Intro: Who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-my-spaceships?

For over a decade now, I’ve watched real-life programmers make professional-quality apps for EVE, real-life economists produce analyses that (probably) teach CCP a thing or two about their world, and real-life statesmen shape this historic single-shard server, all while I continued to study writing, music, teaching, and, most importantly, PVP. Maybe I internalized what all those older family members said, that I was wasting my life in the Humanities. (Well, now I have a blog, so I’ve shown them!) It took me a long time to realize that I could also contribute to the community, in my own way. So here it is. This is not going to be your asteroid belt-variety EVE blog.

So it’s fair for you to wonder, Who are you, and what have you done with my spaceships?

The short answer is, I used discursive methods to whittle them into ontological insignifigance.

The longer answer is, nothing.

Nope, I’m not interested in your spaceships.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering, If this blog isn’t about spaceships, is it at least about explosions?  Well, duh.  What about EVE’s stories?  Forever and always.  What about rage, salt, and other trendy condiments?  Reluctantly.  Will you have opinions about EVE’s direction, culture, or gameplay?  Who doesn’t?  So, that would involve some back-seat development?  I have already slashed the tires.  Will you care about my opinions?  Nope.  But I may do some interviews.  Can I bring my drake?  My representatives have advised me not to comment.  Also, I think you mean ‘Risk Averse.’  That’s not a question, but I’ll answer it anyway.

The name of this blog is a nod towards one of my all-time favorite comments from the r/eve subreddit: in response to someone asking ‘Why do you lurk here if you don’t even play the game?’ some wise soul replied, ‘For the same reason people go to the zoo.’  Using this pithy yet catastrophic smackdown as a metaphor, I can say that Isk Averse is something of an all-in-one zoo tour guide, conservation initiative, emergency veterinary clinic, nature documentary, and taxidermist. 

Ok I’ll bite.  So, who the hell are you?

I’ve been a sci-fi writer, literature student, and EVE player not only for all of my adult life, but for much of my earlier life as well.  I probably started EVE first of all these, back in 2008, as a precocious young nerd with a passion for explosions.  In 2012, no doubt influenced by EVE’s world of New Eden, I began developing my own world of speculative fiction, a project that continues to this day.  This blog is a way for me to keep up my essay-writing chops while trying to question the answers that this game, world, and community have left with me for years. 

Yawn.  TLDR?

Well, my inability to keep even this intro short enough you don’t want a TLDR doesn’t bode well.  (Maybe in a future post we’ll get to intersections of EVE and the modern attention span, if I can remember to.)  But if you’ll allow me to wax somniferous for one more moment, I think we can get it done: Isk Averse is a series of social, literary, and political essays about EVE Online that promises to be empathetic but unapologetic, unbiased but opinionated, intelligent but accessible.  One week we might be using EVE players’ mourning rituals to look at how we view death as an online society; the next week we might take a deep dive into the ways EVE develops fleet commanders, or what can make a videogame a work of art.  If, after reading, you appreciate the game more, appreciate life more, come to doubt everything you thought you knew about both, love me, hate me, block me, subscribe, or just want to start playing with us, I’ll consider it a job well done.

XVI – Where You Been???

Well, gentle reader, the more interesting question might be where have you been.  There’s far more of you than there are of me, so the answers would probably be pretty varied (though if I know EVE players the answer is probably either “at my coding job” or “at my PC playing other games”) and, if the few thousand readers I had before the Dr. Who event made me quit blogging are still alive, delivering all those answers might nearly measure up to the honestly ridiculous length of some of these posts.  Seriously.  Looking back, I’m humbled anyone took the time.

Here’s some theories for where I’ve been:

  • Living in a cabin in the woods with an internet connection that begins to smoke if you say “4K” too close to it.
  • Eating lots of parsnips.
  • Securing funding for a new blockchain-based blog that, shit it just got canceled.  
  • Looking at nullsec propaganda on reddit while I sit on the toilet each morning.  I don’t know why but it encourages me to be less full of… you get it.
  • Going into theorycrafting withdrawal and beginning to suggest things like a chair with two legs, snow shoes you wear on your hands, and at least five different ways to eat parsnips, some of which aren’t considered abuse.
  • Checking my killboard once a month to make sure if my accounts all got hacked at least they’re not feeding ships with badly heat-distributed modules.  That would keep me up at night.  
  • Wondering why parsnips look like Amarr stations…
  • Being the exact same age as BrainStraw and playing EVE for exactly as long.  The things you learn on FC Chat![1]
  • Not thinking about EVE.  Not doing it.  I will not.  Not even if it has my brain hic-scrammed and vindi webbed and… shit.

Ok but maybe the simplest answer is that I’ve not been in New Eden.  Not much.  I’ve played for a few weeks here and there over the last year, but I’ve never kept an account subbed more than 3 months, never redownloaded Discord on my phone, and definitely never consolidated the assets I’ve now got strewn all over the galaxy.  I have learned that the hard way – taking breaks from EVE is the single most disorganizing thing for your in-game possessions, because each time you quit, you’re so disillusioned or busy IRL that the last thing you can do is scan chains, make contracts, move alts, and so on; so, each time you come back, it’s harder and harder to settle in anywhere.  Which is a bigger deal than I thought, because if there’s one thing I’m not interested in paying $20 for, it’s doing a month of space chores moving DSTs full of abyssal mods and dictor hulls out of a half dozen somehow intact wormhole citadels to, I guess, lowsec spots where none of those fits or ships work anymore.  

I’ve found this to be the big oversight of CCP’s decision to move to “retail pricing,” in which they have a high base subscription price and run a lot of sales.  You know what I’m not doing when unsubbed from EVE? Watching for sales.  You know the easiest way to talk myself out of resubbing?  Paying $20 a month or committing to many months to bring that price down when I don’t know if I’ll be playing in a week.  I’m really busy IRL right now, with two jobs, school, and big happy things moving around in my personal life—maybe it’s just me.  But I’ve tried really hard to play EVE again.  I’ve actually tried to do it, not the other way around.  But I just keep missing the sales and then being too proud to impulse-buy when the mood strikes me.  What’s more, I’m not likely to jump back in with a half dozen premium accounts, which means I resub one at a time, play kind of casually, and then drift off again.  If it was easier to (convince myself to) resub many accounts, more gameplays would open up—solo evictions, C5 dread ratting, blops and capitals, all the fits that need a “backpack” booster[2] or other support ship, and all the corporations that need you to play this way.  If I was getting into that stuff, I’d be much more likely to stick around for more than a few weeks, fun as my single-box casual pvp can be.  

All put together, while the retail pricing model might mean more revenue for CCP, better overall prices for players locked in for the long haul, and more or less equal prices for those able to casually watch for sales, it is a significant deterrent for returning veterans.  And there are kind of a lot of us who’ve quit or hugely de-escalated in the last few years.  Most of my friends, anyway.  And when playing, pvp veterans make more content per capita than almost any other group, and carry unquantifiable wealths of gameplay experience and, maybe more importantly, stories about the game that keep others interested.  It sucks that this system seems to make it uniquely easy for them to stay away.

Ok that’s my rant.  I still might resub everything at some point.  But I might not.  I continue to have no idea, whereas during other breaks, two of which were each several years long, I always knew I’d come back full-force at some point.  

But I really missed this blog.  When I quit, I had a half dozen posts in various states of undress in my “Isk Averse” folder.  Over the last year, I’ve touched and tweaked them.  I think I’ve got a few ready to roll.  

Here’s a few ideas I’ve been working on:

  • Videogames, unlike most other mediums, have never existed without capitalism.  That means it’s hard to see what they are at their core, versus how they’re sold and packaged as we’ve ever known them.  EVE gives us a few helpful clues, and these clues both defend it as a project and indict CCP’s uncreative management of it. 
  • What does “content” mean?  How can this word mean both streams, podcasts, memes, and also gameplay?  And, within gameplay, how can it mean both organic fleet fights and new storylines from CCP?  Why are apps like PyFa not considered “content,” and their producers called “developers” instead of “content creators?”  And what is all this content contained in anyway?
  • Why is there a gender binary in New Eden?  Picking male or female, rather than something like a slider, in EVE’s character creation already seems behind modern Western culture IRL.  What would undoing the gender binary look like for gameplay, and how would it help enrich the world?
  • Herding.  In a narrative piece, I’m talking about my work on a farm, and how, on my first day, I took to cattle herding really naturally because it felt like nano, both in positioning and communication with the other farmers.  Humans can be prey or predator animals, and I’m looking at how different fleet psychologies can make us switch, and how prehistoric herding and hunting psychology comes alive in smallgang.  

This fall, I read James Salter’s novel Light Years, which is a brilliant and poetic story set over about two decades of the life of a family living just north of New York City.  In it, they can descend into the city almost like dropping from a pinhole in the ceiling, into this great threshing thing of love and culture and violence and splendor and decay.  This struck me, in part because I went to college a few hours north of the city (further than the characters in the book) so I’ve been close enough to sense that.  Every time you drop out of the woods into the concrete, even just to go to the airport or meet a friend, the city is so different that it’s actually the same; it just keeps going.  I once heard a friend say that living there is like living in the cylinders of an engine with pistons as big as buildings and just trying not to get hit while they fire.  It’s beautiful, it’s raw, it’s totally, totally human.

Ok and just to show how much this stupid game sneaks into everything (though if you’re reading this you probably know… bless you), I was thinking while reading Salter’s novel that living in a wormhole sort of feels like living just outside of the city.  It’s not just a neat sort of gameplay, in which you’ve got a conveyor belt of doors like in the end of Monsters, Inc. that open all over the galaxy.  It’s like a reality within a reality within a reality.  It’s like living in an impenetrable dream with your ten best friends, waking into different places every few minutes until you find one you… want to go kill everything in.  Or haul stuff through.  Or map out for your friends.  And known space—the rest of that universe your wormholes drop you into—that is, when the game’s healthy, also a great, threshing thing.  I literally don’t think it’s all that weird to say dropping into New Eden, from real life or from a niche within it, is a little like dropping into NYC: the world is manifold, vicious but in a way that bring the best out of people, full of scams and pitfalls and masterpieces and great thoughts and performances, the setting of so many great stories.  And, without you, it just keeps going.

Having EVE in your life is like that too.  It’s like having a secret.  It’s like having a dream with thousands of other people at the same time, that the outsiders only know about if you, like me, ramble about game mechanics until your very patient girlfriend knows more about ansiblexes than the average CCP executive.  (Bless her, too.)  So that’s the argument for keeping a relationship with the game.  Even if you’re not gaining wealth, scoring kills, getting better, not innovating or streaming or helping others, just keeping up that relationship, keeping the pinhole open so once in a while you can fall into the madness again, whether it’s through propaganda and politics, PyFa and zkill, a labyrinth of Discord servers, or even *gasp* the EVE client.So that’s where I’ve been, where I’m at.  I don’t know where I’m going, but if you’re curious, keep an eye out for new posts, on no particular schedule.  It’s nice to be back—a little confusing, but nice.  And it’s an honor to have you reading alo

[1] Pando’s FC Chat, “Ep. 101: Casper24 & BrainStraw”

[2] A common smallgang practice in which one account is set to passively following the one you primarily play on, giving it bonuses without requiring much attention.  This is sort of like “1.5 boxing” instead of true dualboxing two accounts.   

XV – EVE is Dead

EVE is dead.

And if you’re part of the EVE community, you probably already know what I mean.  You’ve probably heard this quite a few times yourself, and for probably the entire time you’ve played the game—yes, even if you’ve played since 2003.  Simply put, people have been declaring this game dead for as long as it’s been alive.

I’ve always thought it’s a testament to how much people love EVE that they are constantly eulogizing it.  They don’t just walk away, like with other games.  They don’t just leave their communities or migrate their communities to new adventures.  They also have to heal, or perhaps seal over, the heartbreak that comes with giving up on the belief in EVE, as much as the game itself.  Indeed, people can leave the game and miss the game for all the reasons that they loved it—and I’ve done this myself, once for the better part of three years—but without losing their belief in the idea of EVE; and likewise, people can play every day with no hope for this game as a project, this community as an experiment, this universe as a unique and early singularity in our exploration of other realities.  What got me back into the game after my longest break was explaining it to a friend, with more and more energy and excitement as I remembered what the idea of EVE was all about.  I remember thinking at the end of our conversation Shit, I’m going to resub tomorrow, aren’t I? 

Because EVE is more predicated on an idea, a vision, than just about any other game, the loss of one’s belief in that idea is also uniquely painful.  Though the game has seen such drastic changes since its first eulogies shortly after launch, the idea behind it has been there from the very beginning and has, despite all odds, survived all those changes.  This is why “EVE is dead” has also survived.  It’s a unique expression of grief tied inherently to the unique joy that comes with becoming a capsuleer.

But there is one big difference between saying “EVE is dead” now and saying it 18 years ago.  Now, the game actually has a history.

This is not just chronicles of EVE’s wars written up in history books, or countless videos, battle reports, and AARs embedded in the grooves of EVE’s internet fingerprint.  EVE’s history is also an oral one, shared and archived in the community, passed over comms and kept alive as long as that community holds together.  In internet time, 18 years is an eon, and as many of our elders have left the community or moved on, EVE’s oral history has taken on a sort of generational effect, such that there are a few left from the early days, a few more from its peak years, and still more from the last half decade.  Stories are made both more apocryphal and more epic the older they are, because there are fewer and fewer voices to confirm them firsthand.  This type of generational storytelling is a microcosm of humanity, and a big part of that very “idea of EVE” that keeps us coming back. 

In Post XII, I talked about how worldbuilding always feels more real when things feel old, ancient, and we feel small, and I compared this to the challenges of releasing new content in an emergent world like EVE’s.  In essence, I argued that CCP has to walk a very fine line, releasing new playable content that, from a worldbuilding perspective, doesn’t feel new, but instead immense and atavistic.  In other words, I looked at how players interact with the constructed history of EVE—that is, the world built for us by the developer, and then fleshed out by fans.  But for many, if not most of us, the real history of EVE is that community archive, those mythologies of great battles and exploits, the firsthand accounts of veterans who “were there” for some of these moments.  Even though the constructed world of New Eden has millennia of history built into it, sometimes the 18 years of EVE Online feel even longer. 

So when we say “EVE is dead” now, we’re not just exclaiming our grief at what we believe is a unique death—we’re also closing the book on what really feels like an old culture, generations of history, layers of community.  This was not the case when the game was first pronounced dead.  The effect will only increase as EVE does continue to live, accumulate new history and generations to tell it.  And as player angst continues to rise over CCP’s direction in developing the game, and “EVE is dead” becomes a rallying cry to its own sort of subcommunity, we’re going to witness new mutations in the relationships between the game, the idea of the game, and the community that drives it.

But is it possible that the “EVE is dead” crowd actually make the game feel more alive?  That players closing the book on our community’s history also work to make that history feel realer, richer, more sacred?

I think it is.

Yes, I think “EVE is dead” is becoming a part of what makes New Eden feel alive.

In Episode 111 of “Weird Studies,” (my favorite non-EVE podcast, and an inspiration for this blog) J.F. Martel makes a point very similar to what I was discussing in Post XII, but instead of the “post-apocalyptic future” of New Eden, he’s talking about the world of Hyborea, home of Conan the Barbarian.  I think a lot of what he says both succinctly explains my point about EVE’s constructed history from Post XII, but also lets us unlock what’s going on in its player-built, oral history, and the way overlapping generations of players make this feel so old.

Martel mentions Lovecraft’s belief that “atmosphere” is critical to any sort of worldbuilding, and describes atmosphere as “the mood that one experiences when the basic mysteriousness of reality becomes a palpable aspect of the scenery.”[i]  The example in Conan is an ancient mammoth skeleton the heroes walk past on the steppes—a clear sign of a world long past, that the characters can’t touch any more than we can.  In New Eden, this might be the ancient space stations you see floating on missions, or lore about the Jove Empire that’s older than the pyramids are in real life.  Players pass by these things all the time, and often get sucked in by them.  But players have also created monuments, be it from the cemetery at Molea, which was used by players for years to ‘bury’ friends who passed away in real life, and is now a recognized site with a special monument built by CCP, or the “Titanomachy” monument in B-R5RB, a monument to the then-largest supercapital battle between players.  There are plenty of other examples as well, but these illustrate the variety of ways players are able to leave their mark on New Eden, the latter by their actions, the former by their friendships.  If worldbuilding atmosphere starts with a “mood,” then perhaps EVE’s mood is one of poignant awe at the higher power of the community.

Of course, before the CCP art team built a monument for B-R5RB, it was already a revered system.  Our oral history accounted for that.  Our videos, battle-reports, and even the ships that survived the fight attested to it.  B-R5RB isn’t an important system, but just like Asakai or the “Rage” wormhole, it was made special first by player actions taken there, then by the community’s ability to mythologize them.  CCP’s eventual monument is just that—not a creation itself, but a testament to our creations and destructions.  Being a part of this community means picking up on its history, and suddenly noticing all the hulking mammoth skeletons previous generations of players have left across New Eden.

Martel does an excellent job at unfolding the value of this effect for a viewer—an effect I believe is only deepened by a viewer who also builds the world, like in a videogame.  About this mammoth skeleton, he explains:

“We’re touching on the antiquity, the eldritch ancientness of this world… In my favorite fantasy the characters are not of the past but in some sort of post-apocalyptic future; they’re in the future of a fallen world.  Even Tolkein does this—the characters in the Lord of the Rings are at the end of an age.  And that makes you feel the mystery of this world.  The characters that you’re following don’t have enough information to know the world they’re in.”[ii]

We can see the generational effect of EVE’s oral history at work here.  When you watch an old PVP video, you might wonder why a Rattlesnake has sentry drones out, or why everyone is in Proteuses (or maybe even, what a Proteus is.  I could give an explanation, but it would be too slow).  I could explain to you the game and meta changes I’ve witnessed that have caused those differences.  But if we go back far enough, I’d be asking someone else how they managed their modules with the old circular layout, or what lowsec was like before Black Rise existed.  And these are just mundane, mechanical changes.  It only gets more complex when we think about the history of alliances, cultures, and players.  It only gets harder to sort out the reality from the myth the more famous it is, or the further back we go.  And I don’t think there’s any reason to untangle those things anyway.

