In September of this year, Hackers turned 21 years old. Unlike other 21st birthdays, this one passed quietly—nobody wrote on its Facebook wall, it did not drink until it wet itself—because nobody likes Hackers. Hackers went to the store, bought some beer legally, was not carded, and went back home. The movie is, for those who care to remember it, an in-the-red montage of ’90s cyberpunk clichés, trafficking at once in extreme PlayStation branding and bedazzled technobabble, and making strained connections between hackers and beat poets. It also costars a young Matthew Lillard.
Still, I saw it in the theater—twice. My 11th birthday party literally took place at the theater, after which many friends and I spent several years bricking our parents’ computers in attempts to, like Hackers’ pouty protagonist, become too-cool digital operatives that make out with Angelina Jolie in a hot tub. I’d stare at the flashing green prompt on an MS-DOS screen, type “/dir” and watch, delightedly, as the screen filled up with information. If I were a real hacker, I’d then have cracked my knuckles and started navigating the computer’s architecture with taut, Chandleresque lines of code. Since I was not a real hacker, I’d just type “/dir” again, and watch the screen fill up with the exact same information. I’d do this a few times, envisioning myself, like Crash or Neo or Case, cleverly compromising the global power elite from behind the neon green glow of my screen. Then I’d play Doom instead, because I knew how to do that.
It turned out that you didn’t just clack away at the keyboard; you had to know a little something, too. Hacking movies notoriously simplify their central act—remember Lex in Jurassic Park soaring through a series of cubes?—and yet we can’t shake the myth of the anti-authoritarian coder, the ultimate indoor-kid badass banging away at a keyboard and crippling soulless corporations. This has become especially true as the predictions of cyberpunk fiction—unlike, say, the space-age optimism of 1950s sci-fi—look increasingly prescient. Hackers, possibly with foreign government assistance, influenced the 2016 election; cyberspace subcultures bled over into mainstream meatspace, à la Pepe The Frog; the internet buckled a few months ago, proving, again, how susceptible the entire infosphere is to the interference of a few wise-asses that can code. The resurgence of the hacker in pop culture makes sense, given these anxieties. On TV, in particular, Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson has become an antisocial, anti-corporate icon. But it’s in a recent suite of video games where the ethos and aesthetic of the hacker has been explored along with something altogether surprising: actual, real-life coding.
Hacking games have existed for almost as long as video games themselves, dating back to 1984’s System 15000 for Commodore 64. More prominently, 2001’s Uplink seemed fueled by ’90s hacking movies, a characterization it did little to avoid by including in-joke nods to Hackers, WarGames, and Swordfish. Hacking pops up as a minor feature in games of all varieties, generally in the form of simple mini-games. But releases in the past few years have found new ways to mechanize our pop-culture version of hacking while also coercing the player to actually write code. Those like Hacknet and Hackmud take the empty screen with a flashing green prompt as both a raison d’etre and a challenge: Write, they demand. With skill, the empty page can be coerced to unveil great volumes of information. Players pore over data in these games to find, alternately, meaningless computer babble, interpersonal detritus, and evidence of vast conspiracies. Both games possess an austere beauty, assuming you are the type of person who used The Matrix code as a screensaver until early adulthood.
But it’s the difference between them that’s illuminating. Hacknet makes countless concessions to the player, letting you navigate systems via mouse and providing reams of hints and tips as you gain your sea legs. Hackmud, meanwhile, does not give a shit. It begins with a four-hour tutorial in which you must prove to the game that you are even sentient; it demands a facility with coding that will scare away anyone without an extremely solid working knowledge of programming. A vast world of interconnected players, conspiring and deceiving each other, exists beyond that tutorial—but are you 1337 enough to access it?
