Rezzing Assignments: Thoughts on Android: Netrunner and the classroom

One of the most remarkable aspects of Android: Netrunner is its asymmetrical play. That the game has, in fact, two separate sets of rules. There are those that govern how Corporations play and a completely different, although similar, set for Runners. Each, though, compete for points and, of course, to win, although they operate through different means.

Generally, Runners seek forward movement against targets while Corporations defend or respond to Runner actions. The game’s terminology for these actions, which I’m still in the process of internalizing, is that Runners “make a run” (hence their names) and the Corporations set up Ice (barriers or set triggers) to protect their Agendas from the Runners. Once a Runner successfully “makes a run” and uses a Icebreaker (to break a Corporation’s Ice), they can score points for gaining access to the Corporation’s Agenda (and thus, in the overall narrative, see the secrets it is hiding.) The Corporation, in turn, can hurt the Runner by removing her money (credits) or stopping a “run” completely.

After playing a few games via OCTGN (guide for setting up for Netrunner here) recently, I’ve managed to catch the bug and have been investigating more about Android: Netrunner, how to play it better, and what techniques I might apply to future matches. The more I’ve been researching, though, the more the game has weirdly reminded me of the classroom. It’s the result, I imagine, from me reading about creating assignments and evaluating writing techniques during the day and playing Netrunner occasionally at night.

Perception is Everything

One of the best pieces of fictional writing advice I ever learned was that no one thinks that they are the villain of their own story. In their own mind, everyone’s a hero. They are battling against the overwhelming odds, and just like Dr. Horrible, want to achieve some simple goals. Be that world domination or otherwise. Very few people think of their own actions as Evil with a capital ‘E’. That’s just not how people live day to day.

So, in the world of Netrunner, that means Corporations are not really evil. And Runners, of course, aren’t either. Yet, to play the game, you assume one of two groups and square off against the other. You are the plucky truth-seeker extraordinaire or the corporation battling off against the evil hacker. One or the other.

That’s often how classrooms are presented too. Many students see themselves hero hackers as facing off against their teachers. By wielding special programs, they can get through all the barriers to their success in a class and get all the “points” they need to ‘win’ the class. Some teachers even present themselves this way as well, leaning into the image of setting up assignments that seek to be “busy work” the same as a Corporation might position Ice to slow down or stop a Runner.

Classrooms aren’t zero sum games, though. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be. By engaging students in crafting the assignments and giving them a hand in describing the rules of a classroom’s play (learning), teachers can “make a run” across the assumed forth wall to their students, letting them leverage their own programs across the bridge and creating joint agendas that combine the goals of a teacher with the agility of the students. It’s the same, in other words, of converting black hats into white ones, using their skills to enrich the experience for everyone involved.

Rezzing, Exposing, and Responses

Much of my own research in evaluating writing has been in crafting responses. It’s a strange kind of intertextuality that demands understanding not only that a problem has occurred in a student’s writing, but trying to create a response that respects them and points to how a sentence or section might be revised too. It’s very much a balancing act and requires not only some experience in reading through and into another person’s writing, but knowing when to step in and help with a certain point grammar point or standing back some with advising on overall theme and structure.

In coming into contact with responding and evaluations techniques, one the first realizations you have — or, at least, I did anyway — is that for most of your academic career, you weren’t doing assignments correctly. You were, and I am specifically writing about myself too sadly, following the “write and forget” method of creating papers. The teacher would ask you for a paper on some topic and you would try to figure out the expectations, what the rules were, and then take a guess at what might be the agenda behind them and take a stab at getting as many points as possible. You were, in the parlance of Netrunner, “making a run at it.”

It’s one of the fascinating parts of Android: Netrunner: Runners can go after a target, leverage their best Icebreakers, and then, if they fail, revise and try again. Hidden among the technobabble and cultural references of the cards in the game is a very scaffolding-like approach to learning. Runners try at a target, and if they don’t succeed, can then try again later. They learn from each experience and slowly craft the best possible “run” at getting to their goals.

