster than anyone else. It fits thematically; as someone born into or at least once accepted by the setting’s elites, of course she would benefit from the inherent privileges often afforded to that class.

At the U.S. Nationals tournament for Netrunner players held in August, I managed to make it to 18th place (out of 256 players) with Andromeda as my runner. Andromeda and the other most popular runner currently, Kate "Mac" McCaffrey, dominated the top tables at the tournament. The eventual champion won with Kate, another runner with an economic advantage over others — she can install programs and hardware at a discount, presumably due to her brilliance as an artist hacker, jerry-rigging solutions custom-fit to deal with any obstacle.

Kate is of mixed race, part Scottish, part African-American. Most of the runners and the game’s other characters are of mixed race or from an ethnic minority. In Netrunner’s Core set, the starter kit that introduces everyone to the game, all of the runner options have a multiracial heritage. Along with Kate, the Core box includes Ji "Noise" Reilly, a Chinese and Irish runner enjoying a resurgence in popularity recently; and Gabriel Santiago, who has a native South American and European Spanish background. Another runner identity introduced last summer, Nasir Meidan, is said to be half-Israeli, half-Palestinian, while upcoming hackers have what look like Indian, Korean, and other non-caucasian ancestry.

The game’s design team purposely pushed for that diversity in the game’s characters, as it makes sense with its vision of the Android: Netrunner universe. “It’s ‘a near-future game,’” designer Damon Stone told Terminal7 back in June. “It happens well after all of us will be dead and gone … but it’s not like 1,000 years in the future. It’s also not like 50 years in the future. We’re already at a point where the idea of ‘mixed race’ children is growing, and having a single ethnic majority in the U.S. is decades away from being a non-factor. Having a future in the game that represented what the future of our own world is going to look like just made the most sense.”

“Generally speaking, games, like movies, are not so great at representing women and racial minorities with any kind of regularity, let alone functional relevance,” said Stone. “Hopefully, somehow I’ve helped make it so that games and other forms of entertainment see it as an okay thing to include a bit more diversity in who they choose to represent, who they choose to include in their designs and movies.”

Lukas Litzsinger, who leads Netrunner's small design and development team at FFG, noted to me that while the game’s setting has a cyber-noir, cyber-punk feel, the universe isn’t meant to be completely dystopian. “In the future, the human race has kind of figured things out. A lot of people are mixed race now because those old barriers have just kind of disappeared, and hopefully over time people accept that people are people, and it doesn’t really matter, all these different external differences that you might think you have with someone.”

It’s a hopeful future reminiscent of the utopian principles guiding Star Trek’s Federation government, but that’s not to say civil rights movements have become obsolete in Netrunner’s setting. Discrimination against gender or race or presumably sexual orientation/identity (those issues aren’t broached by the game, as far I can tell) are replaced in the game with prejudices against bioroids/androids and clones. While organizations like the Liberty Society fight to obtain freedom for the artificial beings they see as being treated like slaves, hate groups such as Human First seek to literally smash them and condemn them for taking jobs away from humans. Edward Kim, the Korean runner I mentioned earlier, is a Human First member depicted with a sledgehammer and a flavor quote seething with animosity: “My only regret is that androids cannot feel my hate."

Along with representing minorities and women in its runner identities (nine of the 18 runners are female), FFG has taken care not to objectify the women in Netrunner with sleazy artwork or cheesecake shots. Silhouette’s questionable stealth catsuit notwithstanding, there aren’t many examples of women wearing impractical outfits or in impossible poses, like you’d see on the covers of many comic books or lots of fantasy-themed artwork. The rare images that do show skin, like the Adonis and Eve Campaign cards (marketing campaigns for male and female androids meant to serve as escorts), do so with a reason. 

Compare that approach to something like Magic: The Gathering, the preeminent card game for decades now (by the way, both Magic and the original Netrunner game from the ‘90s -- FFG’s Android: Netrunner is a recent reboot -- were created by the same man, Richard Garfield). In that game’s artwork, you will find catwomen clerics displaying their faith with ample cleavage, female knights in armor bikinis riding into battle atop shielded steeds, and many other shameless attempts to attract the male gaze -- there’s no shortage of complaints over how Magic has objectified its female characters. 

Netrunner thankfully hasn’t followed Magic’s lead in this respect. Litzsinger commented, “We don’t want to play into the typical geek stereotype. In a way, what you see in a lot of video games and other board games is fan service. It’s just not terribly realistic. We like to create games that everybody can enjoy, and [fan service] can definitely turn people away.”

Despite FFG’s best efforts and intentions to create a welcoming environment for people of all types with Netrunner, Litzsinger admitted, “The game is pretty diverse, and yet the player-base is kind of what you would expect. It’s heavily male-dominated. It’s also heavily caucasian in a lot of places.”

Some anecdotal evidence to support that observation: of the three local Netrunner groups I’ve played with in the Cincinnati/Dayton area, which comprises around 25-30 players, I’ve seen two women playing the game (and only one other person of color besides myself). And at Netrunner’s U.S. Nationals, which was held at Gen Con in Indianapolis, one of the biggest annual tapletop gaming events in the world, I spotted only a handful of women participating in the tournament. That was on the first day of the three-day event; I don’t recall seeing any on the final day of matches between the top 64 players.

“Why we don’t have more female players, it’s hard to say, but I don’t think it’s necessarily indicative of one game,” said Litzsinger. ”It’s kind of potentially a problem with card games in general. … People have kind of had this idea, going back to the fan service in card games, etcetera, that it’s kind of just a male thing, that it’s just like stereotypical male for some reason. Like, ‘Oh yeah, just guys play that’ or something, kind of like video games were for a long time and still are to a certain extent but not nearly as much [now].”