But we also can’t lose sight of the importance of what Martel calls a “post-apocalyptic future” in creating atmosphere.  This does map well onto New Eden’s lore—which includes several apocalypses, beginning with the collapse of the Eve Gate that connected this universe to Earth, and then continuing through the respective apocalypses of civilizations that rose and fell before, finally, the current age of New Eden.  As with the rise and fall of civilizations in real human history, each of these events didn’t result in the total destruction of the population, but rather enough of a reduction in population to destroy the community and much of its history, imbuing it with that mystery.  Of course, Europe’s population wasn’t completely eliminated after the fall of the Romans, and yet even today, people spend their entire lives trying to dig up bits of mundane knowledge about the cultures that existed before that sort of apocalypse.  Similarly, we might imagine the mammoth skeleton Conan walks by to have belonged once to an animal everyone knew, and we might imagine the daily habits of EVE’s Jovians not always to have been so mysterious.

If you’re familiar with the general trend of EVE’s player count, you probably already see where I’m going.  Not only have players been weeded out over time by constraints in their real lives—after all, a new parent when the game launched might be a grandparent now—but also, EVE’s population at large has decreased since peaking seven or eight years ago, perhaps by as much as half.  And with the proliferation of alt accounts and the free Alpha mode, the population of actual humans at the keyboard has likely shrunk by even more than the Peak Concurrent Users data would suggest.  With every one of those players went a bit of firsthand information and a bit of secondhand information—stories they experienced, and stories they heard from those who came even earlier.[iii]  As with every other period of the game’s life, the last seven years have been full of “EVE is dead,” and yet for much of it, these cries seemed much more coherent.

But what if we think of this population decline as an apocalypse like that of the Jovians, or the Romans?

In Martel’s terms, many current EVE players indeed “don’t have enough information to know the world they’re in.”  They might not feel or understand the full mythic significance of a site like B-R5RB, or the long history of the Dronelands as the home of the Russians.  They might also not have referential knowledge, like how modern FAX play is different than old cap-compression carriers, or practical knowledge, like how to spot a “bug zapper POS,” which still exist but once were common.  Every time someone who witnessed these things leaves, the epistemic apocalypse, that is, the shrinking of EVE’s community knowledge base, continues—and every time they pass it on, it becomes myth.

Those myths add up.  Ask any new EVE player and they’ll tell you they are humbled by the immensity of knowledge built up by the community.  I’m humbled by it myself, and I started in 2009.  And all of that is just the knowledge we still have, the stories we still share, the links we still click.  Mingled like shadows among these are bits of semi-lost knowledge, touches of rare history, prized tricks, personal anecdotes.  And beyond these lies the deeper darkness of stories lost forever, solutions to problems that no longer exist.  To navigate New Eden is to feel the ancientness of the constructed world, but to engage in EVE’s community is to immerse yourself in the humbling immensity of its player history, its generations overlapping in gradients of clarity and loss. 

I do think EVE feels more real now that it has been played for so long.  It’s entirely possible that the “EVE is dead” and the “glory days” crowd are also building in the sense Martel describes in Tolkein, of coming at the end of an age.  Maybe the game really is ending.  Maybe we’re between apocalypses.  Or maybe it is now suffused with that sense of post-apocalypse which so many writers have to work to construct. 

A fiction teacher from college, Benjamin Hale, taught me that one of the hardest things to capture in a story is the sense that the main character could die.  This isn’t to say that they have to, or even that the story has to involve great degrees of tension.  But the turn of every page should hold in it the promise that the world of this story, however strange, is real enough that even the narrator themselves could die.  In these terms, too, EVE’s pessimists are doing the world an immense service.  By reminding us that the game is already doomed, whether right or wrong, they are reminding us that it could be.  And they are certainly right about that part.  But that sense of past and possible apocalypse is also just another thing that makes EVE feel so uniquely alive.

[i] “Weird Studies” Ep. 111, 13:15

[ii] “Weird Studies” Ep. 111, 14:15

[iii] It was really neat to see so many old-timers respond to the “Horn of Goondor” last year during the siege of M2-, in which Goonswarm email blasted all the old accounts registered to their forums and got a good number of ancient veterans to, effectively, come back from the dead.  A pretty amazing concept in the context of generational storytelling and cultural memory!

XIV – New Dawn: Horizontal Balance and the Nature of Pay-to-Win

Well, if you’re at all immersed in the EVE community, you know there’s been a bit of a hurricane since I last posted (no, not the battlecruiser).  After the recently announced ‘New Dawn’ industry changes, many EVE players have been in revolt.[i]

No doubt some of this has been driven from the top levels of nullsec leadership, whose industrial powerbase, built up over years of hard organizational and gameplay labor, would be gutted by these changes; but much of the angst also clearly comes from the bottom up, as basic industrialists see their long-term gameplay ceiling essentially both lowered, and shifted from a single-purchase to a subscription model (more on this later).  While I often find the echo-chamber of r/eve to have a depressive, self-destructive streak a mile wide, I think they’re right about one thing: these changes are one major step toward adapting EVE into the common gaming industry practice of cyclically buffing and nerfing items, coupled with sales, so that players can’t ever stay effective with what they have.  This sort of change has been happening in EVE for a while—most recently with the marauder buffs, which I’m sure will be reverted once everyone owns a marauder, and famously in the past with both Modru’s Legion and Tech III Destroyers, all of which were wildly broken at launch and then nerfed once everyone had them.  But in the case of those earlier versions, both Modru’s ships and T3Ds were nerfed back to a place of reasonable usability, and neither remotely approached the investment in training time, subscription money, or isk, that a Rorqual does.  Essentially, in these earlier versions, CCP practiced a softer, less obvious and more ethical version of what they’re doing with New Dawn, which itself involves nerfing the top mining ship of the last half decade into the dirt.  To make matters worse, CCP have tried to pitch this as good game balance by saying it opens up ‘more options,’ – which is like pitching that it gives you more choices to move your baseball team with a dozen Priuses than one bus. 

I’ve written on this blog about how I think EVE is the quintessential videogame, and a true work of art.  If nothing explodes in the next week or so, maybe my next post will be about a deeper concern I hold about this: that videogames, unlike music, literature, and all other artforms except for film, was invented under late Capitalism.  Videogames have never existed in another economic system, meaning that what discredits them as an artform to many—the microtransactions and fourth wall-breaking moneygrabs, for example—to me is not an issue with videogames as a form, but just what Capitalism does to art.  We have certainly seen music and literature change as they transitioned into Capitalism, and it’s fascinating to imagine what videogames would look like under an ancient patron system, for example.  This is, obviously, a whole can of worms that I’d love to get into in the future.  For now, suffice it to say that I’m upset by the New Dawn changes not as an industrialist, or even as a player, but as someone who sees late Capitalism gutting a groundbreaking and transcendent example of a brand new human artform.

But what I actually want to talk about this week is how these industry changes do nothing to fix the scalability issues that existed in mining before, and instead fit snugly within a gaming industry model for monetization by simplification, promoting horizontal skills growth.  To be fair, this is probably just a more granular explanation for what the more cogent elements r/eve have been upset about. 

But I also have a different spin to it: I believe Rorquals did exactly the same thing.  For me, this change is not moving from a good system to a broken one, but from a broken system to an equally broken, but more exploitative one. 

In my opinion, neither the old Rorquals, nor the new mining barges, are good for EVE’s gameplay or player development.  Both push the game closer to the simplified, pay-gated design of mobile games, in which you can’t solve your problems with skill, only more money.  To explore this a little deeper, I’m going to revisit the concept of skills expression and try to figure out just what we mean by “pay to win.”

What is ‘skill expression’?

You hear the term ‘skill expression’ getting thrown around a lot, often in connection with ‘skill ceiling’ or ‘skill floor.’  At its core, a game with high skill expression (that is, a high ceiling and low floor) is one in which a good player will always be better than a bad player; it is also one where a bad player can always get a little better.  Soccer has a higher skill expression than tic-tac-toe, for example, because David Beckham would beat me at soccer every single time, but we might break even at tic-tac-toe; you could take a lifetime getting better at soccer, but get about as good as possible at tic-tac-toe in a few minutes.

As I’ve said before, EVE Online is one world but many games.  Some of those games have the highest skill expression of any videogame ever made; some of those games are more like tic-tac-toe.  This feeds into a distinction I made all the way back in Post II (and again in Post IV) about the difference between vertical and horizontal skills development.  To summarize briefly:

Vertical skills growth is a teaching term for when one skill enables another, allowing a student to get better at a complex task by individually learning the elements involved and then putting them together.  This is like being asked to write a five-page paper for your midterm, then a better five-page paper for your final.

Horizontal skills growth is when a student is asked to scale the same skills across a larger project.  This is (unfortunately) the more common practice in schools, in which you’re asked to write a five-page paper for your midterm, then the same quality 10-page paper for your final.  All you’re learning is to do the same thing more.

To me, this might be the single most important concept in unlocking EVE players’ behavior.  Essentially, everything we do in EVE either asks us to get better and better at a set of interconnected skills, or do more and more with the same ones.  The example I used in previous posts was how smallgang PVP asks you to get really good at flying one ship with lots of different skills, while large fleet PVP asks you to multibox as many ships as possible, while only having to perform rudimentary tasks on each.  This is why, from a teaching perspective, smallgang makes you a better pilot, and fleet PVP just teaches you to multitask.[ii] 

In mining, there is simply no version like smallgang PVP.  Mining is, and has always been, an activity that only allows for horizontal skills development (multitasking) with a very limited expression of vertical skills. 

Of course, there are some small skills that increase mining efficiency.  Knowing when to mine safely, what ore to mine, and staying connected to intel channels or self-scouting are all practices that will increase a miner’s yield and decrease their losses over time.  Some practices like properly fitting your ship or hand-braking a Rorqual coming out of warp are actually the same skills used in PVP.  But the importance of skills expression in mining is just much lower.  If, for example, you don’t handbrake your dreadnought before sieging, you will keep drifting and might miss every shot you take, making you useless, whereas if you don’t handbrake your Rorqual, you will drift away from the asteroid and lose a margin of ore, but still be perfectly effective; knowing what ore to mine is also infinitely easier than knowing what ships you can fight.  Simply put, there is a vast difference between a bad and great PVPer and a small difference between a bad and great miner.

And that’s totally ok.

It’s wonderful that some people can play EVE because it makes them shake like they’re on a rollercoaster and others can play to unwind.  That variety is exactly why EVE is so long-lived, and has such immense payout for the immense buy-in it takes to learn.  It’s just important to note that, because mining has such a low skill ceiling compared to other gameplays, it incentivizes scaling across multiple accounts to a much grater extent.  This has always been true.  Whether in a barge or Rorqual, your gameplay is repetitive, simple, and much more scalable than FCing a fleet or flying tackle for a small gang.  Even comparing to fleet PVP, it will take you longer to master your first Muninn account than it will to master your first barge or Rorqual—a little ways down the road, someone who learned both fields from scratch at the same pace might be flying three Muninns and mining with twenty Rorquals.[iii] 

Phantomite has suggested a radical reinvention of the mining process to something called “prospecting,” which would make industry more like exploration: rather than getting steady payouts for minimal APM over time, prospectors would hunt actively through a sort of minigame for jackpots.  In general, these jackpots could be tuned to drop a similar value per hour to mining now.  But because it would be accessed through a minigame, it would open up the ceiling and floor for the activity, so that, while perhaps the average income would be the same as anyone’s mining yield now, a bad prospector would make less and a good prospector would make more.  This would radically invigorate EVE’s resource collection with a level of skill expression, allowing people to get better at it over time.

Putting aside the obvious investment of development time from CCP, there are positives and negatives to Phantomite’s model.  The biggest negative is that it would remove a core aspect of EVE’s purposefully low-APM, ‘relaxing’ gameplay.  People who wanted to harvest ore (and dopamine) while cleaning the house or making dinner would lose their gameplay.  This could be remedied by leaving the current mining system in place, but reducing its yield, and simply placing prospecting as a higher-APM, higher-income version.  Then, mining would have low-skill, horizontal development equivalent to big fleet pvp, and high-skill, vertical development like smallgang pvp.

The strongest positive to Phantomite’s “prospecting” is that it would build players’ attachment to the game based not on what they own, but on what they can do.  Personally, I believe that this is of moral importance, as it reflects how I believe we should assess our real lives as well, but I also see this as a much healthier means of player retention.  Rather than getting players to stick around so they don’t lose all their assets, it would get players to stick around because they really feel like they’ve gotten good at something, and expressing that hard-earned skill gives them pleasure.  In other words, it would be much healthier to reward achievement than acquisition—but, of course, a good prospector would still get both.

So one response to the New Dawn mining changes might be that, with all this time to develop a minigame, all CCP did was adjust a few values on some ships and ores.  Given that they teased a Rorqual balance pass this summer, it seems lazy to have spent all this time merely tweaking values.  As many in the community have pointed out, these changes also won’t be increasing resource flow or ending scarcity[iv] like CCP has disingenuously stated, so it does also seem that introducing prospecting as an even higher-yield resource collection, thus increasing resource flow in exchange for players learning new skills, would be much better at achieving these stated goals.

But, unfortunately, if we understand what “pay to win” really means, it becomes clear that increasing skills ceiling, prioritizing vertical over horizontal growth, is exactly the last thing CCP wants to do. 

What does “pay to win” really mean?

Hey, another buzzword!  Yes, after a month’s aristeia in the real world, I figured you deserve to be spoiled, patient reader.  Please, have all the buzzwords you want.  There’s a bowl of them on the coffee table.

Commonly, “Pay to win” is used in just about any competitive videogame, usually synonymously with words like “overpowered” or “unbalanced.”  In these situations, players are referring to an item that is both so good that it can beat every other item without much need for skill, and gated behind real-world money.  The example I always think of is gold ammo in World of Tanks.  When some friends and I started WoT during its beta, we spent a lot of time learning all the best places to penetrate enemy tanks, allowing us to fight outmatched.  Then, when gold ammo was released, so that essentially every tank could penetrate every other one, our skill and knowledge advantage was eliminated, because anyone could just spend money for the same effect.  This past spring, EVE’s buffs the marauders were also like this.  They allowed anyone who could afford a Vargur to beat brawling gangs with their damage and tank, beat kiting gangs with their mobility and projection, and do all of it without the need for skills like transversal matching or target-calling, and with reduced need for skills like ammo selection and fitting.  In short, a relative PVP newbie could hop into a mediocre Vargur fit and give a gang of five experienced players absolute fits just by pressing buttons. 

But it’s tricky to compare P2W mechanics in EVE to other games, for a few reasons:

First, EVE’s open economy means that no useful items are strictly locked behind real-world currency.  You could, theoretically, make all of your wealth in-game and reap all of the same benefits as someone who bought their items with cash.  This is different than in just about every other game.

Second—and because of this first point—we can’t think pf P2W in EVE as being an on/off switch.  Nothing is either P2W or not P2W; everything can be less or more P2W, but because nothing is locked behind real-world money, nothing can be completely P2W, like in other games.  This does not make P2W design in EVE any less harmful, though.

In the case of marauders, they were made very P2W in the spring, then nerfed.  I would still argue that they are one of the most P2W features of EVE right now, but at the same time, they can still be beaten.  But this is still not using the full definition of P2W.

“Overpowered” is a square to P2W’s rectangle: bad game balance is one major way things become P2W, but this is actually in service of a larger concept.  At its core, P2W design means simplifying the game so that problems can only be solved with money.  It works like this:

Any game presents you with a problem.  That’s its job.  Your job is to solve the problem.  If you can solve it with skill, you will do so every time.  If you need to learn skills to solve it, you will learn those skills or get frustrated and quit.

Enter monetization.  One way of monetizing games is to allow players to buy their way out of frustration with learning skills—to skip the learning process with money.  This is the P2W that we commonly describe as things being overpowered: you get to skip learning where to shoot a tank by buying ammo that makes it not matter, or skip learning what target to shoot by flying a Vargur that can hit everything.  This is, of course, a trap: you quickly find yourself outmatched in skill, so the only way to stay competitive is to keep spending money, almost like buying your way three levels higher in school. 

However, some games—especially mobile games—take it even further.  In those games, spending money isn’t an option that lets you speed ahead at the expense of skills growth, it is literally the only option.  Want to grow more crops?  Buy more slots.  Want to unlock that door?  Buy the key.  There is simply no way to solve these problems without spending more money, because there is no way to be better or worse at the game.  The game is just too simple.

So, while many people shriek “P2W” at bad game balance in EVE, I don’t disagree—but I think they’re not seeing the forest for the trees.  Overpowered ships is the example, the square.  Game simplification, and the limitation of skills expression, is the theory, the whole rectangle.  As much as I want to get more new players into EVE—because I do believe it can have a bright future—I am also wary any time CCP says they are simplifying something for newbies.  While that may be good to get people on board, it may also move us more in the direction of P2W design.

Horizontal game design is inherently more P2W than vertical game design.  By its very definition, the harder gameplay that requires more skills gives you more opportunities to solve problems with those skills.  Conversely, no matter how good you are at multiboxing a simple fleet role, you can’t fly three Muninns at once if you aren’t paying to subscribe them.  While I love the variety of playstyles in EVE and respect anyone who prefers to grow horizontally, it is clear that one of the most insidious and destructive forces in EVE today is the cycle of CCP incentivizing horizontal growth and blocs training people into it for their own benefit.  I love that EVE has these giant empires, but unfortunately, the gaming industry has found a way to make them complicit in the game becoming more P2W.  The New Dawn changes are just the latest manifestation of this feedback loop.

So, where does this leave us?

