"It's been forty-nine years since our world changed almost beyond recognition...As a people, we innovate and create for money rather than the pure pleasure of bringing something new into the world. Rather than using technology to improve the lot of mankind, we've allowed it to separate us even further from each other." --- Shadowrun, Third Edition.
It's the dystopian future of 2026. Criminal subcultures flourish. Megacorporations have become the new world superpowers. Executives and wage slaves hole up in heavily-fortified enclaves, while beyond the gated walls, enormous throngs of outsiders fend for themselves. No longer mere flesh and bone, many people have turned to the artificial enchancments of "cyberware" to make themselves something more than human, something other than a machine.
Shadowrunners are the individualists who live on the margins, able to "slide like a whisper" through the databases of giant corporations, spiriting away the only thing of real value -- information.
No wonder so many e-mailers, in response to my series "The Corporate Republic," urged me to get the "Shadowrun" handbooks. It's jarring to come across this increasingly plausible vision of the future. In this pen-and-pencil role-playing game -- part improvisional theater, part storytelling -- science fiction once more mirrors the contemporary imagination and foreshadows what lies ahead.
Intentionally or not, Shadowrun is much more than a game. It reflects the attitudes and values of younger, technologically-centered Americans. It may also project their futures, at least of the ones who are individualistic, creative and discontented. How ironic that young gamers have sensed for years (the original Shadowrunner rules were published in l989) what journalists and politicians still keep missing -- that life for individuals gets rougher by the year here in the Corporate Republic. That a handful of megacorporations are becoming powerful beyond anyone's control. That individualism is not only growing more difficult, but one day soon may actually be dangerous. That this creeping reality has been a role-playing exercise for brainy kids for more than a decade is an amazing thing.
"Shadowrun" is as much a political manifesto as entertainment, a social and political fantasy that feels increasingly prescient. Shadowrun's creators saw the growing power of corporatism ( the forces of evil are dubbed "megacorps.") They grasped its inherently amoral nature, its wanton invasions of privacy, its embrace of technology and co-option of politics and culture; they anticipated the marginalization and isolation of individuals who don't want to go or get along.
A lot of the people reading this are already Shadowrunners, or are about to be. For Corporate Republic renegades, life is increasingly an adventure. Like the Shadowrunners, our lives are inextricably entwined with the megacorps, our personal histories a string of confrontations and close encounters with the powerful entities that dominate the world. Like the Shadowrunners, we face a lot of personal and moral decisions about how we live. We might want to make money or challenge corrupt authority. Or, once we get a few "runs" under our belts, we may wish, like the original Shadowrunners, "to find a lost love," or avenge [ourselves] upon a corporation" that did us dirty. Perhaps taking direction from wise and experienced gamemasters, our goals and expertise will become more focused and coherent over time.
The connection between individualism and Shadowrunning is irresistible, if you let your imagination sprint for a bit. Individuals already shadowrun all the time in the current Corporate Republic. They grow up, using technology few of their peers or authority-figures understand or approve of. Routinely hunted down, at least in the cultural sense, they get accused of obsession, addiction, lack of social grace, even, increasingly, of murderous tendencies.
Everywhere they go, from their first arrival in most schools to their struggles in the workplace, they are confronted with inverted values, with the corporatization of culture, the pressure to conform, to shut up.
The turning point, recounts the Shadowrun history, came during the "Apocalypse" (l999-2010) when two Supreme Court rulings "set the stage for a world in which megacorporate octopi call the shots and use shadowrunners like so many pawns in their games."
Here, too, fantasy and fact converge. The turning point for the modern real-world corporatism came in the l980s, when government decided to de-regulate many industries at almost precisely the same time as new marketing strategies and technologies were exploding, arming business with the ability to mass-market, monopolize and globalize.
With government more or less out of the picture, and technology advancing rapidly beyond the consciousness of politicians or journalists, it was open season for corporatists, many of whose companies have grown wildly beyond anyone's expectations.
What's really remarkable thing is that Shadowrun was written before Microsoft sotware was in more than 90 percent of the world's personal computers, before five companies owned virtually all the radio stations in America, before AOL/Time-Warner became the largest information entity in history, and before the Justice Department blithely approved AT&T's acquisition of the MediaOne Group, giving AT&T control of more than a third of the nation's cable networks for television, high-speed Net access and online telephone service. Those mergers, acquisitions and consolidations would fit easily within the Shadowrun narrative.
By the middle of the 21st Century, explains Shadowrun's latest edition, "multinational megacorps pull the world's puppet-strings to benefit their bottom lines ... The technology we depend on doesn't bring us together. Worldwide communications net? Great idea, but not much use when half the population is zoned out on simsense chips and the rest can't access a working data terminal in the slums where they're forced to live. The rich have gotten richer and the poor more plentiful, so the wealthy barricade themselves in armed enclaves and leave the rest of us to squat and rot."
The idea of the Shadowrunner in such a universe almost perfectly captures the worsening plight of the individual in our own era, when family farmers, small businesspeople, software designers, individuals of all sorts are losing opportunity to tell their own stories, shape their own lives and economic futures. In fact, "Shadowrunner" is a perfect term for individualistic refugees in the Corporate Realm.
