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.

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. 

VII – “Wait, You WANT the Response Fleet?”: Strategic vs Recreational Gameplay, Part One

We sit in the cold beauty of a pre-war Delve, sixty kilometers off the stargate.  We have two Osprey Navy Issues, a Confessor, and a Keres—a weak but nimble force, hoping to stir up trouble in the heart of EVE’s largest empire, then fight while running away like Mongol horsemen.  We also have a Stiletto on the other side of the gate, watching the enemy form up.

At this moment, they have about thirty ships.  About half of those are battleships, any one of which would be difficult for our gang to kill.  Mixed in, they also have all sorts of electronic warfare to shut us down, hold us in place so we can’t kite away—and as they sit there, telling us to jump in, they continue to trickle in enough fast tackle to blot out the sun.  At the center of it all is Lord Jaxom’s Bhaalgorn, a battleship fit, essentially, to deny targets any chance at escaping, or even shooting back.  As we sit off the gate on the other side, they’re talking to our Stiletto in local chat, telling us to jump into them.

Our Stiletto pilot is asking why they won’t jump in with 6:1 superiority.  They tell us they won’t because we’re cowards.  This is fairly normal banter in the home regions of big nullsec alliances, where doublethink is a way of life.  Then one of them says something unusual—something so frank, honest, and yet cruel that it’s still stuck in my memory, over a year later.

“Eventually you’ll get bored and come feed to us,” they wrote.  “That feels like less of a waste of your evening than going home.”

Our Stiletto asked them why they didn’t feel the same way.

“Because if you leave, we’re still protecting our space.”

Eventually, with their numbers close to fifty, and still refusing to come in to us, we did go home.  We escaped without incident—even our Stiletto—and closed our connection to Delve.  But they were right.  It did feel like a total waste of time.  We were left wondering why we had decided to play EVE instead of another game, where we were guaranteed gameplay, with the precious few hours of free time we had that day; and I at least wondered why I’d bother to play EVE with my precious time on this Earth, when I wasn’t even guaranteed to be able to do it.  Indeed, we hadn’t failed at the game, we had failed to play the game.  Normally, when you fire up a videogame, you take that part for granted.

What I didn’t understand was that this was not the case for our opponents.  In fact, we had failed even to play EVE that night, but they had played it very well.  The difference is in the nature of our objectives—the difference between Strategic, Recreational, and Competitive PVP gameplay.

EVE Online is not one game but many.  This statement rings true when considering the game’s intense complexity: any one career path in EVE certainly has as much depth as many standalone games.  But a game is an experience in which you overcome obstacles to achieve goals, and because EVE is a sandbox game, every player has to invent their own goals.  In this sense, someone whose goal is to visit every system in the game without dying[i], someone trying to collect every titan, and someone trying to become a master fleet commander, are playing games as different as Battlefield versus Farming Simulator.  Of course, they exist together, and often cross paths.  For this reason, we might better think of EVE as one world but many games.

The biggest tradeoff of this design is that, while it allows for utterly dynamic and unbelievably meaningful gameplay outcomes, it also incentivizes players of one playstyle to deny gameplay to those of another.  In the case of the PVP player and the PVE player, both cannot be “playing their game” at the same time.  The PVE player is denied playing their game while the PVP player is nearby hunting them, and the PVP player is denied playing their game when the PVE player doesn’t respond with a fight.  This is natural, and I would never suggest the sheep should not hide from the wolves, but…

EVE’s playability revolves around a healthy ratio of content-to-content denial, across all areas of gameplay.  That is, there is a threshold at which the PVP player doesn’t get enough fights, and decides to go play another game, and a similar one in which the PVE player doesn’t get to make enough money.  Neither has to be able to get their content 100% of the time.  And they may have different thresholds.  For example, a PVE player may not tolerate being denied their gameplay more than 20% of the time, while (speaking as a PVP player myself) if I was in a fight for 20% of the time I spent at the keyboard, I probably wouldn’t do anything else in my whole life.  (Seriously.  I would starve.)

Much of this has to do with mindset and self-conception as well.  For example, if I think of myself as a “PVP player,” then any time I’m not in a fight or preparing for a fight is time I am effectively not playing the game, at least as far as I’m concerned.  But if I think of myself as a “hunter,” then suddenly all the time I spend looking for a fight is also gameplay[ii].  My expectations become different, and so does the dopamine the game releases for me.  With a shift in mindset, avoiding hunters could also be a satisfying experience for the hunted, rather than the gameplay equivalent of a power outage.  I’m going to go into much more detail on this in the future, so for now suffice it to say that the goals we set in-game also define who we are in-game, and this is an immensely powerful force.

The difference in goals and mindset can also exist within an overarching playstyle, such as “PVP.”  This post is about defining PVP into three categories, Strategic, Recreational, and Competitive—and then showing how some of EVE’s most common and confusing interactions happen when they collide.  The difference in each mindset lies in its goals.