I’m not saying all mining is P2W because it is horizontally balanced.  I’m not even saying it needs to change from passive gameplay—although I think at least having a more active, lucrative option like Phantomite’s “prospecting” would be awesome. 

I am especially not saying anything is or isn’t P2W.  Some things are more, some things are less.

Rorquals, the way they were horizontally scaled and nearly autopoietic, allowed a horizontal feedback loop that forever changed EVE Online.  They were a perfect precondition for P2W design.  They made the game more P2W.

Barges, in their new iteration, do the same thing.  By moving the yield of a Rorqual from one expensive vessel and one Omega subscription to many smaller vessels and many subscriptions, CCP is just effectively increasing the amount of real-world currency required to scale horizontally.  AFK mining is still a nice relaxing gameplay for some people, but also a perfect precondition for P2W design.  The only thing changing is that the price to win just went way up. 

[i] One of many articles from mainstream gaming media: https://www.pcgamesn.com/eve-online/mining-changes

[ii] Please note – there is a long culture of snobbery from smallgang pilots for this exact reason, and I don’t buy into that for a second.  This is a game.  You get to be exactly as good as you want, and you get to play it however you want.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying big fleet PVP and just not developing your individual skills as much.  That gameplay can be very fulfilling, and often provides more narrative gameplay than smallgang, something I wrote about in Posts 7-9.

[iii] In both cases, there is a hard cap on actions-per-minute (APM) so that the growth can’t continue forever and, indeed, there is less APM in a Rorqual than in a barge. 

[iv] Because, although the resources are being increased, the ships that gather them are being nerfed. 

XIII – Pindar-Posting: What Really Are Battlereports?

I wrote in Post I on this blog about how I think EVE in general is a work of art; and given the huge social movements towards esports, it seems entirely fair to say that EVE is also, if not a form of athletics, a form of competition.  Generally, in our culture, we see art and athletics as separate—you might make a movie or a painting about a great athlete but, the way we commonly see it, this is moving across styles, from competition to art.  Yet we also have plenty of places where art is entered into a competition, at any level from your local craft fair to awards like the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys that arguably place entire mediums within the competitive sphere.  Esports further complicates this, such that, if we consider a videogame a work of art, then people are now competing using a work of art, almost as directly as if they were playing tennis with a painting instead of a racquet.  So, clearly, the distinction between art and competition, and more specifically art and athletics, is a sort of cultural illusion.

There are, and have been, many cultures whose view of art and athletics is much more explicitly synergistic.  Hula dancing is a good example of an artform that is also often explicitly competitive; the original Greek understanding of the Olympics also was as something blending art, athletics, and sacred ritual.  While, as with anything, our almost uniquely secular society does influence how we express these impulses, I have a hunch that our understanding of art and athletics is much more linked than we explicitly let on.  October, 2021, and EVE Online are a great time and topic to explore this, because just now, the first Alliance Tournament in years is heating up.  In this post I want to explore a simple question: What would it take for our competitive piloting to be, itself, a work of art?  How would the community have to view feats of piloting for the pilots themselves to become artists?

The first step to answering this question lies in the connection between storytelling and “storymaking,” something I’ve hinted at before on this blog, and will be writing more about in the future (probably until I’m in the grave).  In essence, these terms break down this way:

Storytelling relies on a linear flow from a creator, through a medium, to an audience.  In this case, the creator’s role is purely to manipulate the medium (writing, film, etc.) and the audience’s role is purely to receive it.  This is the only method recognized as ‘art’ by stuffier, Euro-centric understandings, because it focuses on the isolated genius of the creator.[i] 

Storymaking relies on a community reception of events or actions, and is represented through whatever means the community uses to enshrine it.  Modern sports is a good example of this, in which first things have to be done on the field and witnessed by the community, and are then reproduced into every medium imaginable.

In essence, each is the opposite of the other, so that storytelling means a thing is produced, then received by an audience, while storymaking means the audience receives an event, then produces things about it.

While in some ways opposites, these two processes can also work together. 

In the case of fan fiction, for example, the storytelling and storymaking feed into each other in an impossibly complex series of synapses.  Let’s take Harry Potter: first, J.K. Rowling writes the original books, in an act of classical storytelling; then fans produce their own works, which, if they forge out into new territory, are also acts of storytelling, but if they reproduce or reinterpret parts of the original, are closer to storymaking, like someone reinterpreting a famous moment from a football game.  (In the latter case, the ‘witnessed event’ is the story itself, not something that happened on a field.)  The cycle goes around once more when fans decide to canonize things Rowling didn’t intend, such as certain characters being gay, and these revisions then allow other storytellers in the fan community to forge out on their own again.  Any vibrant fan community is an endless web of cyclical storytelling and storymaking.[ii]  The only fundamental difference here is that the ‘witnessed event,’ that is, the primary material of the original story, could be produced by one individual, while with something like sports, it almost always requires the actions of several.[iii]

Or, in the simplest terms, we can break this down into three pieces: the event itself (a goal, or a scene in a book); the way it is chronicled; the audience and how they receive it.

While EVE does have elements of storytelling—from the construction of the world and lore, to ongoing storyline events like the Triglavian invasion—it is uniquely famous in the gaming world for the narratives its own players create.  This occurs through the creation of a primary event on the server, such as a battle, and then the way this event is catalogued, reproduced, and publicized by the community.  No doubt simple game mechanics like permanent asset loss and a single-shard server make these narratives have so much more weight, and that weight makes the narratives themselves proliferate to such an extent that in 18 years there are now countless examples.  And many of these stories have more importance—are more canon—to the everyday EVE player than those installed in the game’s lore. 

But these events, and the stories that grow out of them, get recorded and reproduced in lots of different ways.  Like sports, much of our gameplay is recorded, either by people making video content or just saving footage to review their own piloting.  Similarly, EVE’s tournaments are recorded and commentated live, so that at least any actions the cameraperson and commentators catch gets chronicled.  Beyond that, we also have talkshows that review major battles and events,[iv] Andrew Groen’s history books,[v] and what I call “narrative” battle-reports, which often focus on humor and entertainment more than accuracy.[vi]  And then, of course, there is the simple and automatic chronicling done by killboards, which though showing an ultimately objective, stripped-down account, do a good job of ‘witnessing’[vii] the primary event, saving it for future storytellers. 

But we EVE players are not the first culture to navigate multiple methods of archiving our achievements.  Earlier I mentioned the ancient version of the Olympics – one of the key elements in an Ancient Greek understanding of what I’m calling storymaking, and one whose distinctions trickle down into our culture today.  While it’s always incredibly treacherous to speak about ‘the Greeks’ as a whole—falsely eliding thousands of years of history and countless cultures and regions—broadly speaking, this was a culture that understood athletics as part of artmaking, and art as part of athletics.  Some key examples would be in Pindar’s Olympic poetry, or in the ritual competition of plays in Athens’ Dionysia Festival.  Of course, they also had non-competitive prose histories, such as that of Thucydides.  Each of these examples has a parallel in modern EVE culture.

Thucydides’ histories might be the simplest comparison, because they are the direct ancestor of Andrew Groen’s work writing EVE’s history.  Of course, this could warrant an immense amount of study, but I don’t think it’s irresponsible to say this, at least this broadly.

Athenian tragedy and comedy would fall into the narrative style of mimesis, that is, of imitation, rather than diegesis, or narration.  The idea here is that in a diegetic text like Homer’s Iliad, there is a narrator telling the story, whereas in a mimetic play, the actors are embodying the event and representing it.[viii]  In my opinion, our version of mimesis would be in the video accounts we take of our gameplay: they effectively reenact what happened, although with key limitations like the point of view. 

But the one I want to talk about in this post is the comparison between “narrative” battle reports and Greek lyric poetry – specifically, the Odes written to commemorate great athletic achievements, most notably those by Pindar.  These were complex, beautiful works of poetry that worked both to immortalize athletes and their ephemeral achievements, and as a prize themselves.  Formally, Pindar’s poetry remains some of the most magnificent literature we have ever produced, to such an extent that, like Horace’s Latin lyric, it doesn’t remotely hold up in most translations.  Yet, in my breakdown above, it falls squarely into the realm of storymaking—a response to a primary event.  For Pindar’s original readers, this was not nearly the stigma it is for many today.

So, what’s the difference between Pindar’s poetic accounts of an athletic event and Thucydides’ prose history of a war?  There are, of course, myriad differences, ranging from aesthetic to function, but I believe most of these differences line up with the difference between a good battle-report and Groen’s books.  Essentially, we’re asking what the difference is between enshrining, or memorializing, an event, and retelling it.

A work of history, whether about a war in a videogame, one in real life, or something else entirely, seeks to capture enough objective details to provide a narrative through inductive reasoning.  In other words, it is concerned with accuracy (or the appearance of accuracy) to such an extreme that it has no interest for embodying the events at all.  It doesn’t attempt to reenact the events, but to deliver them in a reasoned sequence.  It can broadly be thought of as focusing on the objective qualities of an event.

Part of the goal of Pindar’s poetry, however, was to be just as transcendent as the athletics that prompted it.  That is, the poem works to recreate some of the awe of witnessing the event by putting you in awe of the poem.  It has to describe less carefully, because it initiates a feeling, and chronicles that feeling, existing much more in the realm subjectivity.  Poetry and athletics become fused in this way, so that the inherently artistic qualities of the sport make their way into the poem, and the poem competes to distinguish and immortalize itself among other poems. 

I think we do the same thing.

Let’s use my Reddit post from footnote vi, “Rise of the Crackdaw.”  In writing this, I was trying to capture the feeling of the event, with just enough literal details for readers to know what happened.  To me, the primary feelings were comedy – all of us laughing hysterically on comms – and the pride in humiliating a massive empire with a few little interdictors.  So, I wrote the post to be funny and humiliating.  Now, I’m no Pindar, but the idea is the same: reproduce something like the subjective experience of the event, strung around a few objective details.  Some of those objective details are provided in the killboard link, and others are attested to by people in the comments, from my fleet and the other. 

But I was writing within an old tradition of battle-reports.[ix]  People have been posting accounts of fights like this for most of EVE’s history.  Battle reports are, within EVE’s complex narrative ecosystem, as defined a form as there could be, and a pillar of the game’s PVP culture.  Posts in this genre are themselves also competitive—and not just in the way any posts on Reddit are made competitive by the upvote system.  The idea is clearly, one way or another, to distinguish yourself as a poster just as you did as a pilot; to mirror the martial achievement with a literary one.  Of course, not all writeups fall into this style.  When we look at a previous tournament winner’s account of the whole tournament, it is much more historical, emphasizing statistics, reading more like the captain’s notes.[x]  But it actually makes perfect sense that an individual fight or battle gets a competitive, narrative report, and a broader campaign gets a drier, more historical one: a single event is a triumph, a string of events becomes a history. 

So, can our piloting be a work of art?  Quite possibly, but more in the way the subject of a film becomes a part of it, or the paintbrush becomes a part of a painting.  This is why the word storymaking is so powerful: it isn’t just a single person’s decision to enshrine an achievement, but the community’s actions in creating the source material and then receiving, accepting the work that enshrines it.  That means we all have roles in this process, even just as audience members. 

Storymaking is a process that goes on every day in EVE, and will continue to go on as long as we do things worth talking about.  In future posts, I’m going to dive deeper into this idea, looking at the different ways fan culture subdivides in the EVE community, as well as what “content” even means.  But this month, we’ll be watching EVE’s version of the Olympics, in the Alliance Tournament.  We will, at the least, see EVE’s versions of Al Michaels and Bob Kostas, as well as some after-action reports and team narratives.  Depending on the nature of those narratives—whether they seek to objectively chronicle or subjectively embody the experience—maybe we’ll see EVE’s version of Pindar, too.

[i] The composer Anton Bruckner, for example, was discredited for taking advice from his colleagues and revising his symphonies, in part due to a cultural assumption that this impugned the individual genius of his work.  Meanwhile, in many other musical cultures, you’d have a hard time even explaining to a musician how one person could come up with the piece, because their entire system is collaborative.

[ii] Another great example of storymaking is war reenactments.  The original event, let’s say the Battle of Gettysburg, is being recreated and reinterpreted by a fan community that acts around it.  There are parameters set by the original event—the Union will always win—but individuals get to use a degree of agency within that.

[iii] Of course, there are solo sports.  I would argue, however, that setting a record time is still competing against others, because even if you ran yourself, you still had to beat someone else’s time, even if it was from many years before.  The only cases I can think of where sports could possibly be performed by a single individual would be something like free climbing or parkour, which do seem to bend my definitions a good bit.  But, as I’ll be arguing later in this article, those also become competitive when they are catalogued and judged by a community.

[iv] One of many, many examples from EVE’s most expensive battle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2NfcicvT0Q

[v] Empires of EVE I & II: https://www.empiresofeve.com/

[vi] Here’s one I wrote!  “Rise of the Crackdaw,” from the EVE subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/o8mipf/rise_of_the_crackdaw/

[vii] This is a whole other can of worms, but let’s meditate for a moment on the posthuman ontology implied by the role of ‘witness’ to our achievements now being done by a machine.  My brain hurts. 

[viii] Again, in broad strokes.  People write PhDs about this stuff, though.  Technically, a play is diegetic mimesis, because the author of the play narrated a story, then the players enact it.  If an actor recounts events from a past war, that don’t happen on stage, then this is an example of diegesis happening within mimesis.  To make things even more of a headache, these terms have been used academically for over 2,000 years, and people keep changing and tweaking them, so that they don’t always refer to the same thing!  I don’t expect anyone to understand all of this – and I don’t myself – but I wanted to include this footnote just for honesty’s sake.

[ix] “Battle Reports “ (BRs) are used interchangeably with “After Action Reports” (AARs).

[x] “Templis CALSF AT AAR” by Deyze: https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/k0y997/templis_calsf_at_aar/

Intro – What are EVE Biographies?

Virginia Woolf wrote that “Few poets and novelists are capable of that high degree of tension which gives us reality. But almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.”[i]  Commercially speaking, she’s not wrong.  Biographies are in most cases just as popular and influential as works of fiction and certainly more so than poetry—works that we more commonly consider ‘art,’ (though if you’ve read Post I you know how I feel about that).  Yet, it’s hard to find remotely as much scholarship about biographies as there is about fiction and poetry, and it’s even harder to find someone to teach you how to write them.  My own college had majors in fiction, poetry, and “creative nonfiction,” a mysterious form that no one could explain besides to say that it is not memoir-writing.  This is particularly strange, because the modern biography is written much like a novel, with cinematic moments, symbolic through-lines, and even dialogue.  Technically speaking, the writing process is almost identical whether you’re a “free” novelist or a biographer “tied” to the facts.[ii]  Yet Woolf wrote this essay to claim what should be obvious: biographies can be art, just as much as anything else.  So why the stigma? 

Just about every human culture has made some form of biography, be it literary, musical, oral, visual, or media that we moderns might struggle to identify.  But cultures both influence the mediums they use in their art and are also influenced by the mediums they use in their art.  In other words, the famous marriage of “form and function” that makes art really work actually lies between its design and reception; and the reception of one work influences the design of the next.  We are, in this way, tied inextricably into the work that we make.  In the case of biography, this means that the way we chronicle lives shows how our culture understands what a life is, and then also informs how we interpret our own lives going forward.

Through much of human history, biographies looked very different than they do today.  They focused much less on individual scenes, and more on the physical characteristics, notable achievements, and family heritage of an individual.  Rather than making up plausible dialogue around a moment that we know happened, as many biographers do today, creative license might be used to deify characters, or hyperbolize their achievements; and of course, ancient biographies were almost never written about common people.

While to us, having the first third of a biography trace someone’s family history might seem off-topic, to many ancients it was predictive, or even prophecy, of the main character’s life.  This is perhaps due to the simple fact that the world changed much more slowly before the industrial revolution, so that one might live and die in the exact same world as one’s ancestors and children: in this setting, the fact that we appear just to feed ourselves for a while and then die becomes much clearer, forcing biographers—and possibly individual people too—to spread out the meaning of their lives on much broader scales.  Thinking of yourself as a product of your entire family history, your life is not just a few indistinguishable decades of struggle before death, but one more humble brick in a construct too great to see from a mortal perspective.  Seeing the world this way as a spiritual and motivational necessity, one’s own personality then also becomes a product of that lineage, so that in talking about distant ancestors, a biographer is actually describing you.  This is entirely different from how we view our lives now, how we see the world change massively in just one generation, how we believe each generation makes their own path in the world.

The trend towards explaining a life through lineage and prophecy is general, across almost all pre-industrial cultures.  For a specific cultural example, we can turn to the Ancient Greek notion that beauty and ugliness were synonymous with good and evil, even to such an extent that the words kalos and kakos could be used interchangeably to mean good/beautiful or evil/ugly.[iii]  In the famous story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, an Ancient Greek reader would not be surprised that the hunchback is the one who betrays the Spartans, because to them his ugliness is synonymous with a wicked, treacherous nature.  Thus, in describing the physical features of an individual, an ancient biographer might be discussing them just as directly as with their heritage.  To us, this is separate from their character, but to them, it is both predictive and representative. 

These are just a few examples of how biographies are representative both of their time and specific culture.  But, just as much as biographies can tell us about these cultures, they open just as many questions.  That’s because of the simple fact that we, too, live in a culture that deeply affects the ways we think, act, and make meaning in our lives.  In the scandal of Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography, in which she was lambasted by the global media for claiming things happened to her that really happened to others, we see a global culture of liberal, capitalist individualism projecting onto an indigenous Mayan culture that—like many indigenous cultures—was much more collective and community-oriented.  When Menchu wrote her book, she was telling the story of her people, a community that understood the trauma of one as shared by many.  When she wrote in the first-person, she wasn’t just trying to capture herself as an individual but something like the Mayan individual experience.  It was the global press that failed to grasp the features of biography I’ve laid out above, and (mis)read her text through their own cultural lens, thinking it dishonest.  Thus, even the notion of factual honesty is ultimately subject to the cultural understanding of meaning-making.