Today's Shadowrunners are mobile, as individualists of the future will have to be. They can count on having more than one job, since they can never go along enough to satisfy corporate administrators. They will probably also live in more than once place. They're likely to be discarded, downsized or re-engineered as a result of "flexible" management philosophies and ever-shifting marketing goals. But even if they are allowed to remain, they are likely to grow bored and frustrated, and passed over for promotion. As for the idea of living outside guarded, walled enclaves, that's already more than a fantasy: Just visit Redmond (a name frequently invoked in "Shadowrun") for a couple of days, or Silicon Valley (the epitome of the megacorp enclave from which average folks get driven out) and the idea takes on real meaning.
The cyberware in "Shadowrun" even parallels recent advances in genetics -- advances which have drawn the impassioned interest of biotech corporations moving to track genes in the name of improving humanity even as they anticipate landmark profits. Cyberware consists of various technological implants, organ modifications, and structural enhancements to the "metahuman" body that can improve a character's attributes and abilities.
There are other eerie parallels in "Shadowrun." Take the way lifestyle becomes a pressing economic issue. Game players must purchase a character's opening lifestyle, which determines how comfortably the character lives. To maintain that lifestyle once the play begins, characters make monthly payments. When a character can't pay, he finds himself living a lower lifestyle. Sound familiar?
In other ways, however, Shadowrun doesn't bear much resemblance to our world. During the "Great Awakening," a turbulent period follows the corps' takeover of the world. The handbook describes it: "A long lull in the mystical energies of the universe has subsided and magic has returned to the world. Elves, dwarfs, orks and trolls have assumed their true forms, throwing off their human guises ... The many traditions of magic have come back to life ..."
But magic has become a casualty in the Corporate Republic. We already live in a world where culture itself is mass-marketed by the corps, where opinion and social agendas are set by companies like Microsoft, AOL/Time-Warner and the Walt Disney Corporation. None have a particular political agenda beyond the subjugation of competitors, and the homogenized spread of information and entertainment to the greatest possible numbers of consumers. That means safe, bland, palatable. It also means individuals either get co-opted or pushed out of the creative process, since they tend to be unsafe, colorful, offensive. Magic doesn't work in focus groups or corporate boardrooms any more than unconventional thinking. So work becomes routinized, creativity repressed and stifled.
All corporatists have a shared goal: to give stockholders maximum rewards. That outweighs any other consideration. Magic, the recourse of the idiosyncratic individual, is anathema to corporatism -- inherently illogical, unpredictable, thus unprofitable.
Unlike the planet dwellers in Shadowrun, most of this country hasn't yet awakened to the fact that it's being corporatized. We live in a distinctly unconscious civilization, where our own megacorps hae been allowed to grow so quickly, and with so little thought or restraint, that they're already almost too powerful too curb or regulate. But even some of our smartest citizens are in denial about this increasingly undeniable reality. After all, isn't unemployment still fairly low and the Nasdaq once more on the rise? Politicians and cititizens appear to have dozed right through the fact that small businesses are vanishing, that free speech is withering, that the political system is being bought, that a once-free press is nearly completely in corporate hands. Even the country's most prestigious colleges and research institutions are now dependent on corporate fund-raising.
Increasingly, technology is at the center of this conflict, as the Shadowrunners make clear. It's both the instrument by which the megacorps dominate segments of society and the primary means allowing individualism to survive, especially online.
The truth is, it's been decades since our world began changing beyond recognition. As a people, we are innovating almost beyond imagination, spawning the Net, the Human Genome Project, quantum leaps in supercomputing. But increasingly, we create for money rather than for the pure pleasure of bringing something new into the world. Our best scientific minds are developing and marketing hand-held appliances that give humanity instant access to sports scores and stock quotes. Rather than using technology to improve the lot of mankind, we are allowing it to separate us even further from each other.
This, perhaps is the real challenge and the work of the Shadowrunner, to weave in and out of our increasingly Corporate Republic, weaving through its databases, sharing technological discoveries and secrets, perhaps even waging creative guerrilla war on behalf of the individual.
The Shadowrunners, in the game and in the world, are realists. They understand the nature of the world they live in. They are what is perhaps the rarest of figures in contemporary American public life -- heretics.
Throughout history, the heretic was someone who demonstrated unforgivable intellectual arrogance by preferring his or her own faiths, values and beliefs to those -- priests and monarchs, mostly -- who were "qualified" to make pronouncements and declarations about matters of faith, morality and human values. Heresy was high treason, committed against God or King, and almost always was punishable by death or torture.
But in The Corporate Republic, high treason is an anachronism almost never invoked, mostly because it's no longer necessary. We don't need to pull people's fingernails out any more, or burn them at the stake. The heretic today is marginalized without any bloodshed. He doesn't even take the risks the Shadowrunner takes. His teacher and peers make him a joke in the classroom, and ignore or isolate him. His career is either destroyed outright, as it being fired or demoted.
A generation ago, "Shadowrun" would have seemed a particularly geeky game, the obsessive fantasy of brainy oddballs holed up in their bedrooms and basements. At the dawn of the 21st century, in the Corporate Republic, it looms much larger, both a warning and a prophesy.