The Competitive mindset is the simplest to define: it is what you see in tournaments and tournament preparation.  Unlike most other gameplay in EVE, it is guaranteed, but also not dynamic—there are set rules and boundaries for all matches.  I’m not going to talk any more about this one, because it’s pretty noumenally simple.  In this case, the goal is to win a tournament.

Recreational PVP, like Competitive, is also fairly simple.  This is essentially playing EVE like a game—fighting other players to have fun.  That’s it.  That’s the whole goal.  If you have fun by fighting someone, you’ve achieved your goal.  More ambitious players might say, “if you’ve won a fight and had fun…” but that is a difference of degrees, not of nature.

Strategic PVP is a pervasive mindset that can attach itself to many areas of the game. 

In the case of that scenario in Delve, in which nigh-fifty Goons wouldn’t jump into four roamers, the disconnection was in the fact that we were practicing Recreational PVP, and they—even though they weren’t on a Strategic operation—were practicing Strategic PVP. 

In Strategic PVP, most engagements are a case of maneuver warfare—that is, an objective-oriented struggle, in which it is often the best tactic to avoid direct conflict and instead focus on the objective.  This can be very commonly seen in citadel fights with doctrines such as Initiative’s Boosh Raven fleet[iii], in which the fleet bounces around the battlefield at long range, keeping damage on the target and often ignoring the actual defenders.  Moreover, since EVE is a game, and morale dictates fleet numbers, it is absolutely ubiquitous for nullbloc fleet commanders to avoid uncertain fights.  Simply put, if they lose heavily, their fleet numbers will be lower next time, and they can very easily cascade strategically; but if they simply go home, their numbers should be about the same, at least as long as this isn’t done too constantly.  So, in some scenarios, Strategic PVP encourages denying conflict to focus on the objective, and in others, it encourages giving up on the objective to fight another day.  This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of nearly two decades of intricate doctrinal development, about which one could easily write an entire book—but even on this level, the dynamics of our little standoff in Delve are clear.

We wanted to get a fight, and they wanted to achieve an objective.  That objective was securing their space, which could be done through killing us, trapping us, holding us still and shittalking us, or by boring us and sending us home.  Notice, none of these options include fighting us—just killing us.  Were we to engage 5 v 50, we would have literally lasted about 30 seconds, so their numbers alone denied the possibility of a fight.  But a drawn-out engagement, while exhilarating for both parties, would be useless for their strategic goals.  Staying on the other side of that gate left all four paths open to them, while linking any of our possible actions to a path, so that they could simply wait for us to dictate their response.  This is very good strategy.  But what was their actual goal?

I wrote in passing last week, and will write in more detail in the future, about how the “empire building” era of EVE caused strategic significance to trickle down into even the most minute actions by bloc linemembers[iv] – this was also at play in our little Delve standoff.  The standing fleet is ostensibly there to protect the vital strategic resource-action of ‘krabs,’ i.e. PVE players who generate wealth for the alliance.  Thus, all they had to do was use one of the four paths I listed above to neutralize us, and they would achieve their goal.  Moreover, since every single asset in a nullbloc is imbued with strategic value, and nullbloc members are socialized by fleet culture to focus on battle reports[v], there was potential strategic loss in every single one of those 50 ships, but no potential benefit as long as they kept us in place.

It is undeniably smart to understand these terms of engagement, and any strategist presented with potential loss and no potential benefit would not engage.  This is what I didn’t understand at the time.  And I don’t want to be misunderstood like I’m lamenting this dynamic—this is the way to win at Strategic PVP.  The blog-worthy phenomenon is how that Strategic mindset gets overlaid on other forms of PVP, such that they were winning while we weren’t even playing.  And in the words of Admiral Beatty, “When you’re winning, risk nothing.”

We can compare this scenario to another local-chat interaction I had with a nullbloc member.  We had grabbed a Rorqual[vi] and were holding it to see what else would come. Our prey wrote in local, “You’re not going to kill me before backup arrives,” to which we replied, “Good.”  He then wrote me a nice title for a future blog post: “Wait, you WANT the response fleet?”

This interaction elucidates the common misunderstanding between Strategic and Recreational mindsets.  Our prey thought that he was the objective in a game of maneuver warfare, and interpreted that we would be happy killing them and escaping.  That’s a fair guess, as indeed many, even smallgang players, have this mindset when hunting—and I’m willing to bet nearly everyone in this pilot’s bloc friend group would think the same way.  And that’s a fine way to play the game.  But we were there with a Recreational mindset, with the goal of getting a fight.  Even holding this Rorqual, we weren’t really playing our gameplay yet.  We hoped for a response fleet that we could fight—usually we’re happy to fight up to 4:1 odds, at which point it is seldom tenable to stick around—and had made preparations, such as hiding our reinforcements so that they would actually engage, to try to cause that.  For those to whom this is an alien mindset, I can’t say this next part strongly enough—and I do mean it absolutely literally:

If we had killed the Rorqual without getting a fight, it would have been just as much of a failure as if we had been chased away without a fight, or never caught it at all.

