Cyberpunk Anticipated the High-Tech Assault on Democracy We’re All Living Through

If only we’d have listened 30 years ago

Up until last month, I’d not “seriously” played any video games for nearly a decade. I’d quit after a frustrating career as a producer in the console games industry left me exhausted by the precariousness and working conditions, which in turn had tainted the whole hobby for me. I still kept half an eye on news and trends because as a tech-cultural phenomenon, it fascinated me, but gaming had started to feel like a relic of a past life, something I’d left behind. And then 2020 happened. Like many, I found myself looking for activities that let me turn off parts of my brain during the pandemic lockdowns — something that wasn’t staring in despair at rolling TV news and Twitter or the kind of intensely serious reading and research that is such a vital part of my job. Suddenly gaming looked attractive again. And one game in particular: CD Projekt Red’s long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077.

So that’s what I was playing as I watched a mob of fanatics dressed like they were cosplaying as video game mercenaries assault the Capitol this month. The insurrection disturbed and affected me as it did most people, but after playing 2020’s biggest video game release — one where angry veterans and weapon-fetishizing fanatics run amok in the hyper-capitalist remains of a collapsed America — it also felt like a depressing case study of how we got here and how we failed to stop it.

I’d been aware of Cyberpunk 2077 since it was announced back in 2012 because as a teenager, I was obsessed with the pen-and-paper role-playing game it was based on. Cyberpunk 2013 was first published by R. Talsorian Games in 1988 with a second, more polished edition — Cyberpunk 2020 — out in 1990. It came just at the end of the decade, when cyberpunk books and movies like Neuromancer, Islands in the Net, Blade Runner, and Robocop had proven the genre was an important cultural phenomenon. Putting the years when it was set — 2013 and 2020 — in the titles of the editions seemed like a bold decision; at the time, cyberpunk authors had often been reluctant to put exact dates to their stories, wary that their very-near-future tales would seem dated too soon. But Cyberpunk creator Mike Pondsmith was made of sterner stuff, and putting those years right on the cover felt like the work of a marketing genius. Believe it or not, in 1988, the year 2020 sounded like both the far future and tantalizingly close — a time that promised exotic new technologies and radical social change yet still within our lifespans: a year most fans my age would live to see.

Looking back with a little hindsight, Cyberpunk 2020 feels a little like the beginning of the end of cyberpunk as an innovative genre. Someone had formally reduced what was still a fledgling, experimental literature movement into a list of assembled tropes and clichés and put it down on paper. Even the central game dynamic — players take the roles of cybernetically enhanced mercenaries and hackers fighting to make a living by doing shady street-level jobs for evil corporations against the background of a violent, sprawling, tech-soaked dystopian city — is the most basic and hackneyed of cyberpunk plotlines. But back then it really didn’t matter. It still felt new, exciting, and made with genuine passion. Now, it’s a stark reminder of how badly we ignored the genre’s warnings.

Nestled away in the second half of the Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook is a timeline of the future, starting in 1990 and spanning the following 30 years. Made up of a list of major events and developments, at its heart is the story of the collapse of the United States of America. Needing a way to throw the games’ players into a full-fledged dystopia in just three short decades, Pondsmith drew up an absolute worst-case scenario shit list of what could possibly go wrong. At the time, it felt both scarily plausible and a work of dystopian fantasy; looking back at it now, it feels not just eerily prescient but at times almost tame.

It’s not 100% accurate in its predictions. The timings all seem to be 10–15 years too early, and they’re rarely direct equivalents, but the similarities, and the resultant political and social fallout, are often eerily similar.

For example, there are no 9/11 attacks or war on terror. There is, however, the war on drugs, which turns into a full, bloody shooting war in 1990 as the U.S. invades Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador and “military forces are sent to secure the canal zone from an ex-U.S. puppet dictator.” This leads to the U.S. military getting bogged down in occupation in ways that sound way too similar to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with huge civilian and military casualties and a growing army of disgruntled and psychologically scarred vets returning home. In 1993, Colombian terrorists detonate a small nuclear device in New York City, killing thousands. Ten years later, the occupation is ongoing, the war still being fought.

There’s no 2008 financial crisis in Cyberpunk 2020, but there is the 1994 global stock market collapse that wipes out so much of the U.S. economy and destroys so many jobs that the country descends into a period of widespread rioting and unrest. Martial law is declared in 1996, and police forces are heavily militarized through the adoption of weapons, techniques, and technologies developed for the Central American conflicts. The U.S. becomes increasingly politically divided. Into the power void created by collapsing state and federal governments step large corporations, which rapidly consolidate their control over everything from basic infrastructure and farming to the military. One of these is Militech, an arms manufacturer turned private army that employs unhinged veterans and violent mercenaries. At first, it sounds like one of the timeline’s more far-fetched ideas, but perhaps not so much when you read the horrific stories about Blackwater, the huge global “security contractor” that got rich providing services to the U.S. and private industry in Iraq and Afghanistan and employed the mercenaries that Trump recently pardoned for war crimes.

There’s plenty the world-building in Cyberpunk 2020 missed about the future, of course. Like cyberpunk — the genre that gave us the term cyberspace — it doesn’t really understand the internet, and it completely fails to predict social media and all its ramifications. But it does have the monolithic Network News 54, a proxy for News International, Fox News, and Sinclair that, according to the original Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook, “controls over 62% of all American broadcasting, and produces news, films, and television shows.” Plus Pondsmith didn’t need social media to predict the rise of misinformation in the game, with conspiracy theories and emerging cults leading to very real acts of terror and violence.

