Last night, my partner and I started playing Android: Netrunner, which is a highly reviewed card game for two players in which one is a corporation in a futuristic world where everything is owned by massive conglomerates (wait, future?) and the other player is a “runner,” a hacker who tries to access the corp’s resources and agendas and sabotage their servers. The game is huge and very complicated. Each player plays by a different set of governing rules. The corporation sets up blockades to its servers called ice, and the runner utilises programmes to infect, break, and bypass the ice to try and steal the corporate agenda cards. The game ends when one player has seven agenda points. The corporation can lose by running out of cards in its R&D pile (the deck not in play). The runner can also lose by getting dead.
Somehow that ended up being a weird analogy for a lot of things.
As the runner, I started out at a distinct disadvantage. Without specific icebreaker programmes installed (which you have to draw at random from your own deck), I couldn’t get past any of my partner’s ice. There’s the added obstacle that ice is only revealed if the runner makes a run at it AND the corp decides to “rez” it, to pay a cost to flip the card face up, making the runner encounter it and suffer any effects it triggers. Without money or specific programmes, as a runner you can do very little if you’re looking at un-rezzed ice that could cause you to get tagged or get brain damage. (In this game, runners jack in to the software itself, so if you fuck up, your actual brain hardware suffers.)
The corp can also layer multiple levels of ice in front of an agenda or an operation. They can level up the ice. The only way for the runner to win is to stall long enough for R&D to run out (we played for three hours and that didn’t happen, so…) or to get agenda cards, so you HAVE to make runs. For the first hour I was playing, I had no idea that I should even try when I knew my partner wouldn’t be installing ice that was vulnerable to the one icebreaker programme I had — which he knew, because the runner’s installed hardware and software and resources are all visible. Then he reminded me that there is a cost to rezzing his ice cards, and that if he couldn’t afford to pay them, I’d just bypass them by default.
I changed how I was playing — I started making runs and utilising a resource I got that allowed me to draw two cards, which meant I started finding new programmes to install. I quickly ran him out of money, and about halfway into our game, I got my first agenda points. Then a second agenda card, and we were tied. Then the game got very frustrating for him, because I worked my way through my deck and found icebreaker software of all three types, as well as viruses that decreased the strength of his defences. Where at the beginning, I had been frustrated, anxious, and feeling some real negative emotions, the table turned and…when I won three hours in, I could tell that he had gotten into that same headspace because he couldn’t stop me. I now had the resources, the power to bypass his defences, and the ability to wreck his plans with impunity.* We put everything away, and there was a decided frustration to the air. Not with each other, but I think both of us felt overwhelmed. We were both feeling weirdly jangled, and since touch is our love language, I suggested I go brush my teeth and then we could make out. (Sometimes I have good plans.)
The game itself made me think a lot about success, about money, about quality of life, and about this thing called access.
There is no reward without risk.
That’s a pretty classic adage, and I think we can mostly agree that sure, that’s true enough.
The game made me think of privilege quite a lot. I usually try to avoid using the three p-words (privilege, patriarchy, problematic) because they’ve sort of reached this superspeak level of weirdness where they can flick people’s off switch with their mere utterance. They’re helpful for large, blanket discussions of systematic or institutional oppression (both systematic and institutional are also large, blankety words) if they’re being used in a large, blankety sort of way, but for me they just don’t get specific enough. Also fairly often, I feel as though the language of social justice can feel exclusive to people who aren’t familiar with it, and I’d rather be inclusive as much as possible. Your mileage may vary.
The other day I read a piece I found through Facebook by a woman talking about how she is cordial to people who harass her as a safety mechanism. She said one thing that stuck with me, that when a man says he wishes he’d get hit on out in the world like that, he’s flipping only one tiny mechanism and not the rest: he’s willing to put himself in the place of getting catcalled, but failing to account for the rest of what it means for that to happen to you. Failing to account for the entire structure that makes random passers-by assume your body, your time, your attention, and your feelings are theirs to toy with. Failing to account for a lifetime of being made to understand that you are, by default, not safe. When a man says he’d love to be catcalled, he’s saying that he would love to exist, as he is, in the world where most things and places are open and welcoming to him, where his words are taken more seriously and he is treated as an equal by default, in a world where his size and relative strength affords some modicum of protection from bodily invasion, and where he can afford to assume that someone wolf-whistling about that ass of his on a pavement during his morning commute will A: be someone who he finds attractive, and B: not escalate into something terrifying and immediately threatening.
