Slave morality does not aim at exerting one’s will by strength but by careful subversion. It does not seek to transcend the masters, but to make them slaves as well. — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
The nebulous term “computer hacking” has been around in some incarnation almost as long as computers have. But it wasn’t until the 80s, when William Gibson teased our brains with promises of cyberspace and console cowboys, that the term gained any sort of major traction in entertainment media.
We millennials and digital natives grew up idolizing these anti-heroes, bastions of individuality and counterculture in a world shaped by Reagan and Thatcher, the Star Wars Program and Bank of America. These hacker heroes represented everything we wanted but could never attain: a single entity striking out against the established power structure using tools native to our generation.
The political milieu of “cyberpunk” (if you insist on genre classifications) has re-emerged and expanded into greater relevance in recent years; so too has the prominence of the “hacker” in popular media, especially videogames. With glowing tattoos, neon signage and cryptic omnicode, the cyberpunk aesthetic has become a mainstay of the videogame consciousness. Many contemporary games either center themselves around the idea of the hacker protagonist, or at least highlight a hacking feature or mini-game, especially mainstream blockbuster titles. Even BioShock, set in a steampunk dystopian future-past version of the early ‘60s, enabled players to hack machines by manipulating a (literal) series of tubes.
The explosion of hacker-chic videogames could be refreshing, but in its current form, it’s disingenuous. The more prominent cyber-intrusion has become in blockbuster games, the further it has drifted away from the political undertones that guided the genre through the 80s and 90s. Cyberpunk is more than a radical future-tech aesthetic. It was born out of an expression of a social and political power struggle. The tenets and mainstays of the hacker ethos represent a different kind of power fantasy than the one seen in so many other genres; cyberpunk tends to prize tenacity and intellectual aplomb above physical strength or military might. It is a reactionary genre, posited by our generation as a means of reclamation in the wake of the hyper-capitalist dystopia that has been creeping forth steadily for centuries. It’s a modern-day expression of slave morality in which we’ve given up trying to wrest power from The Establishment and instead pride ourselves as underdogs, embracing subversiveness as a way of life.
Cyberpunk protagonists are not powerful in the ways that are valued by traditional masculinity. Neuromancer’s Henry Dorsett Case—a name so unmanly I got a wedgie just typing it—is a protagonist and a hero, but he’s far from powerful in the traditional sense. He’s a 24-year-old drug-addicted alcoholic who is virtually useless unless he’s plugging away at his console. In contrast, games like the recent Watch_Dogs apply the hacker mentality to the burly white brick shit-house character of most videogames. Watch_Dogs’s Aiden Pearce, a protagonist whose very name was designed by committee to sound like a one-two punch, prowls the streets of Chicago flagrantly gunning down petty criminals. Even the box art shows Pearce with his gun hand featured prominently in the foreground, his cell phone and hacking device clutched close to his chest, almost as an afterthought. Similarly, Adam Jensen of Deus Ex: Human Revolution peers disinterestedly at the world through his perma-shades, taking on the criminal underbelly in a sleek combat suit and leather duster. Both of these men are much more Van Damme than Thomas Anderson.
Neither of these men fighting existing power structures. They are the power structure. Both are white and able-bodied. Jensen especially embodies this, as the private bulldog cyborg of the biggest biotech firm in the world, who lives in a Detroit penthouse. Both are proficient killers and have access to significant financial and material backing.
More importantly, these protagonists eschew the traditional power dynamic central to much of cyberpunk. Both Watch_Dogs and Deus Ex: Human Revolution encourage you to vent your aggression on unsuspecting citizens, gang members and petty criminals. One of the features of Watch_Dogs often touted by developers is the ability to point your smartphone at random passers by and magically abracadabra details of their personal information: age, profession, income, even sexual orientation.
Pearce can use this data to inform his actions – he can choose to siphon money from bank accounts or dish out a healthy dose of street justice, empowered by hardware (both technological and ballistic) to be judge, jury, and executioner of Chicago. In a similar vein, Jensen can use his cyber-brain to hack into computer terminals and sift through employee emails, learning personal secrets and even stealing money.
This is directly contrary to the ideology of cyberpunk, which elevates protagonists as Robin Hoods striking clandestine blows against major corporations and corrupt governments. Their visual individuality is a direct contrast to the imposing monolithic grey facelessness of the establishment, the act of hacking itself a refusal to acquiesce to corporate assimilation. Instead, recent games have delivered the reverse – identical white heroes preying on the diverse and colorful array of the city’s inhabitants for personal gain, in the form of money or experience points.
The vast majority of videogames are mechanically centered around the acquisition of power, as evidenced by character leveling systems and equipment progression. Cyberpunk, in contrast, is dedicated not to the accumulation of power, but rather its redistribution. Hackers topple governments and expose corporations, but they rarely ever do so for their own personal benefit. They are fringe, and they are destined to always be fringe—forever one step ahead of detection, capture and imprisonment.
Some games have managed to capture this theme. Uplink: Hacker Elite, a game which plays out entirely through menu navigation and contains not one single gun, enables players to accumulate power in the form of money and better equipment, but continues to reminds them that they are at a disadvantage. Players are always on the run, constantly being traced by their marks. Hackers in Uplink are unable to defend themselves in any sort of physical way. Security systems can be installed on computers, but they serve no purpose other than to alert you of imminent capture and to destroy your PC in a last-ditch attempt to wipe incriminating data, leaving players empty-handed and back at square one.
Hacking explores a new frontier. Driving around and shooting criminals is not only off-brief, it’s boring. Many blockbuster developers seem locked into a paradigm where violent action is the linchpin around which the rest of the game unfolds, but in the process, they have only perverted the philosophy that cyberpunk was founded upon. These blockbuster games’ implementation of the hacker ethos has not brought the genre’s unique discussion of social power dynamics to the forefront, but instead has buried it under the neoconservative rhetoric that thrives in the modern man-shoot.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic and occasional developer. He writes his bios in the third person because that’s what everyone else does. He reluctantly claims responsibility for what you will find on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.