Alas: I am not. I had to google “1337” to make sure that was even the right term. All of the recent hacking games grapple with this problem in one way or another, but it’s hard to imagine a solution when smartass elitism is a cornerstone of the hacker mythology. There is great pleasure to be found in punching out a clean, smart line of code, and then seeing it work. Games like the heist sim Quadrilateral Cowboy and the terse, brilliant Duskers thrive by providing the necessary information to code but contextualizing it within traditional video game tasks. A command might be used to hack an alarm and open a door in Quadrilateral Cowboy, but the player must then skillfully glide through that door before the alarm comes back on. In Duskers, the code to blast an alien out of the airlock may be as simple as “a2,” but if entered at the wrong time, it may take a beloved drone along with it.
There are as many approaches to the fluency problem as there are hacking games themselves. The “cyberpink” game Beglitched takes the simplified approach of Hacknet to its logical extreme, abstracting infiltration and searches into a series of self-consciously kawaii mini-games. The recent Deus Ex: Mankind Divided pulls a similar trick, turning hacking into an abstract puzzle but taking itself very seriously while doing so. On the other end of the spectrum, the romantic adventure Else Heart.Break() demands expertise in a fictional coding language so fully formed that the game itself contains arcade cabinets that play games created using the in-game code. And the collectible card game Android: Netrunner requires no coding knowledge at all but instead a willingness to learn a byzantine set of interlocking rules and then sit around talking about it with other nerds at your local board game store. The parallels between its hacker-versus-corporation design and Mr. Robot’s David-and-Goliath narrative are structural and frankly awesome; there are few feelings, in any of the above video games, as thrilling as a last-second, all-the-marbles run in Netrunner.
But don’t tell that to Watch Dogs 2, which earnestly believes it is king shit of hacking games. In budget and scale, it dwarfs everything above, attempting to create not just a definitive hacking video game but a definitive statement about hacking, stuffed to the gills with nods to cyber-culture alongside long, energetically delivered screeds against Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, it is a mirthless, cynical game, with joyless driving and joyless shooting and a perfunctory open world full of programmatically created nobodies. Mostly, it oozes this mood: glib, radical, ceaselessly fun. Hackers in cyberpunk fiction normally eke out miserable existences along the margins of society, but not so in Watch Dogs 2. The game’s primary conceit is that in order to take down the technocratic elite that buys and sells private information, a team of hackers must perform a series of increasingly elaborate stunts to gain social media followers. The goal is to then sell those followers an app, which is less a revolution than the actual definition of viral marketing.
When you do set out to hack something in Watch Dogs 2, the act is presented as a puzzle in which you bend errant angles into a single straight line. While this is not enjoyable, it is apt given the game’s worldview, which pits stereotypes of Silicon Valley douchebags against stereotypes of gamers. You are supposed to hate the antagonist for having a man-bun and doing yoga while you and your stylistically superior team hang out in a meme-filled basement wearing branded “alt” streetwear. At a climactic moment, a member of your crew comes across some negative comments online and cries out to you, “That was my brand!” This is, in other words, a counterculture built on Likes, a #brand that kills fascists. It exists alongside and in concert with the traditional methods of power acquisition, not opposed to it. This is the reason Don Draper smiled at the end of Mad Men: Because even society-rattling rebellion can eventually be used to sell Coca-Cola. (Or, in Watch Dogs 2’s case, Mountain Dew.)
It’s something of a turning point, remarkable in its comprehensiveness. Watch Dogs 2’s version of the hacker, a rebel whose cause is his own personal brand, is the diametric opposite of the classic version. This is not to affirm the notion of the real-world hacker as a merry Robin Hood do-gooder. Anonymous’ self-mythologizing ignores what harm, and what idiocy, the group has wrought; Edward Snowden can be both a patriot and a very real problem. But the hacker as a mythological figure—a digital cowboy who effortlessly sees and defies the codes of society—is going nowhere, and neither are the many real threats to the information we think so stable and secure. As I sat in that theater, twice, 21 years ago, I thought, “What power! How awesome! What shredding goddamn techno!” It was the early recognition of a myth that felt viable and tangible, that expressed defiance in the face of the invisible, information-based power structures I saw scaffolded around me. Then as now, I can think of no medium more suited to teasing out these anxieties and tropes than video games. We are beginning to see that potential.
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