Let me talk to you about Netrunner.
Leigh Alexander wrote an excellent feature for Shut Up and Sit Down, reflecting on her own experience learning to play the game:
I can’t. I mean, it’s just a goddamn card game, but this is the part where I get up and leave the room, and slip into my bedroom. There is a perfectly reasonable part of me that is trying to process information. Oh kay. You just got a bit frustrated. It’s a complicated game. Shake it off.
The other part of me wants to fling myself bodily across the bed and cry like a child, hiding among Ikea furniture and the ghostly shapes of unwashed clothes. Ridiculous.
Aaand, oops. That’s the part that wins.
It would be understatement to say that I related.
Netrunner is a cyberpunk-themed card game pitting a hacker (the “runner”) and a corporation (the, uh, “corporation”) against each other. Both can win the game by scoring agenda points: the corp scores by spending time and resources to protect and advance agendas while fending off the runner’s trespasses; the runner scores by circumventing said security and stealing the agendas while the corp fumes silently.
Given that it’s a card game, and a geekily themed one on at that, naturally there’s a pile of rules built on that theme; and even with a decent grasp on the rules, there’s a decent of number crunching that a player will have to do at any given moment. Throw in deck-building and the metagame layer, and the complexity of the game can spin out of control pretty quickly.
All of which is not to say that Netrunner is a hard game to learn. It isn’t, not really. On the contrary, moment-to-moment play actually feels really smooth and even intuitive. I’d say almost anyone can play it with a base level of confidence.
Almost anyone. Not me.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not the math; I’m okay at math. It’s not the rules. I’m fine with those; heck, I even like them. Netrunner’s is very well designed. It feels natural and balanced. It feels like the best parts of math—less made, more discovered. There are protocols—a certain way that things happen. I do this and you do that and we do it in such-and-such order. And this is the kind of thing I like: protocols and systems. A system has kind of a tangibility to it. A system implies that a certain input will result in a consistent, predictable output. Once you understand the rules, once you can shine a light into that black box and see all the interactions, you have grasped the tangible element of that system.
It’s for this reason that I always liked (or had the compulsion to play) Japanese RPGs as a kid; in the end, those games are basically spreadsheets with the goal of creating ever bigger numbers. Those games’ systems are, if nothing else, exceptionally consistent.
So when I heard about Netrunner and all its mathematics and its timings and rules, I asked a friend who played to explain it to me. It was a curiosity. I’d learn the game and be done with it after a couple weeks, if that. I thought it would be a pleasant diversion.
The first practice game of Netrunner that I ever played wasn’t hard to get through, per se; like I said, there’s a lot of rules and number crunching, but I was generally okay with that. I was learning the game. There’s a certain expectation from pretty much everyone that of course I’m going to mix up all the rules. Same with the second game. Even the third. By the fourth, I knew that I couldn’t lean on that excuse anymore. Which was unfortunate, because I was losing spectacularly. This had become anything but a pleasant diversion.
I couldn’t understand what was happening. I knew the rules. I’d built a competent deck, numbers-wise. I knew this combination of cards would do this and that combination would do that, and I’d even pulled those combinations off with aplomb in my games. I had grasped the system. I thought I’d felt the game click. And I was still losing. What. The. Heck. Well, Netrunner has a system. It’s a very elegant one. But having a system is not the same as being a system. Sometimes there are no rules.
I am going to admit something now: I like the game, but I don’t enjoy playing it. Every time I play a card, I might as well be pulling out one of my teeth. Each turn is an exercise in frustration. Each game leaves me confused and vulnerable no matter how well I do. I could be a runner and drive myself nuts face-planting into one Ice Wall after another. Or I could be a corp and see my defenses crumple beneath a flurry of events and a Femme Fatale. It’s not just the transactional nature of these actions. The costs are part of the system.
But I’ve always been the kind of person who does not want to run aground in front of people. And in Netrunner, you are always in front of someone, and you are almost always running aground. Being in front of a person and failing in small but significant ways. Death by a thousand popup windows, as it were. The game makes me want to do nothing except curl inward.
Readership, you don’t have to explain to me how insane and melodramatic this sounds. I’m here writing this thing, and I can barely believe it myself, that I’m getting hung up on this. The messy stuff that algebra can’t solve, where cards are just an excuse. The part with a person on the other side of the table. No system could ever capture that. The impossibility of it.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Netrunner
I have not been well, lately.