If this is hard to believe, consider how much fun it is to play basketball by yourself.  It is marginally better to sink a basket than to miss, just like it would be some minute consolation prize to kill the Rorqual without a fight, but if your goal is to beat someone at basketball, making or missing the shot doesn’t matter at all.  For us, grabbing the Rorqual was like shooting hoops until someone challenges you to a game: it was just to instigate a conflict in which we could pursue our actual goal. 

But EVE is a pickup game where there’s nothing stopping fifty people from running onto the court, pinning you to the floor, and jumping on you like a trampoline while shooting basket after basket and gloating about it.  To be honest, that’s pretty cool.  There’s probably no other virtual world where this is possible, and if these social tensions weren’t possible, I’d have nothing to write about.  In the case of our standoff with the Delve standing fleet, we were shooting hoops hoping for a challenger we could match, with the goal of beating someone at basketball; their goal was to get us off the court, and there was nothing but the physics of the universe itself limiting their response.  So they could have shown up with 50 players and a sniper sitting in the stands, just in case we were able to score outnumbered.  In the end, they decided to let us shoot our hoops, get bored, and go home.  They won their game.  We never got to play ours.

I don’t want to sound like I’m lamenting this dynamic.  I maintain that EVE is a very punishing game, and the only reason to suffer through it is to do things you can’t do in any other game.  Having been on the other side of the nullbloc-smallgang divide myself, I know that it is utterly unique, and quite exciting, for your every action to carry strategic, and thus narrative, significance on the grandest scale.  That is an awe-inspiring possibility in a videogame.  To carry my analogy a bit further, if you wanted to play basketball 5-on-5, there are plenty of better games to go do that, but only in EVE can you have a totally different challenge every time.  As much as I enjoy the actual action of fighting in EVE, it is this open world that lends such weight to it.

The only problem is when the misunderstandings between these playstyles cause us to lose sight of the fact that we are all part of the same community.  I know bloc people who hate, I mean really hate smallgangers, and smallgangers who feel the same about bloc players.  While some animosity is good to drive conflict and imbue meaning in these engagements, it does often go too far.  We all exist in the same world.  At different times, we also play the same game.  Ursula Le Guin wrote, “We think we wish to join the wild animals in the jungle but will not tolerate the wild animals in our kitchens.  There are too many ants, we think, reaching for the spray, when it is equally true that there are too many humans.”[vii]  I am usually one of the ants in the kitchen of the nullbloc players.  But sometimes they are the ants in my wormhole. 

And of course, these mindsets blend together. That’s why a definition based on mindset, rather than on something like tactics, fleet numbers, or materiel, is so useful and durable. I wrote above how Strategic fleets have less to lose by standing down than taking a risky fight – but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose. As we saw in the war that just ended, though EVE is a really weird game, it still is a game, and repeated stand-downs can cause the same loss in numbers as one big defeat. Having been a part of those wars myself, I can attest to how showing up to fleets repeatedly and getting no fight can make you think “Why am I playing this game,” just like the Goon standing fleet was able to make our little gang . Thus, when Strategic fleets don’t provide enough content, they actually shift the mindset of their participants towards more Recreational thinking. Likewise, Recreational mindsets can be diverted by various factors, such as a hatred of the enemy (wanting to deny them good fights) or a lust for loot and bragging rights. In the case of smallscale evictions or mercenary contracts, for example, small groups can easily find themselves in a Strategic mindset, practicing maneuver warfare on a set objective, that will be gone once their goal is achieved. I personally left my last small-to-medium gang group in part because I disagreed with their two-wrongs-make-a-right mentality of ‘helldunking’ nullsec response fleets as they would do to us.  But even that—a PVP mindset oriented around gaudy battle reports rather than close conflict—is a beautiful niche in the EVE PVP ecosystem.

Next week, I’ll be refracting the Strategic-Recreational divide a different way, looking at psychological warfare, narrative, and how ‘spin’ is a legitimate part of one side’s gameplay and not another’s.  Maybe I’ll have more of an actual opinion in that post, but until then, I too will refuse to engage. 

[i] A feat performed by the great explorer Katia Sae: https://www.polygon.com/2019/4/2/18286977/eve-online-explorer-10-year-journey-katia-sae

[ii] Credit to my friend Welshy RL, a great Black Ops hunter, for explaining this to me.  I once asked him how he could justify hunting for three hours to create five minutes of gameplay when he caught something, and his response was simply, “Dude, hunting is my gameplay.”