Of course, we know plenty about the Maya because there still are some.  We know a good bit about Medieval biographies because we have so much material surrounding them.  The further back you go, though, the more mysterious things become.  Perhaps my favorite expression of the biographical impulse is in prehistoric cave paintings, in which a person drew their hand on the wall—but in many cases, they didn’t lather the hand in dye and print that, as most of us would, but rather placed their hand on the wall and then rubbed dye all around it, so the hand was in relief.  Why do so many cave-paintings do this?  What was it about that world, or those early communities, and the inchoate human minds that moved through them, that made it more obvious or natural to depict oneself in relief?  In much prehistoric cave art, we see far more animals than humans, if any humans at all, and the drawings themselves are done in places almost entirely inaccessible.  About these, I don’t even know how to draw up a clear question.  We might wonder endlessly about how these early people saw themselves not as a dominant species, not yet, but as part of all of the others; we might wonder about the hand-in-relief, if it is a sort of signature, a story, a mark of presence.  We like to think that these drawings done in such discreet places makes them religious, or spiritual, adding to their mystique, but this in turn only opens up more questions about why humans have always had this impulse to make representations and meditations on our world, and ourselves.  Perhaps the hand is itself Woolf’s “suggestive fact,” immortalized long past everything it suggests.

Biographies from the global, post-industrial, Westernized culture that covers most of the world today are just as mysterious.  When we construct the lives of real people in the same form as our characters, we’re showing how we understand life not as part of some greater narrative but as a sequence of scenes, of discreet moments, that we ourselves grasp and shape into lives, and then our biographers shape into narratives.  I have no doubt this leads us to live more narratively as well, though trying to see exactly how is like trying to see how a fishbowl distorts an image from within it.  Our cultures and societies are at once condensing beneath a global cultural economy and refracting through new media.  The ‘bragging rites’ of hip-hop are one example of a countercultural biography, one that rejects the Christian notion of humility and (in the strangest comparison ever) echoes the notion from Graeco-Roman poetry that bragging is not just fine, but a means of attaining immortality.  This crosscurrent then connects with social media, and the fact that, for the first time ever, almost every single person in our society is their own biographer.  Just as an Ancient writer might tell their life story through family histories, omens, and great deeds, and post-industrial biographers told our lives like novels, we now tell our own lives as strings of vacation photos, birthday messages, and political propaganda.  Would someone in the future look back on this and say that, because we go on so many vacations, we were never sad?  Or would they glean something closer to the truth—that we perform ourselves so carefully it’s hard to let anyone in?  Just because it’s happening all around us doesn’t mean it’s any easier to figure out.

One thing this discussion begins to tease apart—and something I can’t order coffee without talking about—is the difference between storytelling and storymaking.  This is a distinction commonly used around something like fan fiction, in which first a story is told from a primary source, then it is enacted, enriched, and produced collaboratively by the fan community.  But there are also cases where the order is flipped.  In sports, players, coaches, and fans first do things that create what Woolf calls “the creative” or “fertile fact,” then later, storytellers come along and string those facts into a narrative.[iv]  In some videogames, this wouldn’t really be possible, because the entire game happens within guiderails, like a ride at a theme park.  But, as I’ve written extensively,[v],EVE Online is really more of a world with many games within it, and flimsy borders between those games.  So what would it mean to write biographies in EVE?

We do have plenty of examples.  On the one hand, we have the fictional biographies roleplayers make of their characters to live in the game.  In roleplaying biographies, there is a reversal of the normal order of things, such that character traits are (usually)[vi] installed first and then used to inform actions, rather than a biographer retroactively deducing character traits from actions (as in a modern biography) or foreshadowing them with family history or physical features (as in many ancient biographies).  That, on its own, is a new development in human media culture: possibly for the first time ever, we are able to divide ourselves into entirely new characters, and to play them in their own worlds.

A totally different example would be the very moving memorials (which is a type of biography) of Vile Rat/Sean Smith, a famous EVE player who was killed in the attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi.  One of the most prominent obituaries leans heavily on the theme that he was the same person in-game as out of game, such as the phrase, “He had the vision and the understanding to see three steps ahead of everyone else – in the game, on the CSM, and when giving real-world advice.”[vii]  How a community praises its dead is one of the clearest examples of what it values—yet, being the same person in and out of game seems contradictory to the practice of roleplaying biographies I just explained.  So clearly, the way we biographize ourselves in roleplaying is broken when both the character and person behind it leave us, forcing biographers to decide whether to tell the story of their life in New Eden, on Earth, or both. 

Clearly, there is no consensus about how biographies work in EVE.  Perhaps roleplaying biographies and obituaries are just different genres—and indeed, if EVE is to be a world, it would make sense for that world to have a diversity of biographical cultures too.  We might then also ask, are battle reports biographies?  Are podcast interviews biographies?  Are our characters’ killboards biographies?  If so, who is making them? 

And how much of your Earth-life should a biography include?  Where’s the line between character and player?  How do these biographies grow out of the culture that creates them—and is that culture EVE’s, the internet’s, or the modern world’s?

I quite blissfully have no idea.  That’s why I’m devoting an entire section of this blog to an ongoing series of biographies in and around EVE, starting with my own, and then working off of interviews and collaboration with others.  Hopefully, this will be a way to make sense—or even more beautiful confusion—out of these things together.

[i] Woolf, “Art of the Biography,” pg. 7

[ii] ibid. pg. 1

[iii] Thus our word “cacophony” could mean ugly noise or evil noise.  This is one philosophical foundation for the idea in Medieval music that beauty and order was approaching God, such that one dissonant interval, the “Devil’s tritone” was actually outlawed as being literally evil.

[iv] This is, in most cases, a type of biography.  In my opinion, this is also one of the most insidious effects of social media: it leads us to think of everything we do in our life as part of our own storytelling, how we cultivate our personal narratives online, making it so much harder to just live.

[v] Posts 7-9 dive into this as one aspect of Strategic vs Recreational PVP.  Post 11 gets into some aspects of the game really being a world.

[vi] Many roleplayers will tell you that the beginning biography is itself just a set of guideline traits, but the rest is filled out by interactions in the world.  Indeed, enacting the biography of your character can be the main event in roleplaying, whether designed ahead of time or not.  But this is a whole other topic!

[vii] “RIP: Vile Rat” by Alexander “The Mittani” Gianturco, INN.  https://imperium.news/rip-vile-rat/

XII – Tanizaki vs the Triglavians: the Role of Mystery in Worldbuilding

Imagine that a novel begins:

Sam got out of the car and went into the gas station to buy cigarettes and a flashlight.

There’s nothing to suggest that this shouldn’t be true—that at some point this didn’t or couldn’t happen—and so we, as readers, accept it.  We suspend our disbelief for a few more lines.  But we don’t believe it yet, in the way that, if the writer does their job, every word between this sentence and the last will imprint almost as vividly as a memory from our own lives.  For us to really believe that this is true—for us to buy into the story—something else has to happen.

Now picture:

Sam, still slightly out of breath, climbed over the ragged convertible’s door, which he discovered was permanently jammed shut.  He ducked into the store past a poster of his own face, sans mustache, to buy cigarettes and another flashlight.

Do you see this one a little better? 

What’s the difference?  The second is obviously longer in words, though it covers the same actions and expanse of time.  That extra language is used to produce some details, so at first glance we might imagine that the specificity leads us to buy in.  Essentially, we’re thinking, Well jeez, if they know all those details, it must be true!  This is akin to how cult leaders are actually more effective when they make wild claims, because they lead us to think they must be right, precisely because their claims are preposterous while they’re so confident about it.  To some extent, this is how any storyteller works.  They project an air of sureness about what they’re saying, and deliver carefully curated clusters of details to get us to believe what they’re saying, writing, or showing on the screen, not just accept it.  This is as true in ancient oral poetry as it is in more modern forms like novels or movies, and the postmodern form of videogames.  EVE, for all its scope, breadth, and internal history, relies just as much on its details as any of its predecessors.

But encyclopedias are full of details, and no one finds them to be engaging stories or worlds.  We might read them and accept the information as true, and functionally believe it, and yet a good storyteller can get you to feel the reality of lightsabers in a way you’ll never feel anything you see described in an encyclopedia.[i]

It is actually the delicate blending of details with mystery that makes us believe, really experience, a story or a world.  In the example I wrote above, the detail that our character is out of breath might add to the image, but the word “still” makes us wonder where he’s coming from, and why he’s out of breath after driving a car.  We might likewise wonder how the car’s door got jammed shut, or why he appears to have just recognized that (Did he steal the car?  Is that why he’s out of breath?) or why his face is on a poster at the gas station, or why he has a mustache now.  (He must have stolen it!  No one with a mustache and a convertible is ever up to any good!)  Even the word “another” makes us wonder what happened to his first flashlight, and perhaps interacts with the other details and their resonant mysteries, so we can begin to see the outline of a story, yet dimly, flickeringly, so that we want to read more to find out.  This reflects our conscious experience of the real world—we are constantly presented with details that form contours in our minds, but since we never get to see everything at once (like an encyclopedia or god) we have to feel our way forward, based on these details, to bring the whole thing into light; and even then, we uncover further mysteries, and keep going.  Thus, what gets us to buy into a story, to believe it, is when it mirrors our conscious experience of reality by carefully deploying believable clusters of details that outline a mystery.  The story begins to feel like another world because we explore it like we do this one.

But in the example I gave above, the story is in the linear, monophonic, non-interactive medium of prose.[ii]  That is to say, your ability to feel forward through the world is itself a sort of illusion, as in actuality the author is leading you along. 

So what happens in a world like EVE, where the storytelling is embedded in a world we actually can explore on our own, and where much of the story actually comes from what we do?  How do you get someone to believe in a world, not just a story?  And how does this form manipulate the interactions between detail and mystery that make it all tick?

In 1933, electric light was still fairly new to Japan.  The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki saw this simple technology, which is now ubiquitous and not generally tied to any specific culture, as something distinctly Western, foreign, and contradictory not just to traditional Japanese aesthetics, but to the philosophies behind them.  In a quiet and deviously humble essay titled “In Praise of Shadows,” he begins by explaining the challenges of building a new house that still feels authentic: hiding wires, using wood panels instead of tile, and so on.  But this is just the literal application of what he really wants to talk about—shadow, mystery, depth, age.  In Tanizaki’s view, the core philosophical element to a Japanese home or to Japanese design is not its characteristic sparseness, but its use of shadow, or recessed alcoves that hide the artwork within them, of deep eaves that block the sun.  The real problem with electric light isn’t that it’s foreign, but that it is too effective at eliminating these carefully curated shadows, and all the depth and variety they imbue.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because this is the same issue the storytellers at CCP have to balance in EVE.

We might think of a story like the darkened rooms of Tanizaki’s essay, and our progress through them like a small candlelight.  Here, the light would be the details, (the new mustache, the broken car door) and the darkness would be the mysterious reality they imply (Did he steal the car?).  The detail casts into certainty some things, but at the flickering edges of its light, it creates uncertainty, illusion, mystery, so that we can’t be sure what things are.  A pot at the edge of a flickering light might be a face, or a mirror; a bookshelf might be a radiator, or a window—and only as we draw closer do they come into focus, just as, later in my example above, you would expect to find out what our character is really doing.  As more candles are lighted throughout the darkened room, their shadows intersect and pool together just as much as their lights.  We do indeed see more of the space, but very little of it with any certainty.  When the story concludes, in most cases, we can at best see only half of the forms in the room.

The encyclopedia, in comparison, throws on the halogen floodlights, obliterating shadows and overwhelming us with a deluge of details and certainty.  In this light, we might find the room mildly interesting, but not addicting—not enchanting, and certainly not begging us to explore and interact with it.  Moreover, the room will look the same at any hour of the day, and to anyone passing by.  There is nothing organic, nothing unknown, that can arise out of this abundance of details without any mystery.   In essence, this is the difference between an art and a science.

Controlling this process—lighting the right candles at the right times, directing the eye to the right places—has been difficult enough to justify storytelling as a virtuosic artform going all the way back to Homer.  But it’s made even harder in the days of online wikis, fan theories, and databases.  Indeed, it’s tough for Star Wars or Harry Potter to contain any real depth of mystery any more, because over time they have not only gotten more and more detailed (or brighter) but they have also had those details combed through and assembled into something like very literal encyclopedias.  As I showed so briefly above, there is this weird parabola in our ability to believe a story, so that the barest lines do nothing to engage our imagination, but total encyclopedic omniscience also reminds us that we’re dealing with fiction, and everything feels more designed than depicted.  Creators in older and more detailed universes thusly need to be careful to work with what they already have, to stay in that middle-ground where there is still mystery; or, to keep using Tanizaki’s metaphor, they need to add items to the room without throwing on any more lights.  That is a whole lot to manage.  It’s no wonder longer projects of worldbuilding often lose that initial spark.  (Candle pun intended.) 

The challenge in a game like EVE is that the story doesn’t begin at the beginning.  Entering New Eden is more like getting off the plane in a foreign country than cracking open a book or starting a movie.  To compare it to my example above, we don’t necessarily begin with Sam’s little scene at the gas station, seeing it through the lens of prose—we might be on the other side of town, as a character ourselves, and might see this part of the story firsthand only if we’re in the right place and time, and then might only hear about it afterwards.  Even if you’re one of the rare few who has been in EVE’s world since 2003 when it launched, in story-time, you’ve only been around for the most recent instants at the crest of an eons-long history. 

But it is precisely that history that makes the world so immersive. 

I remember the moment I got hooked on EVE’s world, some time in my very first hours in the game: I was running a mission in my Kestrel, and I flew by the massive wreck of some ancient freighter.  It looked nothing like any of the ships I could read about in the market, and it was as big as a station—while still being only one broken piece!  I was stunned with the idea of how old this universe was, how long it had been around before me.  I was humbled, and hooked.

This combination of dazzling futuristic technology and impenetrable ancient worlds is what makes a lot of sci-fi tick.  Perhaps the best, most efficient worldbuilding ever done is the words “A long time ago,” at the beginning of Star Wars.  I mean, really, can you imagine a more economical way to build in the mystery that is so addicting than by setting up a vibrantly futuristic world and then telling us it happened in the past?  That one line might have, on its own, made the single biggest difference in whether Star Wars became a universe you wanted to visit, or stay in.  We might download EVE for the spaceships, the things we can do in the world, but we are sucked in by those ancient stations, wrecked starships, and planets settled longer than human cities in real life.  This is the magnificent interplay of detail and mystery, light and shadow, in EVE’s storytelling.  It is only made more powerful by the way you are dropped right into it, given your own little candle, and invited to forge out into the dark.

But people pay for content.  One of the challenges of this type of storytelling is that everyone is not at the same point of the story at the same time.  While a new player might be utterly enthralled just looking at the asteroid colony in a mission, advanced players need things to do.  So, like any game, EVE has to run out expansions.

The challenge in rolling these out is very much like Tanizaki building a house with modern amenities and traditional aesthetics.  Like Tanizaki had to take pains to put the right shades on his lighting, or to hide the telephone behind a staircase, EVE’s storytellers need to introduce new game mechanics, new activities, without making the world feel too new, or solved.  They’ve done this with varying degrees of success. 

Two of the major expansions over the past decade have involved first the pirate Sansha’s Nation creating “Incursions,” or randomly spawning NPC invasions all over space, and then the more recent Triglavian invasion, in which an entirely new civilization began attacking the universe out of, essentially, another dimension.  While the Sansha’s Nation existed in-game prior to their major expansion, and so fulfilled Tanizaki’s philosophy of repurposing and deepening older material, the Triglavians were implied in the lore but didn’t exist in the world at all prior to their expansion.

I worry about the dynamic of every new expansion being OH MY GOD WE’RE BEING INVADED… again.  Obviously, marketing has some interplay with storytelling here: while it’s better for the story to uncover some ancient mystery, it’s easier to market an OH MY GOD INVASION to new, current, and returning players.  In my opinion, the exigencies of marketing this way do compromise the storytelling, forcing it to be at best less creative, and at worst compromising to the mystery that really forms the bedrock of a fictional world.  To put this another way, we might come for the invasions, but we stay for the depth, and it’s very easy to obscure that depth by constantly rolling out new content. 

However, the rollout, especially of the Triglavians, was masterful.  I do think it’s important to direct my criticism at the marketing, the management decisions that force every new storyline to involve another invasion, because the layering of mysterious messages distributed to players, encrypted in a new fictional language, and then the steady escalation of information,[iii] coupled with new content that unfolded it, exemplifies our simile of carefully curating new candles around a darkened room.  It is even more of an achievement for EVE’s storytellers and worldbuilders that they were essentially set up to fail by the necessities of marketing a new expansion, and yet they still managed to capture some of the magic.  This being said, herein lies another example of market pressures making the form and distribution of art contradict its function.  The game’s world would naturally be better off if these could be synergized.

Perhaps all stories, not just worldbuilding, but all worlds too, are some part of Tanizaki’s “dream world of candle and light.”[iv]  Indeed, dreams haunt us because they feel so close, and yet like they contain so much more than we can grasp—the best worlds and stories work the same way.  While in EVE’s lore, the presence of the atavistic Triglavians might reside within darkness, it would be almost impossible to introduce them with the sudden totality of a new MMO expansion without creating the effect that the lights have suddenly been thrown on.  This makes the act of exploring the world not one of pushing deeper into that darkness as if pulled along by it, nor even of seeing apparitions in the fog alongside a boat the storytellers are driving, but of pushing oneself through that absolute, shadowless glare of a laboratory.  In this light, we might marvel at the things we see for the way they were constructed, but it is impossible to imagine that they exist on their own.  Exploring the world becomes a theoretical, intellectual exercise, more akin to memorizing sports statistics than interpreting mythology. 

