Slumming It


(Photo by Jacob Riis of the ‘Bandits’s Roost’ in New York, 1888, via Wikipedia)

I picked up Shadowrun: Dragonfall, the expansion to Shadowrun Returns, not so long ago, theoretically for the purpose of toying with the game’s scenario creation tools. While using the editor has proven far too slow for me to finish anything, I was struck by Dragonfall‘s treatment of poverty and politics.

The world of Shadowrun is a sort of denatured version of Gibsonesque cyberpunk mashed up with sword and sorcery tropes. Why anyone felt this was necessary, I will never know, but it kind-of-almost-works if you pretend that the fantasy stuff is just the collective delusion of a hyperconnected, dystoptian society that is literally incapable of thinking about the capitalism that oppresses it and must invent a mythology filled with draconic conspiracies and explosions of atavisic violence to fill the void. Actually, that seems oddly familiar. Perhaps I should give the writers more credit.

Like Gibson’s novels — or, for that matter, like Blade Runner and the noir that influenced them both — Shadowrun stories centre on a protagonist down on his (sometimes her) luck, living on the mean streets of a perpetually gloomy city filled with bright lights and alien masses, and trying to understand the shadowy forces that stand between him and his paycheck.

Except that, like noir (but not, to be fair, all Gibson), the protagonist of Shadowrun is not exactly of the street: he is slumming it. The ‘shadowrunner’ is a kind of mercenary, living among the poor but gifted with skills and equipment far beyond what ordinary people possess; being down on your luck is an explicit part of the schtick, but it is also a conceit. The street, in Shadowrun, is an alien playground: it seethes with gang violence, drug addicts and cantankerous homeless, but is also studded with exotic hawkers and damsels in distress. In typical roleplaying game (RPG) fashion, the gangs and addicts are there to be killed or swindled, tramps to be pumped for their picaresque wisdom, damsels to be saved, and hawkers to be haggled with in search of illicit wares that make your character more powerful. The global megacorporations lurk somewhere in the background like so many Beksinskian monoliths, sources of both fat profits to be tapped and grasping tendrils to be evaded. For the agile hero, this is all in a day’s work.


Generic conceits aside, this depiction of the slum is more-or-less consistent with noir and cyberpunk. Chandler fairly bristles with loathing for the moral degeneracy of the city; Gibson searches society’s margins for outcast authenticity; Blade Runner is Hong Kong superimposed over LA, the protagonist trapped between a powerful corporation and a nest of violent aliens disguised as people. Neal Stephenson’s heroes, meanwhile, are invariably white middle class men operating at the edge of some class or racial frontier, whether it be the jungle or the shanty-town.

In fact, there is a long tradition of depictions of the slum, going back, for example, to the writing of Jacob Riis, in which slum dwellers are simultaneously victims of circumstance, exotic (usually immigrant) alien lifeforms to be studied, and sources of moral and racial degeneracy. ‘Slumming it’ was something of a Victorian pastime, a form of edification for the upper classes. Likewise, a section of poor children in London were referred to as ‘street arabs’, while the tradition of popular writing about homelessness, exemplified by Frank Grey’s 1931 book The Tramp, held that vagrants were both morally and physically degenerate, on the one hand, and canny exploiters of society and fonts of authentic knowledge, on the other. The poor are an exotic Other, and, like the Orient, they exist as both a depraved danger and a source of thrills and hidden wisdom for the wealthy. By extension, the protagonist who lives among the poor is more ‘real’, and also wiser, more adventurous and masculine, than the man who lives in comfortable domesticity.

There is also, I should note, a sexual aspect to this, as explicit in Orientalist art and 19th Century imperial fantasies (prior to the war with Mexico in the 1840s, for example, American writers seem to have been competing with one another to be the most enthusiastic about the buxom, bright-eyed charms of scantily clad Mexican maidens and the ease with which their slovenly men might be displaced) as it is in the tales of sexual conquest repeated in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and the reality of prostitution from Victorian times to the present.


Dragonfall puts an unusual twist on the Shadowrun formula by moving the action to Berlin. In the Shadowrun setting, Berlin is divided into eastern islands of anarchist secession, western corporate fiefs, and lawless ganglands. Without giving too much away, one of the main themes of Dragonfall is ‘free’ Berlin’s struggle to survive as an independent state.

The setting is clearly playing on the city’s history of division and anarchist communes. However, while I don’t know what ‘anarchy’ was supposed to mean in the original source material, the way it is represented in Dragonfall is very strange. Traditionally, anarchism has usually meant the rejection, not only of the state, but by extension of private property and thus capitalism, in favour of some form of local democracy. Kreuzbazaar, the anarchist neighbourhood which your character calls home in Dragonfall, has no democracy, formal or otherwise, but does function under the unofficial leadership of a powerful shadowrunner. Kreuzbazaar‘s residents are a motley assortment of waifs, addicts and cutthroat businesspeople who get by with a mixture of illicit business deals and the patronage of idealistic shadowrunners. If you remark to the shadowy information broker, ‘Alice’, that her sharp business practices and anarchist idealism make a strange pair, her reply is: ‘What’s the difference?’

In other words: Dragonfall has rewritten German anarchism as the politics of the American right. American ‘libertarianism’, a term self-consciously purloined from the European Left by far right ideologue Murray Rothbard, is an ideology that trades in the rhetoric of the ‘freedom’, supports unrestrained capitalism, and blames effectively all of the world’s ills (as it sees them) on the state. Unrestrained free enterprise, the abolition of democracy, the replacement of lumbering corporations with agile entrepreneurs, social security with charity and anti-discrimination laws with ‘values’: these are the fantasies of American ‘libertarians’ and ‘anarcho-capitalists’.

Setting aside the disconcerting fact that the appropriation of anti-state language by the US right has been so successful that the physical negation of private property by Berlin squatters can now be interpreted as a form of private enterprise — once again, capitalism in unthinkable in this cryptodraconicon — this is not so surprising. From Neal Stephenson’s science fiction, replete with picaresque sex objects who can navigate the exotic perils of the slum or frontier; to the sagely pronouncements made by Robert Nozick from his Harvard desk about the utopian charms of postmodern capitalist multiplicity; to P.J. O’Rourke’s greasy sputter over the authenticity of poverty, drugs, easy sex and fast cars as he imagined but never lived them; a large part of American libertarianism amounts to fantasies about slumming it. If poverty is abolished, where will the husks of affluent manhood find authenticity?

Shadowrun Returns is itself not reducible libertarian folly, of course. For one thing, the included scenario editor has allowed players to write their own adventures. The resulting stories vary greatly in quality and intent, but there are a few gems. ‘Echo’, for instance, is based heavily on Blade Runner, but the interest lies in the details. When you begin the game, your character is penniless but surrounded by things to buy. According to RPG convention, players should start the game with enough money to purchase basic equipment, buy food or drink in order to initiate conversation with a certain homely but wise character, and so forth. ‘Echo’ denies you the money, but surrounds you with the usual ways to spend it, making your character’s poverty actually mean something. Without coin, you are excluded. Ultimately, it is impossible to advance the story without acquiring money, and when all other avenues were exhausted, I found that my only option was dumpster diving. Real poverty is not authentic and exiting: it is alienating and miserable.