[iii] A doctrine now phased out due to mechanics changes, but once dominant in the sphere of maneuver warfare.  This fleet was famously used in the siege of Fort Knocks, in which not only were the defenders wildly outnumbered, but also the attackers’ doctrine choices were objective, not fight-oriented: https://imperium.news/attack-on-fort-knocks/

[iv] TLDR, by pushing all of nullsec into an arms race for supercapital and citadel assets, CCP realigned the ‘default’ game goals around asset accumulation, rather than the development of skills, knowledge, or achievements.  Though the assets we most commonly talk about are the ultra-expensive supercapitals, all assets, no matter how cheap, do in some way contribute to the strength of the alliance, in the same way that each grain of sand contributes to the beach.  This means that, for many, the asset is worth more than the experience of using it; thus, players become more ‘risk averse’ as a matter of strategic necessity and community habit. 

[v] For non-EVE players: a link to a third-party website that compiles all the losses from a fight to create a sort of scorecard.

[vi] For non-EVE players: the game’s largest mining vessel, the backbone of all nullsec industry, and a significant investment for most owners.

[vii] Location 78.  Le Guin, No Time to Spare.  Mariner Books, Kindle edition.

VI – If You’re Too Big to Fight, You’re Too Big to Exist

As the longest war in EVE’s history winds down, as Goons and their allies do a galaxy-sized victory lap, as PAPI fractures and does damage control, and as the families of EVE’s brave combatants rejoice at their loved ones coming home (or at least, away from their desk) we should keep one thing in perspective: for CCP, this war was an unmitigated disaster.

Yes, having such a meatgrinder down in Delve was good for chewing up minerals and (arguably) giving the Scarcity economic period a reason to exist.  I am of a mind that the war did not actually boost login numbers, but only CCP knows for sure.  And only time will tell if this war yields a healthier nullsec[i] ecosystem, or another cold war so long and stagnant it kills off another generation of players.

But one thing is clear: the best thing for EVE that comes out of its giant wars is the free publicity from giant battles, which grab headlines in broader gaming media and bring in waves of new players hoping for the next one[ii].

Somehow, in the longest war in EVE’s history, those great battles didn’t happen.  Yes, there were plenty of big battles, but only two that really breached general gaming media, and only one in a good way—indeed, the utter meltdown of the servers in the second M2- battle in many ways overshadowed the unprecedented success of the first.  I’m sure many at CCP look at this war as a massive disappointment, a huge wasted opportunity to get that free publicity that is so important for a nearly two-decade old game.  I look at it as a tragic first step for a boon of new players who joined to do something in covid, and have spent their entire EVE career in war—I expect, (and would love to be proven wrong) that many will quit now that the war is over, after being taught a degree of complacency terminal to one’s chances at success in a sandbox game.

I’m not here to talk about CCP, though.  No one knows how they really feel, and I’m sure their opinions on the war are as diverse as ours. 

But I’m also not going to shy away from a great chance at some backseat development, some I-told-you-sos and my own galactic victory lap (followed by some light vomiting… I can barely run around a constellation).  

I want to take this as an opportunity to talk about what I see as the single biggest issue facing EVE today: concentration of the population into giant nullbloc alliances.  I’ll try to keep it short and on topic, and doing this will mean only discussing a few of the myriad evils a condensed population has created.

In essence, though it comes down to this: if you’re too big to fight, you’re too big to exist.

In the “golden age of EVE,” a period generally considered to span 2009-2013, Peak Concurrent User counts on the server began to climb to levels double what they have been for the last few years, and nearly triple what they have fallen to this summer, with the lifting of COVID restrictions and (I will argue) the stagnation of the big war.  In the same “golden age” timeframe, the largest alliances in the game had 5,000-8,000 characters, about one quarter the size of the largest alliances today.  The old Northern Coalition, the then-biggest coalition in videogaming history, was about the size of the game’s largest single alliance today.

Alright, I’m done.  No, really, that is sort of my whole point.  In the period of “empire building” development from 2014-19, EVE’s concurrent users simultaneously halved, including the introduction of a free-to-play account, the Alpha, while the biggest alliances in the game quadrupled in size.  The lasting damage from the increasing concentration of a decreasing playerbase is hard to really wrap your head around, presents the single biggest challenge for EVE today, and probably won’t be fully understood for a long time.  I’ll unpack some of the key points, and then relate it all back to the war that just ended.

First, let me say that this is not entirely the fault of the players.  While I do believe nullbloc leaders have pursued the growth of their organizations to the detriment of the game as a whole (the videogame world’s equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction) most of the blame goes back to CCP for a feedback loop of changes throughout the “empire building” era[iii].  But to blame players entirely would be to misunderstand the economic and political principle of a “collective action problem.”