I think a lot about something May Kasahara says in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:
“I think you kinda had the wrong idea from the very beginning. You know what I mean, Mr. Wind-Up Bird? What you were just talking about…I don’t know, it’s kind of impossible for anybody to do that stuff, like ‘OK, now I’m gonna make a whole new world’ or ‘OK, now I’m gonna make a whole new self.’ That’s what I think. You might think you made a new world or a new self, but your old self is always gonna be there, just below the surface, and if something happens, it’ll stick its head out and say ‘Hi.’ You don’t seem to realize that. You were made somewhere else. And even this idea you have of remaking yourself: even that was made somewhere else. Even I know that much, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. You’re a grown-up, aren’t you? How come you don’t get it? That’s a big problem, if you ask me. And that’s what you’re being punished for—by all kinds of things: by the world you tried to get rid of, or by the self you tried to get rid of. Do you see what I’m saying?”
That. I think about that a lot.
I swear I must do a reboot of my blog every year or two, thinking, “Yes, now is the time. I will do this.” As if the flow of these specific electrons will start some sort of sea change across every little arena of my life. So I try to do it. And I manage it, for a little bit. The last little while that I had this going, I think I was doing okay. Not good, but okay. I wasn’t, honestly, writing a whole heck of a lot. I swore, e.g., that I didn’t want to crank, and I ended up cranking quite a bit—but I think that was fine, necessary even, because that was how I picked up enough momentum to start (and finish) doing some capital-W Writing. And, in fact, the stuff that I tried to capital-W Write, I felt good about. I knew that it wasn’t actually especially well-constructed and/or insightful, but I enjoyed it; I was proud of the warts; I liked that I was writing about something that I cared about. It was a strange feeling. It was scary, actually, a little, that tension. “Why am I proud of this shitty review of Kentucky Route Zero? Am I really going to try to do a writeup on my bank? Nobody is going to like my overwrought Proteus article. Who would care why Lord of the Rings matters to me? Are you really going to expose myself like this? Leave myself vulnerable like that?” That type of thing.
But I tried. It felt like it was worth it. I liked to think I tried. I’d tap out sentences on my phone during my bus commute and feel pretty happy about them. Then I came back to my apartment and deleted them with extreme prejudice. Who cared? Who would ever care? Did I care? If I cared, wouldn’t I have not deleted it? Is this even about the writing? Do I care about anything at all? Shouldn’t I just be another shmuck on the bus, killing time until the next commute? But regardless of “should” or “shouldn’t,” it’s hell of easy to just…recede. Especially if you are anything like yrs. truly. Forcing yourself to be truly alone. Until being in a crowd and being at the bottom of a well are equal in their alienation.
May Kasahara might not be right about everyone, but she’s at least right about me. I’m not the type of person that can just snap my fingers and be a different person. (Not saying that there’s anyone that can do this, but some people are surely more disposed to it.) I can’t walk into a room of strangers and overcome my own anxieties about being around people. Sure, I could try to force the issue; I could move somewhere where I don’t know a single person’s name, but chances are good that I’d end up doing the same thing I’ve done before, which is to say: curl inward.
This is the part of me that has never gone away. I have a lot of weird, stupid, self-harming things about me, but this little ball of fear and anxiety often feels like the small, hard, blackened core of who I am. I try to cut into it, to split it open and eradicate it, focusing myself laser-like, deeply inward at this single thing; but the deeper I cut, the harder, more blackened each layer is.
Even I know that much, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. How come you don’t get it?
And, honestly, I don’t know quite what to do.
I’m little but I’m coming for the crown
So, instead, I am trying to look at it differently. Each little inward focusing I do shrinks the bubble in which I am able to operate as an actual person. But maybe it works the other way, too.
Better. Better. Better. Then, better.
I dearly wish I could say that this has all been leading up to a success story. Fact is, Netrunner really has little to do with anything. It is a means, but there are probably plenty of things that could work as well or better; Netrunner just got there first. So I don’t know if I can ever be well. I don’t know if it’s sustainable to view the game in these self-healing terms; maybe it’s just a detour. I don’t know if it is “good” for me. I can’t “just” be better.
I know that it is good for me to try. And silly as it might be, Netrunner is how I am trying. It draws out my deepest vulnerabilities and shuffles them into my deck and makes me play them onto the table like I’d play an event card. In this territory, there are no rules to fall back on, no way for me to explain or understand or even cope. But the game accommodates, in its way; underneath the glitzy cyberpunk theme, crunched between the mathematics of its myriad systems, is a language that I can just almost make out. Not simply game jargon—it stretches beyond advancement counters, beyond rigs and servers; it’s the language of effort and loss and success, of confidence and vulnerability. It is language of presence: spoken in quiet moments and in being known. I know there are no guarantees. But I think it is a language I would like to speak.
I was disproportionately proud of my word blur effect. So proud. Holy cow. ↩
Simple, for what it’s worth, and yes, I did try. In one sentence: It’s an online bank, and I like it.
Can you believe I agonized over how to say that? ↩