May 18, 2024


Technology will be Here

An Inclusive, Cyberpunk Future Is In the Cards

A diverse and inclusive world “had been something that, internally, we’d wanted for a long time, but the IPs had never really allotted for it,” she said.

In a podcast, Damon Stone, who later became Android: Netrunner’s lead designer, described the world-building as “pointillism”: Each card is a small piece of color that adds up to the overall world. Robinson had the job of directing the many artists who would contribute those small parts to bring about the big picture.

“If you send a text art brief, and you don’t specify things to an artist, especially freelancers, they’re going to give you what they think you want,” she said. “So if you don’t specify race/gender/age, you’re going to get a thirtysomething white man, with close-cut dark hair and dark eyes, sort of the anydude from video games.”

So the team got really specific with its art direction. Robinson said they even had “a spreadsheet to figure out who was overrepresented and who was underrepresented. It was incredibly deliberate.”

Fantasy Flight’s team made a good number of changes to the game they inherited from Wizards of the Coast, from bringing ICE back to all-caps to using fixed, nonrandomized expansion packs. But perhaps the biggest change was the addition of a card representing you, the player.

Instead of being an out-of-game manager equipping a team of misfits with day-glo hair and bionic limbs, you could be Chaos Theory, a school-age hacker who does her netrunning via a console shaped like a stuffed dinosaur; or Noise, a Chinese-Irish hacker born on the Moon. Or you may be Valencia Estevez, “the Angel of Cayambe,” fighting for the residents of a town in present-day Ecuador and a New Angeles slum in the new mythos. You could even be Whizzard, one of the few white cis-male characters in Android: Netrunner, based on Android designer Kevin Wilson.

And a game whose business model depends on regularly printing new expansion decks is a game whose cast of characters must constantly expand. “The world is so big, and there are so many different kinds of people,” Robinson said. “What does cyberpunk India look like?”

“I Hate That I Have to Call Diversity a Risk.”

The pressure to deliver games on tight schedules makes fighting for diverse representations tough at for-profit companies, says Jonni Trev, a volunteer designer for the Project NISEI fan organization, based in Oakland, California. They’re also a video game designer.

“External pressure to make money makes every game you’ve ever played worse,” says Trev. “There is no game you will ever play that has been made better by that.”

In Trev’s experience, games that demonstrate consideration for diversity and inclusion get that way because of a few people on the inside who fought for it. “Real inclusion is very hard work,” they say. “You can’t just be like, let’s get some brown people in here. It doesn’t work that way.”

Now a freelancer, Robinson has experienced firsthand certain backward industry views of what players want. She says she was “reprimanded once that there were more women than men in a product, and to never let them see that happen again.”

“There’s always quiet pushback, even if you don’t quite see it,” Wilson says. “They won’t come out and say they don’t want diversity. They’ll say, oh, the numbers show that a white male protagonist is going to get us the best return on our money. It’s always couched in these numbers that you can’t argue with because they’re often mysterious somewhere.”

With less money at stake relative to big-budget video games, the Android: Netrunner designers had more freedom to take risks. “I hate that I have to call diversity a risk,” Robinson said. But Wilson says he and colleagues enjoyed the full support of Fantasy Flight’s then CEO, Christian Petersen, to create the game world they wanted.