Essentially, a collective action problem is when what’s good for the individual is bad for their community, and therefore also bad for the individual.  A good example detailed by Vice News is the Dollar General stores popping up across the US[iv].  While these stores provide goods cheaper to the individual consumer, they are also able to operate with fewer employees and undercut local competition, strangling small businesses and depressing the local job market.  Buying something at a Dollar General is cheap, but also means you’ll make less money tomorrow.  It is therefore immediately good but ultimately bad for the consumer and their community.  This effect is also seen repeatedly in Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, in which many characters echo the statement of the plowman employed by the bank to drive his neighbors out of their homes:

“I got a wife and kids. We got to eat. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day.’’ 

“That’s right,’’ the tenant said. “But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can’t eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?’’ 

And the driver said, “Can’t think of that. Got to think of my own kids.”[v]

There are many collective action problems in EVE—and the presence of them, which requires complexity and agency to develop, is further evidence that EVE is its own world, not just a game.  But the biggest collective action problem is the concentration we’ve seen in nullsec, and moreover of players moving from other areas to nullsec.  Just as Steinbeck is able to humanize both the plow driver and his victims, we can’t find ourselves demonizing the individual players who find their way to nullsec alliances.  But it works like this:

For the individual player, nullsec alliances have historically offered security, moneymaking opportunities, varying degrees of fleet PVP opportunities, and varying degrees of community.  Essentially, they are one way for the game to be taken more casually.  In one of these groups, you don’t need to build your own infrastructure or log on every day to fuel and protect it; you don’t need to generate PVP fights or really know what you’re doing in them; you don’t need to have your own goals, as you can work towards the goals of your group.  Especially for new players, this is a great deal.  CCP has abdicated responsibility for developing new players for years, allowing the nullsec blocs to scoop them up—and ask anyone who’s started EVE in the last 7 years, almost all of them will have come through one of these organizations at some point or another.  For these individuals, the big groups provide all the resources they need to have an easy start in a very hard game.

As these alliances grew and gained strength, they also sucked players out of other regions of the game, both condensing within nullsec and across the server.

Nullsec alliances, working under their own collective action problem, teach their pilots to make money, to avoid drawing attention to their space, to avoid fighting except for strategic reasons[vi] and to join fleets, which are built inherently not to develop skills but to encourage multiboxing (as I detailed in Post II).  Furthermore, for their own security, these alliances form broad coalitions and try to avoid wars.  This is the design of the “empire building” era of EVE – to create a constant cold-war scenario, in which making money and accumulating assets is the single most important factor in winning a war.  This makes every single action have some degree of strategic value, and was done because horizontal growth is simpler to monetize than a game that asks its players to get better.  Again, we can’t fault the alliances for correctly assessing how to win at the game, and doing it.

But the genius of EVE is its dynamism, its ability to generate content through the tension between spontaneous accidents and long-term planning.  When your pilots are trained to avoid fights, because this draws more hunters to the area, and to wait for fleet pings instead of trying to find their own content – and when you wind up with 2 or 3 gigantic groups instead of hundreds of little ones – the uniqueness of EVE is undermined, and the game becomes fundamentally indistinguishable from its competition.

By introducing empire building mechanics and making them tantamount to game domination, CCP created a collective action problem for individual players and alliances alike that encouraged them to concentrate and stagnate for their own benefit, thus ultimately reducing their chances at fun in the game.

To a large extent, those collective action problems still exist.  But they have also pushed a fundamental culture shift in EVE.  While game developers once famously released “Harden the Fuck Up”[vii] they also pushed for years to increase dopamine rewards, decrease skills expression, and promote horizontal growth across an ever-shrinking playerbase.  The other day, I had a 7-person fleet run from my 4-person fleet, saying in local chat that it was “not worth it” to engage us, even though their 7 Feroxes were the posterchild of trivially cheap, expendable ships.  While in a single scenario, that might have happened in 2013, played out 100 times, it would have happened much less then than it would now: more often than not, back in the day, people would have taken that fight.  That’s because the basic objective of EVE used to be achieving things, and now it is accumulating things.  Simply put, the 7 players that wouldn’t fight me last week calculated that the assets, however cheap, were worth more than a possible achievement of victory, because assets are always worth more in a world where every action, and every asset, has global strategic significance.  I wrote extensively on this in a Reddit post last year, and though I took a different tone in it, especially in the closing, than I take on this blog, I stand by it[viii].

So, CCP created collective action problems by trickling strategic significance into even the tiniest action made by a nullbloc player, thus driving a concentration of the population into a few huge alliances, and fundamentally shifting the culture of the game.  This leads us to the current problem.

In nature, populations are controlled by factors such as disease, food abundance, and competing lifeforms.  The COVID-19 Pandemic is a good example.  Whatever origin story you prefer, it is undeniable that the virus was prolonged and worsened by global overpopulation and interconnectedness.  Simply put, there are too many humans alive right now to control the spread of a novel virus.  This happens to other animals all the time, when they get overpopulated and overconcentrated to a point where a disease can spread very easily.  In the case of most plants and animals, that disease devastates the population and resets the overpopulation problem.  We’re just not used to it happening to us.