He continued, “Maybe part of it is just the potentially toxic nature of some competitive levels of events.” He noted that some online video games like League of Legends have the same problem, where mean-spirited players sully the experience by harassing others. “Sometimes you’re just like ‘I need to turn off chat for a while.’ It’s just like ‘I don’t want to take this right now.’”

In a recent discussion on Reddit about the "Division of Gender in Netrunner Players", NicitaGreeneye explained that she declined to participate in tournaments initially because of how she expected competitive players to act: “I was frightened because some people were really rude to each other at the games I watched, so I was scared they might get loud or angry at me if I didn't play fast enough or made a mistake, especially because I am petite and look really young, so I thought they might be more aggressive towards me.”

She went on to warn that girls at tournaments should prepare for “creepy guys trying to hit on you or making sexist comments,” “people trying to bullshit you” with the game’s rules, and “people constantly underestimating you.” After one of those creepy guys she mentioned popped up in the discussion with an offensive comment, she added, “That’s what I was talking about. 99% of you guys are great, but there’s always that one creep.”

It won’t weed out the creeps, but one way FFG tries to mitigate the number people acting like jerks at tournaments is by not offering cash prizes for its competitions, like you will see for Magic: The Gathering. Litzsinger pointed out, “[When] you start offering cash prizes, people just start getting really cutthroat, and it can just kind of ruin the spirit of the community to a certain extent. We want our card game communities and competitive communities to be very friendly and welcoming, and you just show up to play and have fun. You want to compete too, but you want to compete in an environment where it’s enjoyable for everybody involved.”

Players at a Netrunner Tournament (Fantasy Flight Games)

Still, members of these communities need to make sure others feel welcome even at casual get-togethers and play sessions. Another female commenter in the aforementioned Reddit discussion, DaveyCrickett, shared, “My game store is generally woman-friendly and not particularly hostile, but the first couple times I showed up I noticed a lot of curious stares. I got hit on by a weird old guy who wanted to read my palm or something.”

Then you have experiences like queer game designer and critic Mattie Brice’s: “I showed up to a Netrunner meetup, and the store owners assumed I was a customer, and at first told me they were closed for business. I had to take out my card and show them through the window to let me in.” When she sat down to play, Brice noticed that the guys there would look away when talking to her. “I don't think anyone at that store was gross or mean. They're not used to people different than them and don't welcome the opportunity.”

These seem like little courtesies -- stifling rude stares, looking at someone while talking to them, and not making assumptions about the people who show up to play just because they look different than you. Yet some people in the community still have difficulty with those little courtesies. To pull out examples from my own experiences, at a recent tournament I attended, one loud player could be heard proclaiming how one effective card “raped” another. And at a play session with another local group, I was treated to several regulars putting on fake Asian accents while I observed their games.

Almost everyone I’ve played with has been super nice and wonderful and helpful, but a few slights or inconsiderate comments can still make a group feel unwelcoming.

That all said, there are plenty of examples of Netrunner players and tabletop gamers working hard to create a more inviting and diverse community. I’ve seen so many people go to great lengths to teach others how to play, help newcomers feel accepted by a group of veteran players, and proactively create spaces that come off as fun and safe for everyone.

And there are small steps that I’m happy to see taken, like FFG making more of an effort to use both male and female pronouns in Netrunner’s card text instead of just male pronouns, as it did for the most part in the game’s core set rulebook (though using “they” or “their” seems more efficient, in the interest of using up as little space on in the card text boxes as possible). It’s also encouraging to see players lambasting fanmade alternate art cards that objectify female runners, and having discussions about cultural appropriation.

Magic: The Gathering’s judges have made efforts to improve that game’s tournament environment too, updating its rules to punish any players who make others feel “harassed, threatened, bullied, or stalked.” In their provided examples and comments, the judges called out sexual harassment, taking photos of others without their permission, bullying online, and harassing or purposefully misgendering transgender individuals (one of the game’s most visible transgender players, Feline Longmore, was the subject of a recent Washington Post article looking at sexism in the Magic community). These rules apply to not just players but also spectators, tournament staff, and judges. FFG has similar Unsportsmanlike Conduct guidelines for players in its own tournament rules, but its definitions aren’t as specific as the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide’s.

Arguments over sexism in card games (Cardboard Crack)

If you’re looking for advice on how to make your Netrunner or tabletop gaming scene appear more inviting to new players, Brice tweeted several suggestions that I hope people will consider and integrate into their groups. Of course, the leaders and members of those groups will first need to be convinced that these issues are worth caring about, and that going out of their way to make women and people of color feel welcome is important.

While it’s likely that Netrunner’s player-base will never match the gender and racial diversity in the game, Litzsinger believes Netrunner will someday get to a point where people won’t feel intimidated to jump into the game just because they might be different from all of the other players they see. “I think it’s just kind of trying to make the game as welcoming and fun as possible,” he said. “I think eventually over time people will see that it’s a great community to be involved with, whoever you are.”

[Eric Caoili writes about handheld games at Tiny Cartridge, where you'll find plenty of game-related art, comics, indie projects, chiptunes, GIFs, and other curiosities. You can also follow him on Twitter for Bowser fanfiction tweets.]

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Eric Caoili


Eric Caoili currently serves as a news editor for Gamasutra, and has helmed numerous other UBM Techweb Game Network sites all now long-dead, including GameSetWatch. He is also co-editor for beloved handheld gaming blog Tiny Cartridge, and has contributed to Joystiq, Winamp, GamePro, and 4 Color Rebellion.

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