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.
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.
Adafruit publishes a wide range of writing and video content, including interviews and reporting on the maker market and the wider technology world. Our standards page is intended as a guide to best practices that Adafruit uses, as well as an outline of the ethical standards Adafruit aspires to. While Adafruit is not an independent journalistic institution, Adafruit strives to be a fair, informative, and positive voice within the community – check it out here: adafruit.com/editorialstandards
Stop breadboarding and soldering – start making immediately! Adafruit’s Circuit Playground is jam-packed with LEDs, sensors, buttons, alligator clip pads and more. Build projects with Circuit Playground in a few minutes with the drag-and-drop MakeCode programming site, learn computer science using the CS Discoveries class on code.org, jump into CircuitPython to learn Python and hardware together, TinyGO, or even use the Arduino IDE. Circuit Playground Express is the newest and best Circuit Playground board, with support for CircuitPython, MakeCode, and Arduino. It has a powerful processor, 10 NeoPixels, mini speaker, InfraRed receive and transmit, two buttons, a switch, 14 alligator clip pads, and lots of sensors: capacitive touch, IR proximity, temperature, light, motion and sound. A whole wide world of electronics and coding is waiting for you, and it fits in the palm of your hand.
Have an amazing project to share? The Electronics Show and Tell is every Wednesday at 7pm ET! To join, head over to YouTube and check out the show’s live chat – we’ll post the link there.