EVE presents us with a world free from disease, climate change, and nuclear apocalypse.  It is, in some ways, more stable than our world on Earth, even though the servers could shut off at any moment. 

But EVE’s servers have hard limits.  Even using military-grade hardware, and with a major game company prioritizing increasing server capacities for years, in the second battle of M2-, the defenders were nearly able to max out what the server could handle on their own, while comprising about a third of what would have engaged without server issues.  This is not because EVE is globally overpopulated, as Earth is today.  It is because nullsec is overconcentrated, to a degree the servers can’t handle.

This is the same phenomenon as deer becoming overpopulated due to a loss of predators and then starving, because there isn’t enough food to support them all.  In EVE, content is food.  Battles not only bring in new players, they sustain old ones—they give PVP players something to do, and industry players a reason to build.  And right now, at least in nullsec, a confluence of years of game design, in-game politics, and shifting culture has caused giant nullsec alliances to concentrate their populations too densely for the available sustenance.  The biggest groups in EVE are too big to fight. 

If they had quadrupled in size because the game had quadrupled in total players, this wouldn’t be such an issue.  But right now, they exist in spite of smaller groups, because they have grown while the game shrank.  That means if they’re too big to fight, they’re too big to exist.

I have a lot of opinions on how CCP could spread the population back out.  Of course, I think most of them are right.  But this blog is about the meta-sphere of EVE, so I won’t delve into them too much. 

What I will say is that in the past, when I’ve brought this up, on Discords, on Reddit, and even on voice comms, the nullbloc players I’m talking about respond with a feverish negativity, because they feel their playstyle under attack.  I hope that my long digression into collective action problems has shown I bear them no ill will and don’t ultimately hold them accountable for the issues at hand.  I also hope my analysis has made it clear that they are themselves denied content by these issues—after all, we didn’t get the big battles we all wanted out of this war.

I am also not advocating from a political position, such as saying that Goons are too big but others are alright.  Rather, I think the best solution would be to reduce the size of all nullbloc alliances relatively, so that Goons would remain the strongest, and all others would retain their relative places as well, but the players leaving these groups would start others, spread out around the map, and allow for more dynamic gameplay. 

Would the entire map still pile in on the biggest fights?  Absolutely.  But only after the fight was already ongoing, some groups were already committed, and only after themselves earning their involvement by moving across the galaxy, managing diplomatic relations, and planning ahead.

Though we have again circumvented nature and survived COVID-19 without a significant loss in population (at least so far), it doesn’t seem a safe bet that the same would happen in EVE.  After all, we have to live on Earth.  Deer have to live in their local forest.  EVE players can just go to other games. The failure of this war to provide EVE the headlines it deserves is a dire warning about the health and sustainability of the game.  That’s what you get when your game is nearly as complex as the real world: you also have to play by the world’s rules.  Let’s learn from the many times our planet has enforced those rules, and understand that denial is hubris, that a developer, like even a god, can proceed in either to their own demise through the loss of those who sustain them.

[i] For non-EVE players: the ungoverned outer ring around the map that players are free to control and fight over.  This is where 90% of the stories you hear about EVE take place, including just about all of the last war.

[ii] Let’s do something fun: instead of me linking you to articles, why don’t you Google “greatest EVE Battles” or something like that, and see what comes up.  That’ll prove my point.

[iii] I’ve got a lot of opinions on these, but this blog is about EVE’s meta-sphere, so I’ll stay away from them as much as possible.  But for the sake of clarity, for the EVE readers who know what I mean: Rorqual buffs were an obvious money-grab based around reducing skill ceilings and encouraging horizontal growth (as I detailed in Post II on this blog); citadels were the single worst MMO expansion ever, very nearly singlehandedly killed the game, and remain only half fixed now, over half a decade later; skill injectors were needed to allow new players to catch up, but were introduced in a way that heavily favored experienced players; capital and nullsec infrastructure changes made condensing into tiny areas possible, leaving much of the map fallow and reducing gate traffic.  Moreover, the game moved from an achievement-oriented culture to an accumulation-oriented one, and in doing so welded itself to designs not just predatory and addictive, but intrinsically destructive to EVE’s uniqueness.  I’ve written about the latter part in a previous Reddit post: https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/k3xr9h/we_were_trained_to_hate_these_changes/

[iv] https://video.vice.com/en_us/video/why-dollar-general-is-putting-grocery-stores-out-of-business/5aab0f9bf1cdb37a1d02d7b3

[v] Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, Location 1630.

[vi] Check back in next week for a long essay on Strategic versus Recreational mindsets in PVP.

[vii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgvM7av1o1Q

[viii] See link in endnote 1.