It’s all of these similarities that made playing CD Projekt Red’s video game adaptation so jarring in the last few weeks. Although Cyberpunk 2077 is now set 50-odd years later — in order to give the sense it’s still a game about the future — as Keanu Reeve’s character Johnny Silverhand (who has been digitally frozen in time since the first game) points out, nothing much has changed. The new game sticks closely to its roots, including using the original timeline as its world-building foundation. America has fully collapsed into violent chaos ruled over by fascist politicians serving as the puppets for multinational corporations. It’s an America that, while still feeling like a Robocop-esque parody, somehow feels less and less funny with every major news event.

In a large part, this comes down to the game’s aesthetic and design choices. While obviously drawing on a huge heritage of cyberpunk imagery from movies like Blade Runner, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and more recently Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and Chappie, it’s hard to shake how familiar the game’s visuals seem from everyday life. For example, the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is saturated with advertising, another obvious trope of the genre. Videos loop from billboards, screens, and the TV in your apartment. Most of them are for sex toys, pornography, fast food, and outrageous cybernetic enhancements, but a sizeable chunk of them are for guns or for gun retailers like the in-world chain 2nd Amendment. Watching them, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the last decade of glossy, loud propaganda put out by the National Rifle Association. There’s one ad that loops on billboards all over the city that’s impossible to ignore — selling a cheap brand of assault rifle, it opens with stereotypical imagery of a nice suburban American family and the slogan “The second amendment is not just for the rich.”

Even more jarring is a political campaign ad for a mayoral candidate who pulls out a gun and actually shoots a physical copy of a bill he promises to defeat. The ad, which runs in elevators around the city, is funny and a little outrageous and clearly a nod to the kind of satirical fake adverts seen in Paul Verhoeven movies. Until, that is, you pull your head out of the game and look at Twitter.

Less than three weeks after the game was released, newly elected Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert posted a video to Twitter explaining why she would defy government regulations by carrying her Glock pistol to Congress. It’s an incredibly slick and glossy video, featuring a glamorous-looking Boebert marching purposefully through a series of environments (several of which appear to be shot against a green screen) as she explains why she’s carrying her gun to the Capitol in order to defend Second Amendment rights. It’s laughable at first but stops being funny when you realize that Boebert is not only a supposed QAnon sympathizer but just three days after the video was posted, she was apparently live-tweeting the location of Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers during the violent siege of the Capitol by far-right extremists. She has even been accused of leading “reconnaissance tours” of the building in the days prior.

The footage of what happened on January 6 stunned the world, and in the aftermath, it might seem trivial to be talking about it in the context of a recently released video game or a 30-year-old tabletop RPG. But it’s hard to ignore the connections. In many ways, QAnon is the ultimate RPG. It’s become almost a cliche for journalist and researchers to call QAnon a live-action role-playing (LARP) game — a medium that has its roots in the same 1980s RPG scene that gave birth to Cyberpunk 2020 — but it’s clear how the movement entices and enthralls its followers with game mechanics. Followers, or players, are framed as loyal heroes and warriors, given patriotic quests to complete, and fed a continuous series of cryptic puzzles and codes to decipher. As Izabella Kaminska wrote in Financial Times last year, “LARPs not only inspired huge dedication to allegiances and missions, but also trained participants in sophisticated wargaming tactics. The culture slowly became a potential recruitment ground for a virtual paramilitary organization, just waiting for someone to figure out how to deploy it in the real world.”

It doesn’t feel particularly insightful to point out the aesthetic similarities between the two — the sight of hundreds of angry fanatics decked out in the latest paramilitary and tactical wear trying to storm the seat of U.S. government could easily be an image from any major first-person shooter of the last 15 years. But again, it’s also dangerous to ignore the impact on mainstream culture that such video games have had over the last few decades. There’s a fetishization of high-tech weapons and tactical wear that is inherent in contemporary video game design, and Cyberpunk 2077 is no exception. A large part of the game’s appeal is the discovering, buying, looting, and collecting of futuristic handguns, assault rifles, grenades, and much more. It’s a common first-person-shooter/RPG trope that feels intrinsically entwined with the consumerist hoarding of expensive, lethal military equipment that is so central to the modern Second Amendment movement. And with all that happened over the last four years, it’s easy to forget that the organized, aggressive, right-wing mobs that spilled out into meatspace on January 6 learned so many of their tactics and strategies during Gamergate.

Plus there’s that sense of an extra significance to Cyberpunk 2077 that just can’t be shaken off. In 1988, Pondsmith set out to plot a future that ended in the collapse of the U.S., and whether intentional or not, he distilled into it the fears and warnings that the cyberpunk genre wanted us to heed about our path into the future. It wanted us to think about the ramifications of letting technology, militarization, and unrestrained capitalism run rampant. Like I imagine many people my age did, I picked up Cyberpunk 2077 expecting a mindless escape into fantasy and nostalgia and instead got a series of unavoidable reminders of how we failed to heed those warnings.

I’m still playing the game, though. Despite both its, and our, failings, there’s something that keeps pulling me back to it, something about being able to wander that world again. The difference is that now when I pick up the controller, I’m resigned to not getting a mindless escape but instead a piece of art that — much like those I try to create myself — is going to make me think about how we ended up in the state we’re in now. Calling it the video game version of doomscrolling might be hyperbolic, but at times, that’s exactly what it feels like.

Writer. Debut novel INFINITE DETAIL out now on FSG. Bylines at BBC, Motherboard, New Scientist. http://timmaughanbooks.com

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