That is a specific example of male privilege: to not have to assume that a stranger hollering a comment on one’s body could escalate into danger.
Privilege, then, can be partially explained as having a benefit of relative risk.
When a woman walks into a generic room of men, there is a risk. When a woman of colour walks into a generic room of white men, there is a risk. When a queer woman walks into a generic room of straight men, there is a risk. When a fat woman walks into a generic room of men, there is a risk. When a genderqueer or trans*person walks into a room of cismen, there is a risk. When a poor woman walks into a room of men, there is a risk. When a Muslim woman walks into a room of men, there is a risk. When a blind woman walks into a room of men, there is a risk.
In all those cases, a cisgendered man is almost certainly at less risk. Risk does not mean only immediate danger. Risk in this case means a calculated conscious or subconscious analysis based on lived experience of the probability of emotional, psychological, or physical harm. If you stop to unpack each of those situations a little, how one factor has multiple layers (poverty + femaleness opens multiple possible avenues of exploitation or harm), the ripples of each illustration fan out.
It’s safe to say that every person who is a member of a minority or marginalised group knows what it’s like to sometimes be the only one of your group in a room. While the above cases are meant to be illustrative and are less frequent to encounter in day-to-day life than say, a lone Muslim person in an office full of at least nominal Christians and maybe a Jewish person or an agnostic person thrown in there (wherein said Jewish person and said agnostic person are also the only representatives of their groups), they are illustrative because due to the world we live in, and the fact that for millennia, financial and political and social power has rested predominantly in the hands of men (not always white men, because obviously the world is large and mostly not white at all), walking into a room of men if you are not one is like approaching an ice barrier in Netrunner and being unsure how you’ll hold up to its now-active subroutines that could occur.
→take one off-handed slur
→hear comment about your body
→overhear sexual comment
→overt sexual comment
→singled out and shamed
→body part grabbed
→told to lighten up
This assessment of risk is a risk in itself. It’s always possible that none of those things could occur, and in a room of people, it’s likely that at least one person in it won’t actively cascade through any subroutines at all. But it is likely that at least one of them will. You know that not all ice you encounter will trigger subroutines that endanger you, but you know each one could. And you don’t ever know which one will because until the card is rezzed and turned face up, it’s an unknown quantity. You don’t know whether one that starts will snowball, or what exactly might set it in motion. You don’t know if you have a programme that will allow you to break an interruption subroutine without simultaneously triggering the singling out and shamed subroutine. You might have a programme to break unwelcome touch subroutines, but what if the ice’s strength modifier is higher than yours and you don’t have enough credits to bolster your own?
Kesha’s current situation is an example of just that. “Credits” isn’t just monetary currency. It’s power. Her abuser has not just his own, but installed root operations that allow him to upgrade and utilise an existing system that Kesha alone, even with her fame and money and dominant-group skin colour cannot break.
Risk to her: ongoing and potentially escalating psychological harm, financial depletion or ruin, compounded and ongoing emotional distress, possibility of increased or retaliatory physical and emotional harm.
Risk to him: bad publicity, possible ding on his finances, losing an asset.
The probability of Kesha’s risks actualising: very high to certain.
The probability of his risks actualising: first two, medium…last one, very little due to the sanction of the law.
Her cards are on the table. He owns the table — or at least is widely and subconsciously accepted as the table’s default owner.
Now, life is not actually a game, and it’s certainly not zero-sum. That’s where it diverges from the card game analogy. Playing a game, there has to be a loser for someone to win. That’s not the goal of social justice (or, you know, justice), and it’s not the goal of any empathetic humans, I don’t think. It is the goal of people like Trump, but that’s a discussion for another toupee.