V – Lysistrata: How a War can End

As of this post, EVE has been locked in the longest continuous large war in its history.  In fact, it has been locked in the longest continuous large war in its history for over half a year now, that’s how long this war has been.  Many players, who likely for some time have been scanning the horizon for an end to the war, are now beginning to grumble publicly—to predict, in hopeful or despairing terms, not a victory for their side, per se, but an actual cessation of conflict, a resumption of normalcy, however that might happen.  This is culturally notable in EVE: unlike wars in real life, players often enjoy slaughter on massive scales, to such an extent that if the Somme were fought in New Eden, it would be heralded as one of the greatest accomplishments of EVE’s single-shard design.  War fatigue has always been the most potent tool in an EVE strategist’s toolkit, as ultimately players do not have to log in; yet at the same time, peace-fatigue can be just as demoralizing.  These pressures have prompted the largest coalition in EVE’s history to announce, yesterday, that win or lose, the war will be over in six weeks.  No one knows if the current war is in fact boiling over, or has already boiled away.  But I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about one of my all-time favorite texts, a brilliantly funny and lastingly incisive comedy by Aristophanes, in which the Athenian poet imagines an end to Greece’s own sort of hell-war: Lysistrata.

In 411 BCE, the Greek world was gripped by war.  Indeed, like New Eden, they were usually gripped by some sort of war, and in fact this war, the Peloponnesian, was the fallout of the great Persian war a generation earlier, forever immortalized in 300 memes (and, to a lesser extent, Herodotus).  In the Persian War, the entirety of mainland Greece banded together to fight the invading “Persian Donut,”[1] a force comprised of the largest land empire in the world.  The mainland Greeks were huge underdogs, and after watching their farms, allies, and floodplains steadily rolled over, they finally won a decisive victory and were able to escape subjugation.  This left two blocs in the Greek world: led respectively by Athens and by Sparta.  After a few decades of abundance, war between them was inevitable. 

By 411, the Peloponnesian War had already been underway for twenty years, and Athens, after a disastrous defeat in Sicily, was on the ropes.  Athens would fight on until 404, but at this time, just as in EVE’s nullblocs now, war-weary eyes were already beginning to search for peace.  It was in this (grossly simplified) setting that Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata.

Now, to be fair, EVE’s current war and the Peloponnesian war don’t map perfectly onto each other.  In the latter, neither side was clearly attacking or defending for the entire time, neither side was massively outnumbered, Athenian shitposting was so vastly superior that, indeed, I’m writing about one today.  A better, but still not perfect, comparison would be to the Persian War decades earlier, when a numerically overwhelming force fought an entirely offensive campaign against the smaller.  But in even that war, there would be subtle elements to break the parallel: the Thracians, for example, the ancient world’s equivalent of Legacy Coalition (due to their constant infighting and reputation for cannibalism[2]) were subjugated by the larger Persian Bloc, not leading it.  No, I’m not here to talk about the actual history of the great wars of the 5th Century.  Others can do that much better[3].  Aristophanes’ play, after all, imagines a fictional end to the war.

Instead, I’m here to talk about cocks.

That’s right.  Cocks.  Peos, the Greek four-letter word that no housewife with a shred of respect would be caught dead with on her tongue.[4]  As Lysistrata’s eponymous heroine suggests, cocks get us into wars, but they can also get us out;[5] and while the play’s “main theme is peace,”[6] I don’t think this blog would be complete if I followed Lysistrata’s own advice, “leaving the penis alone.”[7]

Yes, the plot of Lysistrata is as simple as it is cutting: wives on both sides of the conflict, weary of war and their husbands being away, organize possibly the first pan-Hellenic Feminist movement[8], a sex-strike, in order to get their men to quit fighting.  They swear an oath not to perform the duties of wives, including sex and other household maintenance, and occupy the Athenian Akropolis, where the war funds are kept, so the men also cannot finance their fighting.  Lysistrata suggests “If we sat around at home all made up, and walked past them wearing only our see-through underwear and with our pubes plucked in a neat triangle,” but refuse their husbands’ attention, “they’d sue for peace, and pretty quick.”[9]  It works.

Like just about any Classical text, this play is a keyhole into a world so complex and alien that I’m not even really qualified to summarize it.  Some of the smartest people in the world spend their whole lives trying to understand what love means in a state of gender apartheid, or how the Ancient Athenians, to take just one sub-culture as an example, conceptualized the difference between homosexual and heterosexual partnerships, both of which were integral in their society.  Suffice it to say, for our purposes, that this was a pre-Christian society, existing in a world where sex and bodies were not stigmatized in the same ways they are now: the Romans had penis windchimes[10] and the Greek Satyr Plays used giant phalluses for prop comedy.  And yet, Ancient Athenian women existed in an entirely subjugated and almost separate, parallel society to men.  It was likely far more transgressive for Lysistrata to show women taking over the city than it was to show penises on-stage.

We’ll never fully grasp the infinitely nuanced humanity of the Ancients.  In a way, that’s a beautiful thing.  In two thousand more years, I don’t expect the residents of the tropical archipelago known as Colorado to understand the battle of M2-[11] either.

