That Time the Secret Service Mistook a Cyberpunk Game for a Computer Crime Manual #cyberpunk #RPG @sjgames

As the late eighties ticked over into the 90s, the increasingly popular genre of cyberpunk science fiction began freely leaking its cerebrospinal fluid onto a burgeoning “cyberculture” comprised of hacker groups, rave and goth-industrial music scenes, zine publishers, tech artists, roleplaying gamers, and others who heavily identified with the characters, tech, themes, and styles of cyberpunk.

This collision of fiction and reality became fully amalgamated on March 1, 1990 when the US Secret Service raided the offices of Steve Jackson Games in Austin, TX. SJ Games publishes a popular roleplaying game called GURPS (Generic Universal Roleplaying Game System) and they had just published GURPS Cyberpunk, a game supplement that let players immerse themselves in the world of high-tech low-lifes and cyber cowboys.

The tech- and game-savvy bright bulbs at the Secret Service mistook the game book for an actual computer hacking and crimin’ manual and moved in for the big bust.

On March 1, 1990, the offices of Steve Jackson Games, in Austin, Texas, were raided by the U.S. Secret Service as part of a nationwide investigation of data piracy. The initial news stories simply reported that the Secret Service had raided a suspected ring of hackers. Gradually, the true story emerged.

More than three years later, a federal court awarded damages and attorneys’ fees to the game company, ruling that the raid had been careless, illegal, and completely unjustified. Electronic civil-liberties advocates hailed the case as a landmark. It was the first step toward establishing that online speech IS speech, and entitled to Constitutional protection . . . and, specifically, that law-enforcement agents can’t seize and hold a BBS with impunity.

An upside to this alarming episode is that, when the dust had settled, SJ Games was able to promote “the book that was seized by the US Secret Service” and “the book the US Secret Service didn’t want you to see.” Lemons? Meet Lemonade.

Another more significant upside was that this incident helped lead to the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The resulting lawsuit would end up setting the first legal precedent for email privacy.

Read more about the raid and its aftermath on the Steve Jackson Games website.

Later in this series, we’ll look at the cyberpunk RPGs that emerged during this period as well as the current crop of recommended tabletop games exploring the genre.

For more on this period of hacker culture and its clash with law enforcement, check out Bruce Sterling’s eminently readable 1992 book, The Hacker Crackdown.

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