This is, of course, the newer pattern of creating writing assignments. Instead of the older, “you get one try,” more and more teachers are extending out from the grading phase of an assignment in both directions. Now, it is no longer about getting the grade and going home, but about the process up to the final draft and what happens after. Many syllabi are formed of a series of micro-assignments and progressing levels of difficultly. The student would get help with their initial ideas, the draft of those ideas, and then submit what they think might be their final draft.

Even the final draft is no longer the end of the assignment. Depending on the schedule of the semester, and especially in beginner classes on writing, the final draft is treated as that, a draft. By “making a run” at the assignment, the student can get feedback in the form of ‘exposing’ how the teacher was thinking about the assignment and how they might shape their next revision. In crafting the response to the paper, the teacher can show how that particular technique isn’t what is required and if they were to strengthen this program and set up defenses here, they could succeed next time.

The early game and the later resources

Like many other strategy games, the “early game” of Android: Netrunneris about building up defense and solidifying what programs you have ready. In the first few turns, both Runner and Corporation try to gather up their resources and deploy measures and counter-measures for attack and defense patterns they anticipate. Each side takes in their credits (money) each turn and spends it on what they hope will get them through the later parts of the game easier. By having the right early cards and spending just enough, one side can build a very strong strategy for wiping out the other quickly without losing too much in the process.

Although it may not seem that way at first, this tracks well in many ways with class schedules and how, ideally, students mature their skills over a semester. Much of the early work in a class is adjusting for what each knows and how they express ideas. Even for a purely online, asynchronous class, the first few sessions for a student are about learning about the class, its rules, and the teacher herself. The same, too, for a teacher, as she learns about her students and what they are like.

Assignments should follow this model as they can. In order to train a student about what might be required late in a semester, usually in the form of longer or more detailed assignments, the groundwork of building to that point is needed. The “early game” of the semester is also about gathering resources and spending time (and sometimes money too) in getting the tools for the later, larger goals. The class schedule starts with smaller works to read and analyze, or just those that can be more guided by a teacher, and build to self-directed turns of feedback, responses, and revisions as the later resources are used.

Just as there is often little talk between Runner and Corporation during the early turns and much more later on, the same is true of a semester. As the assignments build in complexity, there is an ever increasing need for clear lines of communication and known expectations of each role. In order for play (learning) to progress smoothly, both sides need to know the rules and how, should certain events occur, those rules might change or be overruled at times.

GG

Luck can be cruel. The random pull of cards in Android: Netrunner can make a game particularly hard for one side or the other. Even the best players, faced with crummy cards and a series of unfortunate events and actions, cannot hope to win a game. That’s just the way it is.

It isn’t that one side is better than the other, but that they operate in different ways and are affected by circumstances that the other might not be aware of. The Runner does not get to see all of the Corporation’s cards, nor all the moves she makes. The same with the Corporation. She only gets to see what is rezzed or exposed, not the entire Runner deck and the various clicks that lead up to that point in the game.

It’s obvious to write and even more obvious to say out loud, but it’s worth remembering anyway: everyone is human. We sometimes make mistakes. Operating in the liminal, in-between space of student and sometimes teacher helps you to remember that both sides aren’t really sides at all but more of a continuum of who gets to speak more and when. Spending more time with teachers helps you to humanize them and keep in check the idea that they aren’t the unfeeling entities that only care about themselves (as Corporations are often painted and rightfully so sometimes) or even that they are out to hack and break apart all of your assumptions and thoughts (as maybe a Runner from a Corporation’s view might be doing).

One of the best aspects of Android: Netrunner is that people can switch sides after each game. During one session, you might be a mighty Corporation fending off invaders, but during another you are the lone warrior trying to find a way into the monstrous digital castle. Players can get a turn (or many) at what it takes and how the patterns change from each side. They can especially learn that priorities are different when viewed from another side. What might be important to a Corporation isn’t necessarily the same as what is important to a Runner. Each play by different, but often intersecting, rulesets.