Yet, videogames are a brand-new medium.  What we’re discussing here is storytelling, but much of EVE’s history also involves storymaking—that is, the way players have created and then chronicled intricate histories with their own actions.  To me, it’s both beautiful and fascinating that we haven’t yet discovered all of the ways these things interact, or what this new medium can really do.  Capitalism isn’t kind to any sort of art, and over time, as our societies evolve and our videogames are further innovated, we might gain enough data to see how marketing and monetization can work with storytelling and storymaking, not against them.  Moreover, in any competitive game, people optimize themselves out of their most engaging gameplay[v]—they solve problems, which is ultimately the goal of any game—and in so doing gradually turn up the lights themselves. 

Tanizaki’s essay is a powerful snapshot into one of those strange periods between times, when old and new blend but are not yet indistinguishable.  In 2021, EVE Online, and digital media in general, are in much the same place.  I hope that in the future, this blog will do some of what “In Praise of Shadows” does for us now—whatever that is.

[i] This is also the sort of buy-in mechanism used in a lot of modern cults, or “mystery religions,” such as Q-Anon: modern as we are, our brains still prefer the story to the facts.  That might never change, and maybe it shouldn’t.

[ii] Go back to Post I for a nice refresher on what different mediums do better than others.

[iii] A good example from midway through the story is when the Triglavians hacked billboards to broadcast their message, and the in-world news site The Scope reported on it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2Mj8g4k2Gs

[iv] In Praise of Shadows, pg. 1

[v] A fantastic essay on how we ruin our own games: “Water Finds a Crack,” by Soren Johnson,  https://www.designer-notes.com/?p=369

XI – Speaking EVE: Specialized Language as a Way to Define Fleet Size

The first time I met up a friend from EVE was at a restaurant in Manhattan, near his hotel.  He and his soon-to-be fiancée had flown up from Texas, and my partner and I had taken the train two hours down the banks of the Hudson from where we went to school.  As most EVE players who’ve met their space-friends in real life will tell you, it was surreal to hear that familiar voice coming out of a stranger’s body.[i]  It was almost less confusing to meet his partner, who was just a perfect stranger in the traditional sense.  But, also as anyone who’s met their space-friends in real life will tell you, you get over it pretty quickly.  We ordered lunch, and after they wondered charmingly touristy things like “Why are there so many cars everywhere?” and charmingly Texan things like “How does everyone honk their horn without getting shot?” we started to catch up as old friends.

We oscillated between our EVE and real-life names.  We joked about their airplane jumping to a cyno at JFK.  We talked about our studies and careers.  We explained some things to our two bemused partners.

We met in Black Rise, when their corp was a local powerhouse based out of Nennamaila, with three dreadnoughts (kind of a big deal in 2009) and ours was looking for a new home after the most recent fall of Providence, where we had been CVA vassals holding down the border system of Y-MPWL.  We helped each other siege an enemy POS in Black Rise, with all three of theirs and our one dreadnought on field, amidst palpable anxiety that everything we own should be lost.  After a joint roam in which capitals were dropped on us and we managed to kill them all, we decided to form an alliance, begin gatecamping together, and try to take sovereignty out in Cloud Ring.  When my corp joined the old Northern Coalition and was then killed by its cascade, I joined theirs and we fled together.  Over the next few years, we would play lots of games, forming our own little clan and even competing (unsuccessfully) in some Battlefield tournaments, while always returning to EVE as both the basis of our friendship and something that made us feel just a little more hardcore than all the non-EVE gamers we played with.

We had known each other almost a decade when we met in Manhattan, had lunch, walked around Central Park, had dinner, and said goodbye so my partner and I could catch a late train home.  While hanging out in the city, we made constant jokes about EVE: we called the police “CONCORD,” caught aggro from the belligerent pigeons in Central Park, and shouted “Gate green!” when a crosswalk signal turned.  A week later, when they were home and we started roaming again, we called gate rats “pigeons” and logi “ambulances,” much to the confusion of our other EVE friends.

On that train home, with the morning’s verdant mountains turned to strings of faint and floating lights, and the river into their smeared reflections, I asked my partner what she thought of the day.  “It was funny to hear you speak EVE so much,” she said.  I asked her what she meant.

“We had almost no idea what you were saying sometimes,” she laughed.  “It’s like you two could navigate the whole city without using normal words.”

I realized dimly at the time that she was right—EVE gives us such a depth of terms that what begins as an inside joke is actually communicating viable information.  She had said something similar a year or two before, when we met my music teacher from high school.  “It’s funny to hear you actually talk music with someone who speaks it too,” she had said at the time.  In that case, we were discussing music we liked, or that we were playing, in the same way my EVE friend and I would talk about fittings, or good places to hunt.

Music is an apt comparison to EVE in this regard.  Both have an intricate vocabulary of what we might call “specialized language.”  This is a fairly common phrase, and it gets thrown around a lot, sometimes accurately and sometimes not.  In theoretical terms, specialized language relies on the existence of a specific community that practices something together, and is comprised of all the terms and combinations of terms they use amongst each other for this activity.  This can include aspects of common language that are repurposed—such as the word “jump” or “heat” having acutely specific meanings in EVE, but also being common words—and new, invented language.[ii]  It’s not actually that much of an exaggeration to say someone can “speak EVE” like they can speak any other language.

The mechanics of specialized language go back to the origin of symbolic thought itself.  Here, “symbolic thought” refers to our ability to compress concepts and notions and package them behind symbols.  In most cases, those symbols are words or numbers, such as how the English sound dog is a sound-symbol, and the letters d-o-g are a visual symbol for the animal itself; or how when you hold up three fingers, this is three, but you might assign the English sound-symbol of three to it, or the Spanish sound-symbol tres, and so on.  The power of this process is what has really allowed humans to take over the world, doing everything from expressing our feelings in language, coming up with philosophy, and doing math.  Its limitations are still our limitations, such that a language with multiple words for love, like Arabic, actually has more power to express those things than a language like English which only has one.

Language has progressed from what might have started as a few-dozen distinct sounds, akin to how we communicate with our dogs now, and has woven into the very chemistry of how we think.  While indeed having the word dog rather than a loose pre-linguistic sentiment like “those medium-sized pack carnivores that we can domesticate”[iii] does allow for increased processing power, we really notice the effect of symbolic thought when we get to more abstract concepts, where having distinct terms to wrap up these sentiments is absolutely vital to the process.  It is clunky at best to try to translate how you would think about a dog without the word dog, but it’s absolutely impossible to do this with philosophical terms like hermeneutics, noumenal affection, or even a common musical term like crescendo.  This is the real reason—the right reason, in my opinion—to try to increase your vocabulary: not to impress people with your fancy words, but to increase the processing power of your mind by learning the symbols for complex notions, so that they can then be processed into even more complex thoughts.  Of course, in a technical discipline like music, a lot of specialized language appears for just this reason—it’s easier to ask someone to “push that crescendo” than it is to say “use more urgency during that time when you get louder.” 

Specialized language, then, is just what happens when a community starts using symbolic thought to create its own symbols and reassign the meaning behind existing ones. 

But look at all of the words on this page.  A few of them are specialized terms with very compressed meanings.  But most of them are words with a much broader possibility of uses, like but, most, of, and them.  In diversifying our language, we have also created this non-specialized language, making it important to re-specialize terms for crafts like medicine, music, or mechanics.  In this way, language development is in a constant push-pull, as new words pop up for specific things, then sometimes become generalized, and then can be focused again.

EVE is one of those things that requires an unbelievable amount of specialized language.  Not only are there terms installed in the game—“Assault Damage Control,” or “Cynosural Field”—there are also both the ways we shorten those terms—respectively, “ADC” and “Cyno”—and terms we invent entirely of our own, such as “booshing” for the use of a micro-jump field generator (or MJD).  If you don’t play EVE, or don’t know much about it, your head is probably already spinning.  That’s because you don’t speak EVE in the same way most non-doctors don’t speak medicine.  If you do know these terms, you probably don’t even notice how niche they are, because EVE’s specialized language is so second-nature to you.  That’s how it is for me.  I didn’t realize just how much EVE is like another language until my partner was joking about it on the way home from the city.

There’s one key difference between specialized language in EVE and specialized language in fields like medicine or music: that language in EVE is not from a discipline and applied to the world, it is from another world and then applied to this one.

That is, while my old bass teacher and I probably could have used some music terms to navigate the city, we would have been doing so metaphorically.  If I see someone slide down a stairway banister and call it a glissando, I’m practicing a form of synesthesia, using a term for a sound to describe a motion.  This might make perfect sense to a musician,[iv] and it might be a good inside joke, but I am only at best making a comparison.

The use of a metaphor as an inside joke could definitely be done with EVE as well, and I’m sure my friend and I used plenty of these too.  But there were two ways in which our specialized language was fundamentally different that the metaphorical, comparative usages you might find from reapplying any other specialized language.

The first difference is that some of the EVE terms we used for navigating the world actually originated from navigating a different world.  When we compare a plane flight to jumping to a cyno, we aren’t practicing synesthesia—we are using a movement term to describe a movement.  When we describe getting “aggro” from pigeons, we are using an action term for an action.  While there is still comedic effect behind each example (which I have utterly ruined by explaining it, sorry) they are not metaphorical relationships but just colorful rephrasings.  Saying his plane jumped to a cyno is like saying someone “galloped” instead of “ran.”  The only difference is that one of the terms—the cyno—comes from another world.

This allows for the literary practice of metonymy, or “changing of names.”  We do this every day when we refer to a car as “my wheels” or champagne as “bubbly” [v]—all it really means is the poetic transformation of one term into something else.  A popular use of this in Classical literature is showing off how much you know about geography by referring to something by where it comes from, such as the Latin trope of calling wax “Hymetia,” after a region with a lot of bees.  In this case, both the region of Hymetia and beeswax exist in the real world, just like wheels and cars.  But if I say someone “went to Heaven,” what I mean is that they died, or even more literally, went into a grave; from a secular perspective, this is using figurative metonymy, since “Heaven” is an idea.[vi]  In this way, we can distinguish between the degrees of realism in different metonymies, such that I am literally getting my “wheels” as well as the car, but I might not be literally going to heaven, or writing on the region of Hymetia.

So, while comparing someone sliding on a banister to a glissando would be a figurative use of metonymy—relating a sound to a motion—calling the police “CONCORD” would be a much more literal one.  Indeed, the police exist, and arguably so does CONCORD.  In different places in the world, I can interact with both—at a protest, or at my computer.  In a typical day at home, my life might be more affected by CONCORD than the state troopers.  This means that, because EVE is not just a technical vocabulary but a technical vocabulary for a world where things exist, using its specialized language in other settings challenges our traditional understanding of just how figurative or literal metonymy can be.  The way we answer this question is profound: if CONCORD is figurative, then we have created another world for EVE, but the closer we define it to literal, the closer we come to arguing that New Eden and planet Earth are one. 

This is problem we couldn’t really raise, and a set of insights we couldn’t really make, without the existence of an open-world videogame, and couldn’t make clearly without one complex enough to require so much of its own language.  It’s very likely that two people who fluently speak EVE could navigate the real world—or any other, for that matter—with almost total use of repurposing their specialized language.  This wouldn’t be all that different than how we use both common and specialized language from the real world to navigate EVE.  As technology continues to give us subdivisions of subdivisions of our reality, it will be interesting to see this constant push-pull of specialized language ebbing and flowing not just from one discipline but from one world to another.  Perhaps with the rise of DAOs and metaverse polities, we will even see other common languages—that is, languages as diverse and distinct as English and French—spring up from this process.  But that’s a topic for another week.

Does every videogame present an alternate world?  Arguably.  Does every videogame use specialized language? Certainly.  Videogames in general have specialized language—terms such as “power creep” or “tank” that cross between myriad games—and then almost always develop at least a few of their own terms as well.

The difference is in how, just like with the dynamics between Strategic and Recreational PVP, the layered complexity and social environment of EVE creates not only an incomparable depth of specialized language, but also countless shades of gray.  I’d like to wrap up this essay by applying these thoughts about specialized and common language to different size PVP fleets and the voice comms they use.  My hypothesis is simple:

The best way to define fleet size is by the culture of voice comms, and the structure of specialized language, that they use.

Let me break this down.

Many people define “smallgang” as either not having a centralized FC, or having a certain number of people (“Less than Ten,”[vii] for example).  “Microgang” or the apocryphal “picogang” are even harder to define.  I would look at it this way:

Microgang is a comms culture in which decisions are made democratically, and a great deal of personal piloting information is shared by everyone.  By giving the entire fleet so much personal information, it’s almost like everyone is flying in one ship together.  This allows people to weigh in on decisions, such as when to dive in or run away.  This much talking from each person means it can only work with a very small number of voices.

Smallgang is a comms culture in which decisions are made more or less democratically, but a few voices stand out, while vital personal information (such as “I’m caught!” or “I’ve got him!”) is shared by anyone.  Because there are more voices, each person has to say less, and because ten people can’t efficiently weigh in on major decisions, some rapid calls have to be made by a few leaders.  Still, everybody flies their own ship, and anyone can speak up.  Who the “leaders” are is usually very loose—it might be the first ones into the fight, the ones piloting key ships, the most experienced pilots, or, as Maynard James Keenan said of why he became the lead singer for TOOL, “just the loudest asshole in the room.”

Medium gang is a comms culture in which there is a designated leader or leaders, and most pilots relate almost zero information about their own ship, but might call out if something is happening to the whole fleet.  (This is, of course, different for pilots in key roles, who might have to give the FC some more steady information.)  Often, these fleets anchor[viii] on the FC, further reducing the amount of information that needs to be shared because only one person is making all the decisions, and everyone is in the same place.  This is the largest level of FCing I’ve done, because with my eye condition (Post X) I need to rely on some information flowing up from the fleet.  With a good relay, I can be a very effective medium gang FC.

Large gang is a comms culture in which about 90% of the fleet never talks at all, whether they’re dying, lost, or doing something great.  The reason for this is that the FC is usually in a command channel with several other FCs and higher-ups, sharing a constant flow of information within that channel and then only relaying direct orders to the main fleet.  Being in the main fleet might mean long stretches of total silence—sometimes 15 or 20 minutes—followed by sudden and frantic commands.  During this time, the main FC is effectively practicing small or microgang comms in a separate channel.  This type of fleet asks the least of fleetmembers, as they not only have almost zero agency, but also don’t even get to hear the decisions being made.  This is another angle on why large fleets ask members to scale their skills horizontally across multiple accounts rather than getting better at new ones.  Indeed, even the skill of good comms is completely removed for most members.

Realistically, defining these fleets based on comms culture rather than objective size or tactics will probably result in the same definitions.  But, just like with my Strategic-Recreational framework, making a definition based on something other than objective numbers allows for much greater flexibility.  A gang of 20 might break down because it’s trying to use smallgang comms, for example, and everything is too chaotic to follow; a gang of 5 might lose a key ship because people are used to not talking on big fleets and don’t share what’s happening to them.  Fitting the comms culture to the fleet, the composition of ships, the goal, and then being flexible about it, is one of the key ways to succeed as a group.  When I was in Odin’s Call, we frequently used smallgang comms to go out and start a fight, then had to efficiently shift into medium gang comms as more people logged in and we reformed into a medium gang composition.  If we did this effectively, an FC could seamlessly take over and kill everything on field.  If we did it poorly, the medium gang would be chaos, and would likely end in frustration.  In fact, I originally wrote part of this post for our corp Slack, so I could say “medium gang comms” and have everyone on the same page, but I never shared it.

As we increase from micro to large gang comms, the relationship with specialized language also changes. 

A common microgang communication might be “Do we want to make a play here?”  This contains no specialized language whatsoever.  Another communication, “I can make a play with my Bifrost,” contains some specialized language—“Bifrost,” which compresses a lot of knowledge about the ship’s capabilities into two syllables—but also some common language as well. 

Because a medium gang FC can micromanage their pilots’ movements and personal piloting more, they might introduce statements like “take warp, gate green,” or “primary is (pilot’s name),” both of which are 100% specialized language.  Much of the fleet might be conducted in these short, efficient commands of incredibly compressed information.  However, the FC might also pause at some points and ask their group, “Do you want to go for this?” or caution, “We’ll take the fight if we can catch them here,” so that the (albeit reduced, but still important) agency that their pilots have can be better informed. 

At the large level, an entire, hours-long fleet might be conducted completely with terse “take warp, gate green,” commands or long strings of information compressed as efficiently as possible, such as “preheat hardeners, logi anchor on me, dreads undock, primary is (pilot’s name), boosh one go, dictors to outgate,” and so on.  Now, I just delivered essentially an entire sentence of completely specialized language.  If I was to try to deliver the same information to a totally new player, it would take me a whole paragraph.  And indeed, most experienced pilots can probably paint a pretty good picture of what’s going on, just from this.[ix]

In this way, as gang size increases, so does the percentage of specialized language in fleet communications.  In addition, the total amount of fleet communication probably drops, as in a large gang, comms are often silent for fleetmembers while awaiting orders.  The democratic nature of micro and small gang means that a lot of common language is used to describe scenarios, ask questions, and make decisions; the same is true for the isolated command channel in a large fleet. 

In micro and small gangs, there is so much crosstalk that every communication has to be as efficient as possible, without compromising meaning.  Specialized language is a great way to compress concepts into fewer words and syllables so that the information flow can be steady, efficient, and lead to good decisions.  In large gangs, there are so many people to coordinate, and with such attention to detail, that specialized language allows one voice to organize hundreds of people as quickly as possible.  After I FC a fight, or before if I have time, I often go over in my mind what the sequence of initial commands should be—what’s most important, what’s implied, what sets up what else—because even with this powerful lexicon and a talented fleet that understands it, there is still such a rush to get everyone organized and doing their job cohesively, and such minute details that can totally change the course of a fight.[x]  In either case, specialized language compresses information into smaller packages, allowing vast amounts of information to be shared in the heat of battle.  One side’s edge in specialized language, and in comms more generally, is perhaps the single most vital indicator of their success in a fight.

