Over the past few years, the number of ‘punk’ games have started to increase. In addition to the long established cyberpunk genre, there is steampunk, dieselpunk, clockpunk, biopunk, and even stonepunk. Unfortunately, there is not a clear usage of most of these terms. This makes it difficult to know what you are buying. What follows is a brief history of the usage of ‘punk’ followed by a decoding of what these different words means in terms of games.
Cyberpunk is the granddaddy of all of the other usage of punks. It refers to a specific literary genre that began in the early 1980’s. The ‘cyber’ portion of the term refers to a technology level and aesthetics. It denotes an advanced level of technology, but not one too far ahead of the current level. The cyber often refers to cyberspace and sometimes cybernetics. The setting is urbanized artificial landscapes filled with glowing neon lights. The Shibuya district in Tokyo is often used as a reference for the city’s aesthetics. The ‘punk’ aspect refers to the dystopian nature of the setting. International corporations sometimes take over government services or are more powerful than governments. Those who have money and are favored by the corporations live comfortable lives. Others are marginalized, persecuted, and treated as criminals. They live in high crime areas filled with urban decay. The protagonists in these stories are antiheros. They are outcasts from society who never seem to come out ahead.
Based on the cyberpunk description, it should be easy to decipher the other punks. For example, steampunk should allow us to say that it is steam era technology. It will have a certain steam era inspired aesthetics. It should be urban. The punk should denote that it is dystopian. Technology should have made some very well off, and others very poor. Robber Barons should wield extensive power and government influence. The protagonists should be antiheroes. They should be marginalized in society. The antiheroes should be using technology or perhaps fighting the technology. However, that is not the case. This is because the boundaries of what is steampunk were never properly set. The term steampunk came about as a tongue in cheek reference to a style of fiction that was attempting to replicate the science fiction style of Verne and Wells. The term, however, stuck and has since been used to refer to various media that have little in common with each other besides a loosely linked aesthetics
Contemporary usage of ‘-punk’ means more like era. The prefix denotes why type in terms of a technology level. For example, steampunk denotes an era of steam power where technology based on steam goes beyond what the actual Victorian era had.
What does this mean for gamers? If something says steampunk you should investigate beyond that. I would say that most games are steampulp not steampunk. Pulp is not dystopian and has storylines in common with the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. Many games that might be put under steampunk are very different. Iron Kingdoms is a fantasy game. Wolsung is pulp. Victoriana 2nd Edition is a Victorian game. It plays up the Victorian era themes. It imposes Victorian era societal rules. Fantastic technological devices are limited and the ones that do exist only exist because of magic. Victoriana 3rd edition reworks the game and makes the case that Victoriana is a real steampunk game and jettisons many of the Victorian aspects of the 2nd edition. SteamCraft does put forth a steampunk game that tries to put both steam and punk into the game. It tries to be the type of game that someone familiar with cyberpunk game would think a steampunk game is based on the label of steampunk. Of games still in print that are available at game stores, Victoriana 3rd edition and SteamCraft come the closest to what you would expect a steampunk game to be based upon the word steampunk.
What does this tell us about other punks? Well, it is pretty much just a technology level with some aesthetics.
Stonepunk – This refers to the Stone Age.
Clockpunk – precursor to steampunk where spring power dominates.
Dieselpunk – post steampunk era. A narrow definition places it the interbellum period of 1917-1939. Some extend it from 1914 to 1950. It was art deco aesthetics. Clothing tends to be military inspired. Trains and Zeppelins are common.
Atompunk – This is after the development of nuclear weapons. It usually mixes the early nuclear age with the space age in terms of aesthetics. It covers say 1950-1965.
Biopunk – This is referred to as post-cyberpunk. It takes up many of the same themes but replaces cybernetics and the internet with genetic enhancements and human experimentation.
Unfortunately, the change of punk from meaning dystopian to era means that gamers and readers now have to do a lot more research to know what a game or book is like. It also means that just because you play some game that is labeled as steampunk does not mean that it similar to other games that are also called steampunk. As odd as it sounds, game makers might soon need to says dystopian steampunk to denote that it stays true to the punk roots of the word.