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Gaming Brew – Cyberpunk: A Diverse and Relevant Genre

With the hype (and fallout) of CD Projekt Red‘s Cyberpunk 2077, the cyberpunk genre has once more become a focus of attention. While popular during the end of the 20th century, it appears new, younger audiences are finally discovering (or exploring) the topics and aesthetics.

Unfortunately, after reading numerous critiques and editorials, I’ve begun to question if those commenting on cyberpunk know anything about the genre.

One article questions whether cyberpunk reflects the racial and economic realities of the “modern-day.” Another touts a discontinued card game as proof that the genre could be inclusive (as if it already isn’t.)

The summary in many of these critiques is the same: “Cyberpunk is an outdated sub-genre created by white men with heteronormative, cis-gender white stories and no relevance to women, BIPoC, LGBTQ+, etc.”

I’m here to say that cyberpunk has been an inclusive, diverse genre for decades, and these critics are wrong.

The main issue is that the cyberpunk critiques focus on two things: the beginning and the most recent.

Critics point to original authors of the genre, like Philip K. DickWilliam Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, as proof cyberpunk was made by (and about) white cisgender men. They’re not wrong that most of the originators fall into that category, just as that demographic was (and still is) the dominant group in most aspects of society, regardless of genre.

Afterward, there’s a brief mention of cyberpunk films with white directors and lead actors, from Blade Runner to Robocop to Johnny Mnemonic. Again, no arguments here, as Hollywood has long had a diversity issue in front of and behind the camera.

These same bloggers and op-ed writers finish by discussing troublesome aspects of Cyberpunk 2077, from racial stereotypes to its treatment of the transgender community. While some of these are up for debateothers are blatant, and the critics aren’t wrong for questioning a game made by a company from a homogeneous culture.

All of those critiques are valid, but the problem is they don’t begin to span the entirety of the genre. They ignore nearly 40 years of cyberpunk history between the early ’80s and today, during which the genre showed how diverse and relevant it is.

While people focus on the white male authors at the start of the genre, they ignore the women and BIPoC also involved.

Ursula K. Le Guin was a peer of Philip K. Dick and Octavia E. Butler is from the same generation as William Gibson. Both were pioneers of representation and diversity, from Le Guin’s The Eye of the Heron to Butler’s more post-apocalyptic Parable series.

Later authors would continue this trend, as cyberpunk reflected the disenfranchised’s experiences in the ’80s and ’90s.

Pat Cadigan is known as the “Queen of Cyberpunk,” with authors like Lisa Mason and Madeline Ashby following in her footsteps. Melissa Scott is an award-winning cyberpunk author known for her LGBTQ+ representation, while Nalo Hopkinson presents worlds of Afro-Caribbean futurism.

From Hao Jinfang to Nnedi Okorafor to Malka Older, the genre’s authors and stories have been diverse for decades.

While we talk about literature, let’s not forget one of the most influential figures in the genre: Mike Pondsmith.

Creator of the Cyberpunk tabletop role-playing game, originally published in 1988, Pondsmith brought the genre to a broader audience. His RPG also helped create a codified concept of ‘cyberpunk’ that many works drew from, including later games like ShadowrunEclipse Phase, and Technoir.

Ironically, the same video game used as an example of cyberpunk’s white dominance came from an RPG written by a Black man (and based on his life experiences). While Cyberpunk 2077 is flawed, Pondsmith still had input into the game, and many of its social aspects (particularly on race and ethnicity) come from his original material.

As Pondsmith is quoted as saying to critics, “Who the (bleep) do YOU think you are to tell ME whether or not MY creation was done right or not?”

What about movies?

While white maleness is a general issue with the film industry, it is not a solely cyberpunk-specific problem. For example, Strange Days was directed by Academy-award winner Kathryn Bigelow.

Japan was putting out cyberpunk films in the ’80s and ’90s simultaneously with Hollywood, beginning with Gakuryū Ishii’s Burst City and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo series. Throughout manga and (later) anime, the genre was also found from Akira to Ghost in the Shell to Cowboy Bebop.

Let’s also not forget that the Wachowskis, transgender women, created the biggest cyberpunk trilogy in cinema history. The Matrix explored humanity, machines, and reality, while also setting the bar on special effects for the 21st century.