So maybe you really can “speak EVE” to get around, not just EVE’s, but any world.  (Especially in a place where everyone wants to kill each other as much as they do in EVE, like Manhattan.)  Our ability to do that comes from the fundamental way that symbolic thought empowers our brains to work together, solving anything from the bewilderingly complex order of operations in a large fleet fight, to the probably unsolvable mysteries of the NYC subway system.  This essay is, to some extent, doing what it’s talking about: just like how installing Recreational and Strategic PVP as symbols, as tools for your brain, allows us to move to more intricate thoughts, and to think more quickly and elegantly, I hope that defining gang size based on comms does some of the same.  This essay in particular has left a lot of loose ends for me—like what symbolic thought even means in a world in which everything perceptible is itself a symbol for the code underlying it.  Maybe in the future I’ll write about how the image of a Muninn is as much a symbol as the word, and that the real thing would be a few lines of code.  But for now, I’ve already been speaking EVE, speaking literature, and speaking philosophy for long enough, so I’m going to go back to pondering how, if a gunfight breaks out every time someone honks their horn, there are any people left alive in Texas. 

[i] This is no doubt further complicated for EVE players because we don’t even really see each other’s characters in-game, like you do in other games.  He had been at times a Drake, an Abaddon, a Nyx, and now was a six-foot white guy.  Weird.

[ii] For this reason, specialized language is also much more stable.  In Christianity, and in Western science and medicine, Latin is still used.  Once upon a time, these Latin terms were borrowed from the common language, which was also Latin.  Over time, the common languages have developed and diversified, but the specialized languages—pinned in place by their ultra-specific meanings—have stayed much the same.  Imagine a world in which EVE really does last forever, and in a thousand years, modern English has transformed into something else, but pilots are still using terms like “boosh” or “cyno” all the same!

[iii] Obviously, this is using words too.  The only way to feel this without approximating it would be to think of something—not describe it, but just think of it—that you don’t have a word for.  You might also notice this in deep Zen meditation, when brainwaves slow from 20-24 Hz to 10-12 Hz, at which point most people report that they stop thinking in language at all.  The few Zen masters who can get all the way down to 5 Hz – five brainwaves per second – describe a state of thinking beyond even concepts.

[iv] For whom sounds and motions are already connected, through their technique.

[v] Technically, these are cases of “synecdoche,” which is a specific type of metonymy that refers to taking part of something, in this case the wheels or bubbles, and using it to refer to the whole.  Another good example from our daily lives is “screen time” really meaning “computer time,” taking one part of the larger object to refer to it.  Metonymy and synecdoche are respectively like a rectangle and a square.

[vi] I don’t mean to exclude readers for whom Heaven is not just an idea.  In fact, I think it’s beautiful how this device can draw into contrast the different ways we view the world, so that what’s a figurative expression for one person is a literal one for another.  If this is a literal expression for you, try to think of another figurative form of metonymy!

[vii] Shoutout! https://lessthan10.podbean.com/

[viii] For non-EVE players: a process by which everyone in the fleet sets their ship to automatically approach the FC, so that one person can pilot the entire fleet, while everyone else just manages their guns, defenses, etc.

[ix] Not to burden the main text with this, but just for fun: a fleet is jumping into superior numbers, so the FC reminds everyone to heat their hardeners for more HP, then wants everyone on the boosher so they can jump out if need be; they are trying to bait an escalation, and so undock dreads while calling first primaries; they take too much damage, so the FC wants them to boosh out, but then the enemy runs, and the FC wants dictors to go catch them.  If you had ten FCs describe what they think is happening, just from these commands, they would probably all describe almost the same scenario.  If you don’t play EVE, or don’t know what a lot of this means, that’s the flipside of my point!

[x] For example, If I say “dictors to outgate” as soon as we jump in, that might be the difference between catching the enemy or not, but if I push it back behind my other commands, we might lose them.  If I tell dreads to undock too early, a spy might relay this and wind up scaring the enemy off.  So, in my above example, I would probably do better by sending dictors before undocking dreads.  In either case, I might be trying to coordinate 20, 30, or 100 human beings all over the world with absolute precision.  It really is that specific sometimes.

X – I Don’t See the Point: Playing EVE While Blind

In EVE Online, your entire experience of New Eden comes through prostheses that are both enabling and disabling.  You almost never see your actual character itself, outside of the portrait in the corner of your screen, and the default male or female corpse floating in space after you are killed.  In the game’s lore, you float in a goo-filled escape pod at the center of your spaceship, controlling everything with your mind.  That’s how a drug you take can enhance technical aspects like missile velocity or the power of your shields.  Your ship is not a prosthesis like a cane or eyepatch, that only augments the body—this is a prosthesis that does that, but is also augmented by the body, as an extension of the mind.  This might seem pretty far out there, but it’s happening in real life all around you.  Canes and eyepatches are not the only kind of prosthesis.

Socrates feared in Plato’s Phaedrus that writing would make us forgetful.  Anyone who pre-dates cellphones will tell you they used to remember hundreds of phone numbers, and now only know a few.  So, Socrates was clearly on to something—we invented writing, which then changed how our minds work, which then changed how writing works, and so on, from the tablets of Gilgamesh to Twitter.  This is looking at writing as a prosthesis—a tool that becomes so integral to the being that uses it that the being becomes a ‘cyborg’[i] and the two are inseparable.  Because they are inseparable, changing one changes the other, such that our increasing modernization has led us toward shorter and shorter pieces of writing (a reality in the face of which this blog commits ritual suicide) but then a form like Twitter has also fundamentally changed how we interact with each other as community members. 

Out of EVE’s lore, we interact with this world through the necessary skeuomorphisms of the buttons you press to turn on modules, the visual panels that display things like cargo, and scan results, and of course, the omnipotent Overview.  These are design features that admit—yes, an actual human is still piloting the ship, and yes, they still need to press buttons.  (Also, who doesn’t love pressing buttons.)  Yet this is another prosthesis, now for us as players: the UI of the actual videogame becomes inseparable from our ability to exist and interact with the game world.  In this way, the ship is a prosthesis for the capsuleer in-world, and the UI is a prosthesis for us.  Each prosthesis allows profound power, but also limits that power, like how the only bridge to an island both allows and controls access to it.  CCP balances their game less often by manipulating its rules, as most real-life sports are balanced, but rather by the prosthetics we use to interact with it.  Thus, our vessels, and our game UIs, are both enabling and disabling.

So what happens when the player, in real life, is also disabled?

You know, like me.

I grew up in a dense and winding suburb of central New Jersey, half a mile from my elementary school and about three miles from the grocery.  The neighborhood was built in the 1950s, with originally three models of house—the ambitiously-named A, B and C units—repeated several thousand times across what once was farmland.  It was designed not as one of those dehumanizing grids, but with winding and inter-looping streets that hugged the sides of gentle hills, making it famously labyrinthine to anyone who didn’t live there.  By the time I was born in 1997, many of the houses had received some sort of addition or augmentation, and many remained the same.  My dad personally installed three skylights in our little unit, as well as a bow window across the dining room, and built a large greenhouse out back, in which he grew, let’s say, both legal and illegal vegetables, in the patented aeroponic system he had invented and then failed to make into a business.  Like most neighborhoods in central NJ, mine was extremely diverse, with the highest density of Indian families anywhere in the country.  Walking to and from school, or the grocery, or a friend’s house, on streets concealed beneath the interlocking canopies of 50-year old oaks and ashes, over sidewalks cracked by their roots and dappled by the shadows of their leaves, one might pass just as many women in vibrant saris as they would White yoga-moms on a power walk. 

But my mom didn’t walk for exercise.  She walked because she couldn’t drive.

In her early thirties, she developed a rare genetic form of macular degeneration called Stargardt’s Disease.  Essentially, the cells of her macula—the part right at the center of the retina that handles detail vision, like reading and recognizing faces—stopped discarding their waste, and clouded up.  Her condition progressed very rapidly, and while the disease being limited to one part of the eye means, at its worst, it still can’t make you totally blind, hers got about as bad as it can get within a year or so.  She had to quit her job, stop driving, and reorganize her life.  A few years later, assured that she wouldn’t pass it on to her kids, they had me. 

So I grew up with a role model who handled her condition with all the grace and aplomb in the world.  Or at least, in suburbia.  (I still don’t totally know the difference.)  She walked me ten minutes to and from school, when friends on my street got rides in the car.  She and I walked to the doctor’s office on the other side of the neighborhood, or to one of several parks, or all the way out to the grocery store, when needed.  She was in terrific shape, and when my brother was born, would strap him into his walker, march an hour over to Stop-n-Shop, load forty pounds of groceries in around the cheerful baby, and troop on back.  Sometimes she would be accompanied by our two extraordinarily well-trained Labradors, who went off-leash the whole way, and sometimes she’d be accompanied by me.  I knew my friends’ moms drove everywhere, as my dad did, and to be honest—I felt sorry for them.  I liked walking.  I got to know the Minoan tangles of our neighborhood better than any of them, and came to disregard snow, ice, rain, heat, and all the other hazards they would never experience from the candy-coated interiors of their minivans.  Of course, when we had to go somewhere outside of the neighborhood, and both my dad and grandparents were busy, one of those minivans would get us there.

Then, in the summer before 8th grade—one year exactly after I first downloaded EVE: Apocrypha—I was diagnosed with the same condition.  It wasn’t as bad as my mom’s—and still isn’t—but it obscured my ability to read and recognize faces enough for me to become legally disabled.

I won’t go into my reaction to this, in part because I’m not trying to tell my life story in this blog post, and in part because I really don’t know what it was.  Unlike my mom, who had no role model, I took it in stride.  I already walked or biked everywhere.  It was good conversation fodder in school.  I joked about it, used my accommodations, and didn’t give it much thought at all.  To this day, I don’t really identify with being blind, to such an extent that it’s kind of uncomfortable for me to write about it at all.  As my mom always said, being blind is as much a handicap as being really short or really tall, we just apply a lot of legal and social definitions to it.  Everybody has different abilities and limitations, and sometimes your great abilities—like fitness gained from walking everywhere, or an archival suburban cartography—grow out of those limitations.  Or, as my dad put it, with characteristic diplomacy, “I’d rather be blind than stupid.”

The way your eye works is sort of like the rings of a bullseye, such that the outer rings are really good at detecting motion, the middle rings really good at recognizing patterns, and the center at making out details.  This center part of my eyes is mostly ineffective, and my mom’s is totally destroyed.  That means I have a blind spot smack in the center of my vision, about the relative size of a dinner plate at the center of a round four-seat table.  That is, it’s not a significant part of my total field of view: I don’t bump into things or have any trouble navigating the world, besides reading signs.  But it is almost all of the part of my eye that recognizes people’s faces and reads characters.  If you want to see how I read, fix your eyes on the line above the one you’re reading, and without moving them, try to read the line above or below it.  Your eyes will naturally want to move.  Hold them in place, and try to make out the words you’re not looking directly at.  It’s really strange to experience—though you can see the other words perfectly well, you can’t make them out as well.  You know they’re there, but it takes an extra moment to actually read it.

Anyone who has been trained in game tracking is already good at this.  The center part of the eye is a distraction in tracking, because you’re looking for patterns.  Good trackers can unfocus their eyes, relax their gaze, and let the middle section detect minute disturbances in the leaves, or the dust.  When an old hunter friend taught me this technique, he said I learned it faster than anyone he had ever seen—because that’s the only way my eyes can work.  This proved my mom right, yet again—another case of what made math class impossible giving me a superpower somewhere else.

Despite these limitations, I still do lots of visual things.  I’m a musician, a writer, and a writing teacher.  I still drive, perfectly safely—because you only need your ‘reading vision’ for reading street names, which thankfully our phones do now.  And yet, I need large print, or to read digitally; I play music mostly by ear, because I can’t sight-read; though I’m usually the first to spot deer on the side of the road, I also often park at the wrong building when ‘the destination is on your right’ could mean any one of several, and then spend a few minutes either reading mailboxes with my binoculars, or doing the “honeybee,” flitting awkwardly from door to door until I find the right one.  Just like if I was short, or had severe allergies, or bad motor skills, I am better at some things and worse at others. 

This topic hadn’t actually crossed my mind at all when compiling a grand list of blog ideas earlier in the summer—yet, whenever I mention my eyesight to other EVE players, I usually get a lot of questions, like how in the cinnamon toast fuck do you play such a visual game?  Indeed, the running joke “wait, EVE has sound?” does remind us that New Eden is a world we never touch, taste, or smell, and very seldom hear.  So to play this game, and to attempt to play it at a very high level, with vision legally recognized as 20:800, is probably kind of shocking, if not pathetically Quixotic.  But I have known quadriplegic people who played EVE very well with a mouthpiece controller, and they are no doubt far more disabled, in most circumstances, than I am.  Maybe one day I’ll interview one of them, or write something more broadly about the disabling and enabling spaces of the internet, and how EVE fits in that.  But for now, and as a respite from a month of intricately wrought and theoretically dense essays, I’m going to take this moment just to write an elegy of my experience as a blind man playing EVE.

I once lost a Curse because, when a hunter uncloaked and appeared on my Overview, I thought it said “8,000km” but instead it said “8,000m”[ii] so I just sat there through the precious five seconds I had to get away.  If you’ve tried reading the way I do, as I described above, you’ll notice immediately that you can only read by the general shape of the word.  ‘Mountain’ and ‘Momentum’ are difficult for me to distinguish, for example.  So while the Curse was the most extreme example, I have no doubt lost plenty of ships due to the importance of single characters, be it the ‘k’ for kilometers, or anything else.  This is probably the most common failure of my real body to use the prostheses EVE gives us.

Of course, I play with UI scaling at 150%, on a large 5k monitor.  I color-code everything I possibly can.  I use control-scroll as a magnifier to do everything on my computer, and will often rapidly zoom in to read a target’s angular velocity, then zoom back out before I miss something in the fight.  In other words, I use the prosthesis of my computer to interact with the prosthesis of EVE’s UI, to interact with the in-lore prosthesis of my spaceship.  There’s a lot of filters there.

While I often multibox,[iii] and have for years, I can’t use two monitors, because even with these aids I still need to lean very close to the screen.  Leaning from one screen to another rapidly is a quick way to get spasms in your neck and back; likewise, 27” is big enough for me to use a large UI, but not so big I’m craning my neck to see something at the topmost corner of the screen.  So, to multibox, I simply tab very rapidly between clients, and assemble my game UI to make that easier: I assiduously set up identical overviews, watch-lists, and hotkeys, and set a different UI color on each character so that I know, for example, red tint means one and green means another.[iv]  But these are things most experienced pilots do anyway, whether they use multiple monitors or not.  That middle prosthesis of EVE’s UI does not come very well optimized, and needs a lot of tweaking to be effective, while the default is more like a game UI from Ikea.

Last week, I wrote about how I played in bloc warfare while in very busy parts of my life.  That certainly had something to do with it.  But though I’ve always enjoyed smallgang PVP the most I enjoy anything in any videogame, I also shied away from it for years because I thought my eyes were just not good enough to be really great at it.  While in a bloc, I was able to have a lot of the visual awareness handled by my fleet commanders, so that I was able to be helpful by scaling the few skills of executing commands across many different accounts.  It finally struck me that this was like how I handed over my job as quarterback in 8th grade to someone with a much worse arm just because—what, I thought I should?  Then, newly diagnosed and trying to interpret my place in the world, I thought the right leadership decision was to ask our coach to switch to tight end, before the season even started.  He didn’t want me to, and I even argued with him, I know now because I was trying on an interpretation of a disabled identity, the way 8th graders try and discard all sorts of identities.  Yet here I was, at 22, still holding myself back from the gameplay I really enjoyed for the same reason. 

At the start of the pandemic, I joined the amazing smallgang community of Odin’s Call, and finally began playing the game the way I wanted to.  I promptly lost a Zealot the same way I lost that Curse years before, but in the utterly warm and loving atmosphere of my new corp, it didn’t matter, and I probably didn’t even mention my eyes for the better part of a year. 

Throughout this period, I optimized my protheses, both in and out of game.  Just like how you don’t know the limitations of a cane, or of writing, until you meet them, I realized that my time holding myself back from harder gameplay had also been holding myself back from the solutions that would let me do it.  This is a humbling lesson I learned, and something I can’t stress enough to anyone with any sort of disability—you only develop solutions from meeting problems.  Don’t shy away from problems until you’ve tried.  For me, while I no doubt would have had an easier time at EVE with perfect eyes, my gameplay then became a quest to see how far I could go with my body.

Emotionally, this is a tricky thing to juggle, and I have lightyears of a head start because of my mom.  On the one hand, fuck my eyes, I now want to see how good I can get at EVE.  On the other hand, I’m at peace with the fact that my ceiling is probably lower as a result of my vision.  If I ever come to a point where my quest of essentially self-discovery disturbs that peace, I need to quit.  But for now, and since March, 2020, my goal is to get a little better at EVE every day.

At first this was in my piloting, my communication, my fitting.  This last part was familiar—I had always tried to win on the drawing board, aware of my limitations in actual execution.  For a long time, it had worked well enough.  Though I couldn’t react as fast, I was able to win fights by knowing the meta, guessing their fitting, and countering it perfectly. 

But communication was new.  You don’t talk ever on big bloc fleets, and in smallgang you talk all the time, collaborating and sharing information with others.  (In this way, smallgangers maybe do play EVE with their ears.)  I was still slow at reading details like target velocities and angles, but I was able to get this information from my fleet.  I was one of the more experienced and knowledgeable players in my group, so I also started to play to my strengths: instead of trying to relay the information I couldn’t read quickly, I tried to share helpful thoughts about how an opponent would likely be fit, or how many people they usually flew with, or where we could engage. 

I would also teach our newer pilots before and after fights what details to look for, and when to relay them over comms.  While this is something all smallgangers do, and all smallgangers benefit from when done well, this was my way of adding another prosthesis to my toolkit: my friends.  I now was able to offset my visual limitations by relying on my fleetmates, most of whom didn’t even know I had a condition.  Certainly this was only possible in such a great atmosphere as Odin’s.