I, like much of the living, breathing Internet world, have become enamoured of Hamilton. (Go watch this.) Alexander Hamilton’s story resonates with me — I also grew up in poverty and scrapped for an education and have spent most of my adult life penniless but trying to make a life with words. I can relate to Angelica Schuyler who was famished for a partner with whom she could be a true equal. The songs and the story are powerful things, and Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast deserved the hell out of that Grammy. (There is also, much to be said that this musical could be made now, in this time, and win such attention and acclaim. There is also much to be said that the multitudes who love it so cannot access the source material because it exists in an elite and exclusive space.)
But I couldn’t help but think: for all his obstacles, Alexander Hamilton was a white-appearing** man in a white man’s world. Had he been Alexandra instead, no one would have told his story. He likely would have followed in the footsteps of his mother and died in squalor in the Caribbean.
When my partner and I were playing Netrunner, as I started to learn the game better, I was able to break through some of the ice he set up and turn things around enough to eventually win, but in life, it’s not as simple as learning the rules and how to manipulate them if you don’t have the right cards in your hand. And sometimes the right card just doesn’t exist. Life is more complex than the most complex games, and when your reality is being a queer, non-binary-but-biologically-female-bodied person with mental illness and a disability and a having to count change to put food on the table or petrol in the car — looking at the obstacles and barriers becomes a symphony of risk calculation. Is it safe to exist? Is it safe to be out? Is it safe to walk down that street or into that room? Is the name on a project biasing decision-makers against it?
Expanding on that past my own lived experience: Is a story about people of colour accepted as a story worth reading? If you work full time to pay the bills and full time to pay your passions, is the risk of encountering glass ceilings worth not spending those hours to get health insurance? Is it safe to hit publish on this blog post? Is it safe to speak out about wrongs and oppression? If I support Zoe Quinn, will I be safe in my home when I can’t afford to leave it?
If I ignore that catcaller, will he leave me alone or will he chase me?
If I wear clothes that are comfortable for me, will someone try to grab me or shout obscenities at me?
If I kiss my partner in public, what are the chances of violence ensuing?
If I don’t get this job, is it because someone else was more qualified or is it because of me?
If I move into this neighbourhood, will my neighbours assume I’m a terrorist?
If I use the toilet that is in accordance to my identity, will someone try to stop me?
If I assert that my body is mine, will that person stop trying to touch it?
Can I eat tonight if I pay the phone bill?
Can I go to the doctor and still pay rent?
How we decide which runs are worth making — a run at a publishing contract, a run at a better education that costs thousands upon thousands, a run at a promotion, a run to divulge harassment or abuse, a run to challenge the justice system, a run to see your child’s killer indicted, a run to see your rapist behind bars — is an exercise in calculated risk.
And that p-word, privilege, is more often than not, when those risks do not have to be considered, because they do not apply. Privilege is the benefit of relative risk. It is not all-encompassing. It does not erase other risks one may carry with them. But it is still the benefit of relative risk.
Life is not a card game. Money alone does not break all barriers if you hold the wrong cards. But the biggest thing is this: life is not zero sum. We can increase access and mitigate risk for some without ratcheting it up for others.
If we do that, we all stand a chance to win.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this post, check out my books or my Patreon. Also, check out Android: Netrunner if you like tabletop games. It’s got a lot of potential, even though our first experience was a bit frustrating. My partner and I are still learning, but I suspect we’ll enjoy it a lot once we get our feet under us.
*Geeky game-y sidebar: there ARE ways for corps to trash runner cards, tag runners with tracers, and cause outright damage, but he wasn’t drawing many of those, and by the time I really ran into that stuff, it was too late to be useful anyway.
**There is some scholarly discussion regarding Alexander Hamilton’s ancestry, and it’s likely that he may have been mixed race. There’s a whole thing to unpack with that, having to do with colourism and “passing” and race in general, but I’m not the person to unpack that. Plenty of folks who live it have written about it.
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