Like literature, cyberpunk in cinema has been voiced by women, BIPoC, and LGBTQ+ for nearly four decades.

This article’s point is not to say that cyberpunk is a perfect genre or that we don’t have a broad problem with the dominance of cisgender white maleness in fiction and entertainment. But these critiques that cyberpunk is “not diverse,” or “holds no relevance” to the disenfranchised experience, are fallacy (at best).

From its early beginnings, feminist and LGBTQ+ messages were included in explorations of dystopian futures and transhumanism. Black, Asian, and Latinx voices have been an essential part of the genre for nearly 40 years.

And the same game that came out in 2020, which brought cyberpunk to new audiences’ attention, was based on a Black man’s creation.

To those just now discovering the genre, I’m glad you’re exploring the underlying messages and themes. However, I implore you to stop analyzing things from the perspective of a few old books and a recent video game.

There are decades of cyberpunk material you are glossing over or ignoring. That includes the very voices of people of color and the disenfranchised you claim to champion.

Cyberpunk has been, and always will be, a diverse and relevant genre.

About Brook H. (254 Articles)
Generalist, polymath, jack-of-all-trades... Brook has degrees in Human Behavior and Psychology and has majored in everything from computers to business. He's worked a variety of jobs, including theater, security, emergency communications, and human services. He currently resides outside Baltimore where he tries to balance children, local politics, hobbies, and work. Brook is HoH and a major Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing advocate, a lifelong gamer (from table-top to computer), loves everything paranormal, and is a Horror-movie buff.

5 Comments on Gaming Brew – Cyberpunk: A Diverse and Relevant Genre

  1. Disgruntled Catgirl // February 12, 2021 at 6:39 am //

    Mike Pondsmith also said that he didn’t find CP2077 to be transphobic at all, and he would know because he has trans employees, which is exactly the same energy as white people saying they can’t be racist because they have black friends, but we all know cis people of any race don’t really give a shit about trans people because we don’t earn you as many woke points or votes, and black lives stop mattering to you when they also happen to be trans.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Disgruntled Catgirl // February 12, 2021 at 6:43 am //

      Also, good job on mansplaining to people why they shouldn’t criticize your fav genre unless they have an encyclopedic knowledge of it; fact of the matter is that the mainstream cyberpunk genre is dominated by cishet white men who’s making a shit load of money by exploiting minorities, and just because marginalized creators also work on those genres doesn’t change that. There had been superhero characters and writers of every gender and race, it still doesn’t stop the industry from pandering to racists and misogynists as much as possible.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Disgruntled Catgirl // February 12, 2021 at 6:50 am //

        Yeah the Wachoskis directed the Matrix, but they didn’t get to add any real trans representations in it except the red pill metaphor that was latter appropriated by Conservatives, and Scarlett Johanson playing a whitewashed Major is one of the many failings of the film adaptation for Ghost in the Shell. If your sole argument in defense of the genre is that you have a long list of names, maybe you should do more homework first? You can likewise say that Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light is trans and POC “representation” for the fantasy genre, if you count transphobia and cultural appropriation as representation.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Disgruntled Catgirl // February 12, 2021 at 6:57 am //

      On that point, absolutely no one cared that Richard Morgan, the writer of the transhumanist cyberpunk Altered Carbon, came out in defense of Rowling’s transphobia shortly after the show was released, and had just became increasingly overt in his quest to demand criminalizing and institutionalizing transness. Activism and diversity are just fucking hobbies to you privileged people – and yes, when you get to be as famous as Pondsmith or the Wachoskis, you DO have some privilege regardless of who you are – but they are realities to people who have to live with the fallout of your actions from day to day.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Disgruntled Catgirl // February 12, 2021 at 6:59 am //

        Oh and the creators of Eclipse Phase, despite being so-called Anarchists, never bothered to publicly call out either Richard Morgan nor CP2077, because woke points and stay chummy with the rich and famous are more important than anything that remotely resembling praxis or camaraderie. And you people wonder why so many queer people don’t buy into leftist politics or why so many black people don’t care about politically correct languages – because at the end of the day, all the big talk and political labels are just a loud drum with nothing inside.

        Liked by 1 person

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