Now, sharing meta knowledge, tactics suggestions, and teaching fleetmembers, are three of the big points of actually commanding a fleet.  I had always wanted to be a fleet commander, as it is, in many ways, the pinnacle of gaming, but after some early experiences losing fights due to my vision, I had given up on it.  Just like how I only optimized my UI in response to the new challenges of smallgang, I found that the amazing teamwork and respect in Odin’s had allowed me to start commanding fleets without even knowing it.  At this point I was consciously on a quest to see how good I could get at the game, so with a sense of disbelief at myself, I embraced the fleet commander role. 

For several months, I often played the role of ‘number two’ to my friend and fellow FC, Jon B Fletcher.  Jon was very assertive and decisive, and did things like calling targets and anchoring[v] our fleet very well.  But I had better knowledge of game mechanics, fittings, opponents, and geography.  Most fleets in the medium-and-up scale run with multiple FCs for exactly this reason, so they can split roles, and each do a smaller job much better.  For me, this was a perfect way to be helpful without challenging my eyes.

But, as with any skills, once I had this down, I continued to branch out.  Soon I was running fleets solo, or doing the primary job while Jon or someone else backed me up.  (I would sometimes mention right before a fight that I’m blind, just like I sometimes tell a new passenger in my car that I’m blind while already hurtling through the mountains.  That’s always fun.)  Where I spent my first few months in corp pushing myself to get better as a pilot, I now spent several more months pushing myself as an FC.  Of course, I did lose ships because of vision—the extra delay looking back to my overview from my modules, or being slow calling a target’s name.  But at some points in this timeframe, I was probably the alliance’s main FC.  If you had told me 10 years ago about this, though even then I handled my limitations with aplomb, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.

Over time, Odin’s culture became diluted, likely due to the combination of burnout at the higher levels and continued recruitment at the bottom.  Our comms became more cluttered, more full of ‘I told you so’ and ‘well actually’ than it ever had been before.  While this was much discussed in leadership, actively worked against, and problematic for everyone’s combat effectiveness and sense of community, I think it made it especially hard on me.  Even commanding a fleet, I had come to rely on the stream of information from helpful fleet members.  I would dialogue often with the fleet about what was helpful for me, and what wasn’t—something most good FCs do.  But now, running fleets was often a process of shouting people down, and I became not just frustrated that we were losing stupid fights, but really upset that the vital prosthesis of my teammates was dissolving before my eyes.  After six months of trying in vain to fix the issue, I left, with nothing but love and goodwill for Odin’s and the good people there.  I just wasn’t getting better anymore.  I was dying because I didn’t see stuff again, and my team wasn’t helping me.  As a result, I wasn’t helping my team either.  It was time to move on, to try to develop that teamwork elsewhere, and to try to get better at new skills.

Like writing a blog!

But also old skills, like grid awareness, communication, fitting, meta knowledge, and all those others whose true limitlessness obscures the vast ether between master and virtuoso.  Who knows where it’s going to go.  And who knows, if I wasn’t blind, maybe I wouldn’t be so interested in the self-discovery of self-improvement.  Though the very same issues that impeded our tactics also made it less fun to be on comms, maybe I would still be in Odin’s if stagnation didn’t deny such a personal quest.  There are lots of people in New Eden who play specifically for community and mediocrity, and I admire them—really, there are few other games in which you can be really content at any level of gameplay.  But I don’t feel like I’ve hit my ceiling yet, and so while I could just tread water and push the limits of my body elsewhere, at least right now—just like those few times I’ve gotten caught because of my blind spots—I don’t see the point.

[i] Donna Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto

[ii] Killmail or it didn’t happen: https://zkillboard.com/kill/66931581/

[iii] A general MMO term for running multiple accounts at the same time.


[v] For non-EVE players and non-PVPers: when you right-click and ‘approach’ another ship in your UI-prosthesis, your vessel will automatically follow them at top speed.  In major fleets, everyone does this on the FC, so that only one person actually has to click in space, and the whole fleet just follows.  This is perhaps the epitome of fleet combat reducing the skills needed for members so that they can fly more accounts at the same time.

IX – “It Doesn’t Matter Until it Matters”: Strategic vs Recreational Gameplay, Part Three

I swing open the side panel of my ancient Area 51 and set a small fan pointing at it.  On Discord, there are half a dozen pictures of my corpmates’ computers set up about the same.  This is our version of shoring up the trenches before the guns start to toll.

I pause a moment to look inside the computer for the first time.  I press the power button, and the fans start into a cool hiss, like the background noise of an airplane mid-flight.  This sound has accompanied me on many fleets, through many cold winter nights; it’s greeted me when I return from turning on my electric blanket, from smoking a bowl out in the snow, or when I’ve come running back from the bathroom before my ship finishes a long warp.  It has, in summer breaks, combined with the hum of air conditioning, helping me believe that I really am in a spaceship.  I’ve never had to crack it open before.  Since I got it in middle school, it has always been massively overpowered (blame my grandparents) but now, in the August before my senior year of college, I don’t just want to play it safe—I want to post my own picture of my own setup to Discord.  There’s a buzz in the air.

The computer sits beside the ornate dining room table of a historical Victorian mansion in western Massachusetts.  I’m dog-sitting.  In the whole house, it’s just me, two lovely Corgis—and now, issuing from my speaker, the excited voices of my corpmates moving and fueling titans, relaying information from their spies, debating outcomes, taking bets on who will FC.  Yes, I hauled my 74-pound anachronism of a desktop up here just for this, and I’m not shy to admit it.  I finish grilling some gourmet sausages I found in the freezer, let the dogs out one more time, and strap in for the long haul.

In a few hours, we would be committed on grid for the X47 Armor Timer,[1] in what would become the Glassing of the North.

This is a narrative.  It’s not in-character or in-game, but it’s about that feeling you can’t really get in any other game—the butterflies, the camaraderie, the knowledge even as it’s happening that this might be one of those I was there type moments.  Even better, I could say we were there with the twenty or so members of my corporation, with whom I weathered this battle of thousands.

This battle was happening in 10% time-dilation, meaning that everything was happening at one tenth its normal speed so the servers could (kind of) keep up.  That draws out the experience.  It makes this EVE’s version of trench warfare.  Indeed, it makes sense for all warfare in EVE to happen on a shorter timescale than real life—it is a game, after all.  In New Eden, most wars last a few months, most battles last an hour or less.  So proportionately, this hours and hours-long slog with thousands of pilots on field is EVE’s version of the Somme.  Throughout it all, I sit on a comms channel with my own corp, where we are able to have a running commentary, interrupted periodically by our fleet commanders barking orders.

In between firing doomsdays, I entertain myself.  I play with the dogs.  I do some pushups (Henrietta likes to lie on her back beneath me while I do so, you know, for snuggles).  I practice my bass.  I water the plants.  I chat with the corpmates.  I do some stretching.

The gameplay itself is, let’s say, less-than-riveting.  In fact, playing in slow-motion, when someone else is making every decision for you, is probably the single most boring thing you could do in a videogame.  I know a lot of people who hate on these massive ‘tidi-fest’ fights for just this reason.  Even flying five characters simultaneously, I need to touch the keyboard about once in as many minutes, at the most. 

And yet, this is one of the fondest memories of my gaming career.  I had a great time.

That’s because I wasn’t there for the gameplay.  I was there for the same reason someone might write fan fiction, or go to a convention, or even a concert—I was there to be part of a narrative, to be part of the community that would build and sustain it.  Part of that narrative was us against them, and in this sense I was there to have an eyewitness account of what I’d debate on Reddit, in local chat, and watch debated on EVE talkshows for months.  But you can’t have an us against them narrative without them.  So in this sense, I was there not just for the concentric communities of Burning Napalm (my corp) Northern Coalition. (my alliance) or Panfam (my bloc): I was there for the “Imperial Legacy” supercoalition against us, and to be a part of the broader EVE community. 

For me, this is the quintessential experience of the “Strategic Mindset” I’ve been writing about for two weeks.  While we were indeed battling tooth-and-nail over an objective, and would have been happy to win by any means, the presence of that objective, shared by so many other players, imbued it with an importance that in turn trickled into everything we did during this period, in game and out.  Stretching and taking care of my body in real life was a way to make sure I could be available to fight all night, just like the fueling and moving of capitals (tasks normally seen as chores) that had been done all morning in-game.  The Strategic mindset, and the community that shared it, in this way extended my gameplay past the admittedly menial piloting on-field.  In fact, I cared as little about how boring the actual button-pressing was as I would care about making a “narrative” out of a deathmatch in Halo.  This was a completely different type of gaming.  And at that point in my life, it worked for me.

Before and after spending several years with NC., I was in smallgang groups.  Smallgang fights were my preferred playstyle, and indeed for most of my career in EVE I’ve had a Recreational PVP mindset: I’m always the guy to miss out on big kills because I didn’t bother to pile on, choosing instead to secure an out-gate or start hunting for the next target.  Over the period from 2012-2019, this became an increasingly rare attitude in NC. and, I later found out, across the rest of EVE as well.  During this time I took several long breaks to focus on school and my real life, and after each I noticed not only new faces in corp, new doctrine fleets, new political geographies, but also fewer roaming fleets, fewer people willing to undock without an FC and an objective.  This frustrated me in times of relative peace, and no doubt led me back into some of my breaks.  But during times of war, this was no issue at all.  My entire EVE social sphere, and indeed most of EVE’s inchoate podcasting and streaming ecosystem, focused on these major battles—on the ones that didn’t happen, the ones that did, and on planning and preparing for them always.  This worked well for me.  I wasn’t at a point in my life where I could devote time to getting better at the game and finding my own fights, as I did when I was 15, and as I do now at 24.  Instead, I could actually log in once or twice a week to prepare for the massive battles that happened once a month or so.  In the meantime, I could follow EVE’s news on media sites, on Reddit, and eventually on various Discord servers.

In this way, I wove the narratives of EVE’s wars into my real life.  These were narratives I fought over in arguments on media, in discussions on Discord, and almost in a secondary sense, in the actual game.  This is not something you could do in most games.

This period from 2012-19 was good for me as a New England Patriots fan, as well.  (I hope not too many of my readers are both anti-Panfam and fans of another team in the AFC East…)  This served as a complement to EVE, and I appreciated football in much the same way.  I debated it with friends.  I followed media about it.  I learned as much as I could about the game.  And similarly, I sat down about once a week for the primary-source material of watching games.

The difference, though, is that I wasn’t actually playing for the Patriots.  Even as a faceless linemember, EVE gave me a way to be the fullback, or even a water boy, for figures like Vince Draken and Killah Bee.  That charged my time following media sites and discussions with even more importance, so that, instead of just being a “fan” of EVE and of my groups in it, I was also preparing myself for that gameplay.  A tiny tidbit I heard on a talkshow or read on a Discord might influence my decision to buy another dreadnought, or move another Apostle.  My out-of-game activities thus had some significance for my in-game activities, not unlike how a football player watching tape can prepare for gameday.  To distill a small mountain of Fan Studies literature, this essentially created a feedback loop, so that my consumption of content was also my role in content creation; and because everyone else was doing this as well, on both sides of every war, we were able to create the collective fan culture of EVE, and the many subcultures within it.[2]  This is another way to understand the “offensive and defensive narratives” theory I wrote about in last week’s post.

It’s possible in any game for the fan activities of discussion and news consumption to become extended over periods of time greater and more diffuse than actual gameplay, so that the gameplay is effectively, but not literally, woven into daily life.  Any time someone debates game balance or theorycrafts new tactics in any game, they’re doing this.  The success of Twitch is a testament to this. 

However, because EVE’s gameplay is so open, and many forms of it are indistinguishable from, for example, reading an EVE-related Discord, EVE’s “gameplay” is about as close as you could get to literally being possible without even firing up the game.  Of course, in order to keep the terms clear, I think it’s important to refer to “gameplay” primarily as time actually logged in to the game.  But for sure, if you log in to sit in standing fleet and chat about your group’s war narrative, that is much more similar to following game news on Discord while waiting for the bus than, for example, the difference between actively playing Overwatch and being part of an Overwatch Discord.  Of course, there are plenty of gameplays in EVE that would be as different from their fan activities as a game like Overwatch—but in the PVP scene, those would largely be of the Recreational mindset.  For a Strategic player, some aspects of their gameplay might almost literally be done offline.  That means some aspects of their gameplay might almost literally be woven into their daily life, almost like augmented reality.  When I think of the Battle of X47, I think of dogsitting in Massachusetts as much as I do of firing lasers.  When I think of the Glassing of the North, I think of planning our evacuation on Discord as much as I do a scorched-earth campaign from Tribute to Malpais.  This is an incredibly cool feature of a totally unique game.  It also means the social habits we build in EVE translate to our real lives.

Growing up, my parents hated sports.  My grandfather, who had me officially on Sundays, but most other days as well, taught me all about his favorite sports—I suspect initially so I would be invested enough to mess with his old bunny-ear television so the picture was clear, but he didn’t have to get up.  He didn’t, and still doesn’t, really follow teams in particular, but just the sports themselves.  This gave me free run to pick our favorite teams.  In central New Jersey, we had both Philadelphia and New York to pick from, so naturally I picked the ones from Boston. 

One thing he used to say, and still will say from time to time, is that “The great thing about sports is that it doesn’t matter at all.  At least until it does.”  What he meant by this was that during a game you might care so much about the outcome, but then the next day, the world is exactly the same no matter what happened.  That’s a really cathartic, refreshing experience.  It not only gives you a few hours of absolute focus, and companionship, in which you’re not worried about one other thing in the world, but also lets you pace you weeks and months out with the steady rhythms of stress-relief afforded by games.  And yet, unlike a contest like politics—which my grandfather and I also both follow fiercely—when your team inevitably loses, the world goes on without noticing.  It’s a really good thing, and an important thing in a society, to let people blow off steam and build relationships around something that is inherently meaningless. 

At least, it should be meaningless.  The other half of his statement, “until it does” is a reminder that there is a point when sports begins to influence the real world, positively or negatively.  One big example is in role models.  Now, on paper, there’s no reason to root for one team over another, any more than there’s a reason for a tabula rasa newbro to join one alliance or another in EVE.  But when a team tolerates a player who is a bad role model—getting in fights on the field, hogging attention, walking off when their team is losing[3]—this tells an entire city, and an entire fan base, it’s ok to act like this.  Or, even worse, if you act like this, you’ll be as successful as he is.  That matters.  This was something my grandfather would remind me often when I was little.  While he didn’t root for any teams in particular, there were those he would refuse to root for because of their cultural influence.  When I picked the Patriots as my favorite team in my favorite sport, he was pleased—they don’t fight, they don’t brag, they do great charity work.[4]  That allowed sports to be meaningless again, as they should be.

EVE is strikingly like sports in this regard, especially in how I played it as a bloc linemember with a Strategic mindset.  Fleet fights offered a few hours of absolute focus, and of community, and offered enough narrative weight to allow me to pace out my weeks and months with the rhythms of EVE wars.  Just like sports, you might care so much when fighting, or preparing to fight; and just like sports, it should remain meaningless. 

The first two parts of this three-part essay began with snapshots from within my time in New Eden.  This one began with a narrative snapshot from my actual life.  This is intentional. 

Indeed, in those first two scenes—a standoff with Goons and a tug-of-war with Brave, respectively—there was also a me sitting at a computer screen, making things happen.  In the second scenario, when I started FCing, people heard Paul’s voice, which to them was geddy’s voice.  Most forms of digital media refract our more singular selves into many parallel versions—the one on Facebook, the one on Zoom, and so on; EVE is perhaps just a more perfect crystal that makes those refractions crisper and clearer.  Who we are when we’re playing is, and should probably remain, theoretically unanswerable. 

But phenomenologically—that is, regarding experience—there are continuities between the self on the game and the self in real life, just how there are continuities between the fan who follows a sports team and the child who starts to imitate their favorite players.[5]  Social habits I form while playing EVE do undoubtedly carry over to my real life.  As my grandfather keenly reminds us, that makes some of the things we do in EVE, and how we treat each other, actually matter in the real world.

Jon Oliver did a great job compressing a lot of research about conspiracy theories and the actual mechanics of mental gymnastics into a short segment, and while he’s talking about COVID, the very same mechanics are true for any narrativization.[6]  (Of course, Hume’s theory on reason and the passions from last week has importance here too.)  Essentially, we might think of narrativization as a skill.  The more you do it, the better you get at it, until you are able to do it without even realizing it, filtering new information through the lens of the old.  This is why, as Oliver discusses, people who already believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe the next.  This also maps with what a close family member of mine learned in Alcoholics Anonymous: the more often you lie, to yourself and others, the easier it gets.

Now, let me dial back the rhetoric a bit here.  Following EVE narratives is by no means “lying to yourself” and spinning your side’s defeats into victories is not remotely comparable to making life-threatening decisions about a deadly virus.  But all of these use the same mechanism in the brain: the mechanism of narrative.  The difference is of degrees, not of nature—albeit of such different degrees that narrativization in EVE can actually be really fun and healthy, like sharing fan fiction.  However, this is how EVE can begin to matter:

Each time you make a narrative out of events, it gets easier for your brain to do this the next time.  But your brain doesn’t know the difference between EVE and real-world narratives.  Being really good at ‘spin’ in EVE does no doubt train you, in some small way, for buying ‘spin’ in your real life. 

In some ways, this is a testament to EVE’s power to recreate the world.  A few weeks ago, someone commented on one of my Reddit posts promoting this blog to the effect of ‘I’m going to stop reading all of your stuff forever because you mentioned something about climate change.’  Clearly, for that reader, journalism[7] has become a customer-service industry, and disagreeing on something in the real world is grounds to silence someone’s thoughts about New Eden.  That’s not healthy. 

This is the final aspect of the Strategic-Recreational dichotomy that I wanted to talk about.  While Recreational PVP exists largely outside of narrative, Strategic PVP almost requires it, and can sometimes almost be it.  Does that make Strategic PVP dangerous?  Absolutely not.  Its relationship to fan culture and community building is intensely cool and really healthy.  But we might think of consuming EVE war narratives more like alcohol—fun in small doses, but potentially harmful in large ones. 

