Dr. Joshua Pearson is a lecturer at California State University, Los Angeles, where he teaches various courses on science fiction. His research focuses on the intersection of speculative capitalism and and science fiction. He has published articles in The New Centennial Review, Paradoxa, and Cyberpunk and Visual Culture.
We’ve read the talk, now let’s walk the walk: Drawing Students into Cyberpunk with the CP2020’s Lifepath System
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Josh: Today, my unconventional conventionalists, you are to witness a new breakthrough in cyberpunk pedagogy research! … I want to say up front that the initial idea for using the lifepath in the classroom came from Stina. I’ve just been refining it.
Stina: An emergency activity because my students hadn’t done the reading, and the CP2020 rulebook was one of the few resources I had on hand–I like the way you’ve expanded on it!
Steven: Hi, Josh, I have no questions for the moment, but I just wanted to say that this is great.
Emily: What an amazingly inventive way of teaching cyberpunk and of interpreting the often dismissed as surface over substance aspect of the genre – brilliant. thank you for your paper
Larisa: could you please give some productive examples of how the students implemented the principles – a couple of memorable characters they created and what that helped them to perceive\understand\develop better
Josh: Sure. I usually have the groups collaboratively create a character together. This means they have to actually enunciate their choices and reactions to each other, which helps make them conscious. Some of my favorite characters have come out of two of the unlucky results of the background table.
A group rolled “Your parents have amnesia and don’t remember you.” This spun out, in the group’s conversation, into a very elaborate story of how the character contrives to stay in contact with their family under an assumed identity. The character surgically altered their race and gender so the malign corporate actors who erased his families memories won’t catch on. This cover identity explained the “high fashion” and “weird contact lenses” in their style
A character who grew out of the “you are the inheritor of a family debt.” In this case, the students, connecting their own expereiences to the character, decided that their character was saddled with several generations of accumulated student and medical debt. They turned into a very Molly-like hard-exteriored enforcer to make the money to pay off that debt
Lars: this is actually interesting when considering sleeves in Altered Carbon, where other forms of identifying is necessary for people to know each other…
Lars: Hey Josh, great example of creative teaching methods. I was interested in your thoughts on how race/gender etc are part of the brand and appearance that people project … is this an ignorance on the part of cyberpunk or a true vision of a post-racial society?
Josh: I think that, at least in “Johnny Mnemonic,” the plasticity of race and gender is self-conscious and pointing critically at the pressure to use every part of your human capital comptetively. In many other cases, though, I’m not so sure. The more invested in the virtual and “the Net” a text is, the more it seems to by into the 80s-90s fantasy that you leave the meat (and its historical entanglements) behind when you “jack in”
Lars: it’s just that Gibson is not really good with race, thinking of the first page and the black navy man in the Asian bar … and then all the characters being white … not sure he is himself aware of the “playfulness” of using race…
Jiré: This is a really great method of teaching – I watched it with my game design students and they loved it! What is your experience with reading the books with the students?
Josh: the majority of my students have full time work and family commitments on top of their study, so even a novella like “The Girl who was plugged in” is asking a lot from them. This is one of the reasons I chose “Johnny Mnemonic” over Neuromancer. But I also think that the short a peice is, the easier it is to prod students to close read details like the wording of the Dog Sister’s description, or the way Johnny’s “caucasoid” appearance is de-naturalized
Sumeyra: Hi Josh, it a great talk in terms of teaching. Could you give more examples about (melo) dramatic emotion and trauma of precarity?
Josh: In terms of melodrama, “The girl who was plugged in” is a cracked fairy tale, and foiling the grand conventions of TRUUUU LUVVV is a key source of the tale’s impact. It skewers sentiment, but still relies on it. Sleep Dealer is much more conventionally dramatic. It doesn’t go over the top, as TGWWPI does, but Pena’s sensitive, expressive performance is central to the experience of the film
Adam: I really like this idea of personal/human capital in the physical, particularly when you compare it to self-branding and youtube or other social media influencers and how their style is a carefully designed brand. Have you found this comparison come up much in your teaching of these texts? Also shoutout that I think this is a fantastic idea, and character generation is such a wonderful tool, I hadn’t considered its teaching potential. Your talk was amazing
Josh: The connection to influencers is very easy to make in “the girl who was plugged in” and in Sleep Dealer. Students often make that connection themselves. Then its a case of prodding them to follow that logic into the tighter performances of identity in Classical CP
Hugh: I’ve taught a course on cyberpunk where we read Cadigan’s “Pretty Boy Crossover” and students often compare this to influencers, et. al. It led to an interesting discussion of the Fyre Fest as a particularly cyberpunkish hoax
Josh: What I like about both TGWWPI and Sleep Dealer is that the media tech is always mediatory. The protagonist never goes full digital. The meat never disappears. Its always there, denied and obfuscated but essential. The materialist in me demands it. Another useful platform for this conversation is Etsy. Students really perk up when I read Etsy as a way to monetize your passions. There is a lot of nodding there It’s also important to note that CSULA is a majority Latinx institution, who are less inculturated into the kind of techgnostic fantasy of calssical cyberpunk than my white male students are. The white boys love Gibson on sight….
Exiled: I imagine these conversations end up being enlightening for many
Josh: Also, in terms of discussing texts with young students of color, Lowteks > space gangas We often come back to the Lowteks after reading Gina Ruiz’s fantastic short story “Chanclas and Aliens“, which is also about poor folks decolonizing their living space (honestly I can’t plug this story enough if you are interested in Latinx Futurisms)
Katherine: Hi Josh, I love what you’re doing with the concept of style for your students. The idea that their character is given a race/ethnicity, but then they need to think through how they will present/change this as a style. How do you scaffold the idea of RPGs for the students when you do this exercise?