Part of why I’ve devoted three posts to the Strategic-Recreational divide is because I want to help players understand each other a little better.  I am all for conflict and contest, just like in sports, but (as with so much on the internet) misunderstandings in EVE’s PVP world often lead to what I consider really unhealthy degrees of vitriol.  This comes from both sides.  Smallgangers hate Strategic groups who won’t engage in a fair fight, and those nullbloc members who just want to do their part in the isk-making cold war hate the Recreational roamers who come through and deny them gameplay.  It is utterly routine to see pilots from either mindset bragging in local chat about denying a fight to someone else.

I don’t want to make a false equivalency here.  There are two ways EVE can come to matter, negatively, in the real world: the first, shared by both Recreational and Strategic PVP, is essentially a lack of sportsmanship, an ability to dehumanize the person on the other side of the screen just because they’re an adversary in a videogame.  That happens in any game, and on most online social platforms generally, and it is something we all should work against.  However, EVE’s unique focus on fan-driven war narratives also makes a second way it can matter, that is exclusive to Strategic PVP: when ‘spin’ in EVE becomes such a habit it carries over into the real world.

While part of allowing an open world is allowing people to treat each other however they like, I personally can’t get behind using the cruelty of wasting someone’s free time as a weapon, or of driving a narrative so hard the opponent becomes the enemy.  This just further erodes our already threadbare sense of human community, making what should be a meaningless online gaming interaction something that actually damages a person’s trust and compassion in real life.  This kind of thing is allowed in EVE, and it should be, but just like an athlete setting a bad example for their fanbase, I think it’s unethical.  I hope that having this template of mindsets lets us understand the motivations of ourselves and others a little better, and if it doesn’t change the actions pilots take in New Eden, I hope it at least works to lower the temperature, and help us remember that we are playing with our opponents as much as with our allies.  I don’t want everyone to get along in EVE.  I actually want as much conflict as possible.  But whether you’re a primarily Strategic or Recreational PVPer, or not a PVPer at all, I hope we can keep it perfectly meaningless. 

[1] For a general reference: https://community.eveonline.com/news/news-channels/interstellar-correspondents/battle-of-x47l-q-120-08-01/

[2] This is a distillation of several essays in the Fan Fiction Studies Reader, compiled by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse.  Some of the writing in it is pretty dense, but it’s all extremely helpful for understanding fan cultures in online media.

[3] One notable and more recent memory is Odell Beckham’s antics with the Giants.  I really dodged a bullet on rooting for them my whole life! https://www.nj.com/giants/2018/10/did_odell_beckham_quit_walks_off_before_halftime_g.html

[4] They also probably don’t cheat.  But if you want my answer to that inevitable question, look at the paragraph about David Hume in last week’s post.  Of course, I want to believe they’re not cheaters, and find solace in the fact that they would have never been found guilty of any of their scandals in a criminal court.  I also think there’s a reaction when someone wins so much for so long that others do want them to cheat, and arrange facts to support that thesis.  Either way, as role models, I would argue that, since no young Pats fan would believe they have ever cheated, no young Pats fan is getting the message “it’s ok to cheat” from them.  But that’s a whole other can of worms.

[5] This is of course true for adults as well, but with less clear contrast.

[6] Just watch the whole thing. It’s great.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b_eHBZLM6U

[7] For lack of a better word.  This is a blog.  I know that.

VIII – “Why You Running?”: Strategic vs Recreational Gameplay, Part Two

“Oh come on, we’re just trying to give a good fight,” they write in local as we’re defensive-bubbling and running for our lives. 

It began with a Gnosis, who wandered into us seemingly on his search for deeper truths.  Shockingly (not shockingly) it was bait.  We were 1 jump out of GE-, back when it was still the home of the massive, chaotic, and respectably belligerent Brave Collective, so this was no surprise.  It’s actually what we wanted.  As soon as we grabbed the Gnosis, about forty more ships began to pile in next door and head our way.  After a brief skirmish, we began to pull our gang of six back toward our wormhole.

Scenes like this around the home of a group like Brave are as constant as waves breaking on a beach.  Due to the hyperconcentration of nullsec populations, there are a handful of capitol systems that will reliably give a response to roaming gangs.  We have spy characters in all of those alliances, so we can always sense their activity and listen to them communicating while they chase us—that also means we get to see the standing fleets interact with everyone, not just our actual characters, and can begin to see some trends.

Whenever the roamers run, from any alliance, someone from the throngs chasing after them always writes in local chat to the effect of ‘we just want to fight, why are you running?’  This is an apparent appeal to the Recreational PVP mindset I wrote about last week, however Quixotic in its attempt at gaslighting someone into feeding their fleet into a woodchipper.

So once we reach our wormhole, we ping on Slack for reinforcements.  All over the world, a dozen or more people roll out of bed, tab out of Zoom, and run stoplights to get to the keyboard.  In a PVP-focused group, these fleet formups have the excited energy of undressing before sex (albeit usually with more people, and anticipating even greater pleasure.  Likewise, if the fleet goes well, we’ll all be satisfied, late for work, and a little sweaty.)  We form a respectable fleet of Cerberuses, able to fight at range, shred anything coming in to hold us down, and fight comfortably outnumbered.  We engage the enemy fleet with roughly 18 vs 40 characters.

They run.  When I repeat in local what they just wrote to us, “I thought you just wanted to fight?” one of them replies, “We’re just trying to give our newbies experience, they wouldn’t learn anything from fighting that.”  We laugh at the rapid redeployment of their goalposts, and pursue their equally rapid retreat back to GE-.  Still hoping for a response, we hang around.

We listen on their comms as they discuss ways to ‘helldunk’ us –to utterly smack us down without any possibility of resistance.  Despite their apparent aplomb in local chat, they want to get revenge for the ego-bruise of running away, empurpled further by the fact that they know the numbers were still in their favor.  Soon enough, a major fleet commander, Kel Drosto, logs in and begins forming their own doctrine of Cerberuses.  They are able to get pretty much their entire group of 40, who were previously disorganized and thus much less effective, into a mirror matchup with our 18.  Kel also makes sure they have about the same number of logi[i] as we do damage.  We hang around just to see if we can get them split up and grab stragglers, and when it’s clear we can’t, we run again back to the wormhole.  When we ask why they thought we’d fight that, one of them writes “We don’t want a fight, we just want you gone so our newbies can make money in peace.”

Last week, I wrote the first in a three-part essay about the framework of Strategic versus Recreational PVP mindsets. (If you’re interested in this post, you should probably read that one and circle back.)  This post is the second in that series, but it was actually the first one I conceived of, over a year ago, while still working to close our connection to Brave’s space.  I isolated those three, contradictory statements, each tied to something we did:

When we ran initially, it was ‘We just want a fight.’

When we came back to fight it was ‘We don’t want to lose because then our newbies don’t have fun.’

Finally, when they formed an unfightable response, it was ‘We just want you gone so our newbies can farm.’ 

It struck me how eerily reminiscent this was of my own time in a nullbloc, when in local chat or on Reddit, allies and enemies would wildly spin and narrativize engagements and retreats—but it stuck out, seeing this in a smallgang setting.[ii]  Clearly, all three statements couldn’t possibly be true, as each contradicted the next.  Even so, I was left wondering, Who are they talking to?

I don’t want to actually engage with any of those statements.  As with any propaganda, they are a house of mirrors, with some grains of truth and some self-fulfilling prophecies, and I’m sure not one of them speaks for every one of the standing fleet members.  Rather, I’d like to look at the mere existence of propaganda as a calling card of Strategic PVP.  I think this interaction with Brave—though it could have been any major alliance—exposes another vital difference between Recreational and Strategic PVP:

In Recreational PVP, psychological warfare, narrative ‘spin,’ and other forms of metagaming are seldom done at all, and if they are, it is to produce the gameplay but not be it in and of itself.  In Strategic PVP, they are part of the gameplay

In normal narrative spin, one is speaking both to the enemy and to their allies.  For the enemy, it is designed to challenge their understanding of events and deflate morale.  Indeed, if even 5% of a fleet hesitate to log in because they believe their side is losing, their commanders incompetent, or their cause unfruitful, that might swing the tide in a major strategic battle.  It’s impossible to quantify, but in a world where all combatants are volunteers and can check out at any time, this sort of ‘offensive spin’ is undoubtedly effective.  The same line of propaganda, however, is offensive when heard by someone on the opposing side, and defensive when heard by someone on the same side.

Defensive spin relies on David Hume’s principle that “Reason is and ought only to eb the slave of the passions.”[iii]  In other words, rather than reasoning our way to a conclusion (as most European philosophers had assumed for centuries) Hume asserted that we actually use our reason to defend what we already wanted.  Even simpler, while most people thought Reason -> Conclusion, Hume said (Desired) Conclusion -> Reason.  This phenomenon underpins most of our real-world politics—people putting on blinders to support their side, filtering incoming information for what they already agree with—such that, for example, someone making a lot of money off of oil might convince themselves that climate change isn’t real, or someone who already didn’t want to get vaccinated convincing themselves it is unsafe.  Naturally, this also underpins propaganda in EVE.  Defensive spin essentially gives members of a group who already wanted to believe their side was winning a means to do so.  I’ve felt this myself, when in a nullbloc: at first you are at sea in all the different narratives, and beginning to entertain ones that undermine your alliance, then when the explanation you want comes along, you think oh thank god!  You grab hold like of a life-preserver, and then begin to interpret future events through its lens.  Everybody does this all the time, and when Hume writes “ought only to be,” he means that this is a big part of what it is to be human.[iv]

Normally, the defensive element of your side’s narrative allows your members to defend themselves from the offensive element of my side’s narrative, and vice versa, so that the two opposing narratives exist in a sort of balance.  But in the case of a standing fleet spinning events against a roaming gang, there often is only one narrative.  This was the case in our engagement with Brave: exactly as I detailed in the previous post, we were motivated by the prospects of a fight, while they were motivated perhaps secondarily by this, but primarily by being part of a group and that group’s success.[v]  That’s not a problem at all.  But it does mean that generating a narrative would have been useless for us—outside of making them angry so they’d come fight, but as we saw, that backfired when they over-formed for us—and likewise this means that the offensive element of their narratives had no demoralizing effect on us either.  Unlike in a bloc war, when two narratives are matched against each other with as much or even more importance than actual fleets, our group didn’t just have a strong defensive narrative, it existed outside of narrative altogether.  Who were they talking to?  Themselves.

At first, when I understood that they were basically just talking to their own members, I understood it as a form of gaslighting their newer players.  I’m sure to some extent that is the case.  Blocs are very protective of their newbies, and certainly don’t want to look foolish in front of them.  But within the framework of Strategic PVP, this would be a gross oversimplification.

The fact that this happened in local chat, where we were as well, and not on their comms (where they at least didn’t think we were) means that it was an invitation to their other pilots to play along.  This is the difference between narrative in a book or movie,[vi] where one group produces it and another consumes it, and narrative in a videogame, where everyone produces and consumes it together.  From the standpoint of media history and the different ways we use art, that is immense.  Only in a videogame could you join your alliance standing fleet and both eat up the narrative and help produce it in local chat.  So, what I originally thought was just manipulating newer players is actually part of what makes EVE a work of art.

Psychological warfare is a valid tactic in Recreational PVP as well.  From smacktalk in local chat trying to get an enemy to be overly aggressive, to use of spies and intelligence manipulation, there are plenty of ways Recreational PVP players can try to get in an opponent’s head.  When, earlier this spring, marauders were buffed to a point of game-breaking invincibility, and every standing fleet began to reply with several, my group even discussed using the ‘helldunk or blueballs’ strategy of boring the enemy into lower numbers that we could actually fight, just like in a major strategic campaign.

But in Recreational PVP, psychological warfare is a means to reach the only end, a fight.  In Strategic PVP, there can be several ends—winning a decisive fight, winning an objective, denying a fight to keep winning the moneymaking cold-war, etc.—and winning the narrative can also be an end. 

Just like how, when a standing fleet chases away roamers, it is possible to say that they won their game and the roamers never got to play theirs, it’s also possible for a standing fleet to win the narrative without their enemies ever engaging in it. 

Just like with last week’s post, there are infinite shades of gray—and understanding them is actually why defining Strategic and Recreational PVP as mindsets is better than using more concrete metrics.  If a standing fleet repeatedly chases away everything without a fight, its numbers will drop.  If a roaming group repeatedly fails to catch things, they may begin to narrativize to soothe their egos.  And of course, any time we talk about a group, we have to remember that it is a group of individuals, and it will never have absolute homogeneity of goals or values.

This said, one final wrinkle worth noting is how blocs use the promise of Recreational PVP as propaganda to recruit and fill fleets for their Strategic goals.  Now, this is not to say that the former is used as a ruse for the latter.  Having been in nullblocs from 2012-19, throughout the culture shift towards a cold-war mentality, and the subsequent percolation of strategic value into all assets, I believe that many large groups do attempt to keep both mindsets alive.  They succeed to varying degrees.  On the “Less Than Ten” Podcast episode with Dunk Dinkle,[vii] leader of Brave, he begins by explaining the tension between these mindsets and how to balance them, in response to a meme that indicted him for only having a Strategic mindset.  Clearly, a historical goal of Brave’s has been to train new players using a Recreational PVP mindset—but to do so, they also need the infrastructure that can only be defended with Strategic fleets.  And certainly, training new players with Recreational PVP is effective, as the emphasis on actually fighting lends this mindset more towards skills development; but well-trained new players are then themselves a strategic asset, living in symbiosis with the many other playstyles in a large group.[viii] 

From listening to this podcast, it’s clear Dunk himself works to keep the Strategic mindset out of their training fleets (which I imagine includes their standing fleet) and focus on “fun per hour.”  But this clearly requires active work, as my example interaction with Brave’s standing fleet shows how the Strategic mindset—or at least a Strategic fleet commander—can take over.  As I’ve shown above, propaganda and ‘spin’ are themselves core elements of the Strategic mindset—their presence in an ostensibly Recreational setting is evidence of the struggle between the two mindsets, and perhaps foreshadows the overwhelming response and final commitment to the utterly Strategic ‘we just want you gone’ narrative.  When Dunk describes some people hanging out with standing fleet doing “space work”[ix] while others PVP, he gives the epitome of what I mean by the Strategic mindset—people’s gameplay is existing in their community, and the ones fueling structures and doing logistics are playing just as much as the ones fighting to defend their space.  That is an amazing feature in a videogame, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.  But Dunk also maintains that the ones on the same comms channel are practicing Recreational PVP looking for “fun per hour.”  I’m sure that is their goal, but it’s enough to make your head spin.

We’ve now got a couple layers going here, so I’m going to take a moment to sum it up before looking forward to the third part of this giant essay on PVP mindsets, next week.

Recreational PVP might use spin as a means, but the end is always to get a fight.  In Strategic PVP, the end can be to win a fight, or it can be the narrative itself, or many other things.  That means that when there’s spin[x] in local, unless it’s just someone salving their ego, there is at least the influence of a Strategic mindset at play. 

Recreational fleets and “fun per hour” can then be looped into that narrative, as in the case of Brave, so that the promise of Recreational PVP becomes a recruitment tool, and adds Strategic assets to an alliance.  Just like how Recreational PVP is very simple, and Strategic PVP very diverse, the large groups that require a Strategic mindset also have very diverse playerbases.

It is possible to be a Recreational player inside a Strategic organization.  In this case, since their Recreational PVP also serves long-term Strategic goals, it is possible to actually practice both.  But the cost of this is that the inherently contradictory mindsets will chafe and threaten to overtake each other, requiring constant attention and cultural work to keep them going.  In terms of thinking of each mindset as a different game within a continuous world, this is like playing Call of Duty within Company of Heroes: you might be interested in your K/D, but the larger structure is interested in making a base push.  We might call this noumenal metarelation, when the essence of things is enveloped by others.  That’s not a term most people would think to associate with a videogame. 

Next week, I’m going to look at what it actually means to be part of a narrative, what that gameplay feels like, and what it can mean for the way we learn to narrativize events in our real lives.  That will discuss EVE in the broadest terms, and will finally bridge the gap between narrative thinking in a simulation and narrative thinking in the real world.  Please check your “fun per word” mindset at the door.

[i] For non-EVE players: Logistics Cruisers or “logi” are the game’s healing ships.  As a rough figure, each one can heal about 2-3x the damage of an equivalently sized damage ship.  So in this instance, though they had about a dozen logi and we had about a dozen damage, they could in reality have held up against 3x our numbers.

[ii] Now, I would refer to this as a Recreational setting, but I didn’t have that terminology at the time.

[iii] Page 313.  Hume, David. “A Treatise of Human Nature,” Public Domain Edition.  Kindle.

[iv] This concept is absolutely profound, so if you want to take a moment to think about it or do some further research, go ahead!  In my opinion, understanding how this works, and having a bit of humility about our ability to control it, is one of the most important things a person can do for their community.  Here we see EVE’s immense potential as a simulation, allowing us to displace a mechanism of real-world politics into the game, and analyze it with a little less at stake.  This is a digression worthy of its own post, some time in the future.

[v] See note 9, where Dunk Dinkle explains this feeling.

[vi] Go all the way back to Post I for my understanding of mediums as what defines a work of art.

[vii] Ep 36: “They Named A Salvage Drone After This Guy”  https://www.podbean.com/site/EpisodeDownload/PBF42FAEZWEQ6   The first discussion comes at 2:00,, with a description of Strategic smallgang PVP at 35:00.

[viii] Dunk expands on these other playstyles following 35:00.

[ix] 41:40

[x] Note: in this context, “spin” is very different than “smacktalk.”  Saying ‘We are actually winning’ is part of a Strategic narrative, and indicates that mindset.  Saying ‘ur mom’ doesn’t indicate anything, besides maybe the player’s age.