Josh: I don’t actually need to do very much scaffolding of TRPGs for the exercise to work. Enough students have some familiarity with RPG games (mostly digital), and the way that the lifepath is laid out, it is easy to run through it without too much context from the rest of the game system. There is no need for them to generate stats or interact with the rest of the rules to follow the Lifepath Tables and build a narrative with them. Its one of the nice things about the Lifepath that makes it so useful.
Katherine: That’s awesome
Adam: On a slightly different note, I also wanted to pick your brain a little when you suggested that the struggle for authentic experience is something your students pick up on fairly easily in Sleep Dealer and “The Girl…” , do you think “Johnny Mnemonic” differs then in that, if memory serves, authentic experience seems fairly rife if potentially unwanted in its danger? Although forgive me if this isn’t the case it’s been a fair while since I read/watched Johnny.
Josh: I am a “Johnny Mnemonic” evangelist! I think its more focused and teachable than Neuromancer, and it avoids many of the things that irk my about Gibson in general. As to your question, the language of narration in Johnny is all in terms of reception and branding, but there is no surface dissonance between that branding and some kind of deeper or “more real” set of desires. When Johnny says things like ” I’m a very technical boy” he is describing the image he has crafted, rather than a truth about himself. Sleep Dealer and TTWWPI explicitly pair the “original” and the mediated. P Burke vs. Delphi, or the extrodinary sequence where Memo gazes, through the robot, at the robot’s reflection.
Exiled: With how easy it is to have trauma in the history with lifepath and how when character building we often draw from personal experience in some capacity… What sort of personal reflection has come from the students doing this exercise?
Josh: Students have had a lot to say about the tricky politics of how much of their vulnerabilities / struggles /traumas they share, and when, and to who. The neoliberal trope of “resilience” comes up for a lot of criticism–the idea that you have to appear strong in order to “deserve” help as students of color. They are also very interested in seeing some of the social history behind the hustle they do every day to survive. Just the idea that its not natural, but directly tracable to policies in the 80s and 90s, is pretty amazing for a lot of them in that classic “personal is political” way
Steven: Glad to hear that your students spontaneously have problems with the idea of “resilience” – this is something I have been concerned with a lot (I know two people who have written explicitly anti-resilience texts)
Josh: I usually had to bring in the specific term “resilience,” but that is definitely the idea they were working with and its easier to roll with than “responsibilization,” as much as I use that term in my own work
Hugh: could you share the titles/authors?
Steven: – Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy – John Pat Leary, Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism (there is an entry for “resilience”) – John Pat also just did a summary about resilience for Teen Vogue (arguably the most leftwing journal in the US today)
Hugh: This is a fantastic assignment! I love the way that it gets behind the surface of style, not to reveal inner-romantic-individualist depth, but the structures of neoliberalism that we fashion ourselves after.
Josh: I’m not gonna lie, it started as a fun, easy “reward” assignment for making through this gauntlet of challenging readings. The students’ reactions really inspired making it a more structured activity
DrFitz: A lovely talk (and on I hop to use as inspiration for a game studies course soon)–I wonder, Josh, if students bringing their background expertise with digital RPG’s express a reverse road of connection–dos this assignment / your way of pushing them to look closely at but also beyond the surface of fashion (for example) encourage close reading of those digital RPG characters? (Of other digital character? …I wonder if it might when Cyberpunk 2077 is unleashed…) Anyway: A lot to think about, thank you for the very clear visuals and great idea!
Josh: While I draw on some of the students’ gaming experience, I don’t think I end up troubling that experience very much. The way that gaming invites identification really seems to slow students’ application of close reading techniques to their experience there. Students are much more likely to tell me I’ve altered their reading and film/tv viewing practices than their game experience. sometimes they get more curious of the worldbuilding in games, but rarely the parts of the story that they have an interactive part of
Alexander: When I’ve taught classes on critical approaches to videogames I often find that students tell me while they’ve never considered videogames in certain ways it was their reading/watching habits for literature and tv that changed more readily.
Josh: Yes. I think it is because they are more conscious of reading/watching as something they are “doing,” as a process, than they are when they play. The “flow state” game design often reaches for can get in the way of reflection there. Maybe we need more Brechtian gaming this is one of the reasons that the tactile materials of paper and dice seem more effective than sending them to one of the websites that hosts the Lifepath
DrFitz: All in for Brechtian games!
Alexander: Right! We definitely do, hah. I think there is also an element of presumed comfort in videogames. It’s hard to break the association of games as something you do to relax/switch off.
Josh: some students really try to protect that interpassive feeling of escape and comfort. Two related comments I get in my SF TV/Film class are “I don’t just watch movies anymore. Now I think about them” and “my friend says I’m annoying to watch stuff with now”
Alexander: right, the old falsehood of critical thinking ruins a movie-experience I do think that the tactile nature of dice rolling really elevates the character sheet experience
Josh: well, I suppose is ruins a certain kind of movie experience… The dice also instantiate the “riskiness” involved. Viscerally tie it to gambling. The real drama of watching the roll and wondering what will happen to the character you are coming to know and love can’t be replicated. Especially in groups, sometimes students try to pass on having to be the groupmember to roll on some of the more intense tables, like “something happened to your parents” “you do it, I don’t want to be the one to do it to them!”
Alexander:Hah, to be the hand that cast the die is a dangerous thing