But the points of tension in Lysistrata are also present in our own lives.  We also live in a patriarchal society.  We are learning a new post-Christian impudence that one day might return to the sex-positivity of the Ancients.  Domestic partners, not just husbands and wives, have to navigate their gendered roles at home, their professional roles in society, and the tension between these.  Despite our best efforts, every EVE player still exists in this real world as well.

The most likely death-knell for any corporation in EVE is when the CEO is out “kissing girls” and doesn’t log on for a long time.  Lysistrata wouldn’t have been funny to the Ancients if there wasn’t some plausibility in it: even while fictional, the play shows us that love can end even the most brutal wars, with the highest stakes, in real life.  I have often thought before that it is game-breaking when a great conflict in EVE ends because a fleet commander or other leader has to step away from the game.  Why, I would wonder, would the capsuleer just suddenly abandon their ambitions, decide to stay docked in a station for months at a time, doing whatever they do in-world when we’re not playing them?  (Knowing how capsuleers are regarded in New Eden, I imagine this is something like the toys in Toy Story plus Silence of the Lambs.)  But now I imagine it’s quite possible that the capsuleer reached the same fate as their player, led from the clutches of agonistic contest into the pursuit of see-through underwear.  Our societies today are far more similar to those of New Eden than to 5th Century Greece; if Lysistrata rings true for us, it probably would for our characters as well.  This goes beyond sex.

The women of Lysistrata also seize the Akropolis, where Athens’ war-funds are stored, so that no men can continue to finance the war effort.  As the leader of the women’s chorus puts it, “you miserable geezers … have squandered your paternal inheritance, won in the Persian Wars … we’re all headed for bankruptcy on account of you!”[12]  To anyone who’s had their credit card seized so they stop subbing more Dread alts, I apologize if this quote elicits some painful memories.  It does also draw out an interesting wrinkle in our modern gender relations, and the profoundly male-dominated world of EVE: a common saying in hype-pings ahead of a major battle in EVE is “Give your wife the credit card.”  This is often stated just so explicitly, and the joke is that if you send your wife shopping, she’ll let you play EVE all day; the implications are that the one playing EVE is a man, makes more money than his wife, and moreover that women are so shallow they can be bought off.  Even if the first two assumptions are true in some cases, Lysistrata tells us maybe your wife is sick of her good Milesian dildo[13] and just wants some of you!  And regarding those assumptions themselves, the play actually begins by placing in tension the frivolous spending of a housewife, Kalonike,[14] just to show them overturned by a desire on a surface level for her husband’s love, but on deeper levels, for female solidarity, and for peace.  While we no longer live in a state of gender apartheid, do fight most of our wars online, and like to sneer at the Ancients for what we deem primitive gender relations, perhaps the EVE Skymarshal pinging for you to give your wife the credit card ahead of a major op shows us we still have a ways to go. 

We don’t know how EVE’s greatest war will end.  In reality, the Peloponnesian War did not end the way Aristophanes imagines, but in Athens’ utter defeat, permanent loss of influence in the Ancient world.  It does seem that the stakes of EVE’s war, at least in-world, are just as existential.  It only lends further realism, further weight, to that war, that the pressures on which Lysistrata’s comedy turn also exist in the lives of players: finances, male pride, and time away from loved ones.  Though our capsuleers cannot die, many EVE players have been removed from battle just as permanently as if by a spear-thrust by these forces.  Some have been removed almost as permanently by the thrust of a toe.[15]

Likewise, the message of Aristophanes’ comic vision is clear: love conquers war, but wars, not in opposition to but in concert with love, can also bring people together.  EVE’s wars should be especially so.  Assuming Mittani’s toe recovers swiftly, and no one gets SWATed again, no one will actually die in the prosecution of this war.  But if we are to believe in the reality of New Eden, we also must believe that the casualties of boredom, of distraction, and of burnout—losses to New Eden every bit as permanent as a death—are real.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  This is, after all, a videogame, and on average probably only the second most important thing in players’ lives.  And indeed, even the capacity for the universe to be so deeply shaped by the presence of war or the presence of peace is unique to EVE.  Yet we should learn from Lysistrata that what we love in-game is the same as out-of-game.  It is who we love, and how we spend our time with them.

Works Cited

Aristophanes, and Jeffrey Henderson.  Three Plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women.  Routledge, 2010. 

Foley, Helene P. “The ‘Female Intruder’ Reconsidered: Women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae.” Classical Philology, vol. 77, no. 1, 1982, pp. 1–21. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/269802. Accessed 25 July 2021.    

[1] Both an apocryphal epithet and what sounds like a delicious pastry, the “Persian Donut” is (not) referenced in fragments of the Boiotian shitposter Memeaides’ lyric verse.

[2] https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/mf5uw7/attn_legacy_members_with_assets_in_abandoned/

[3] My personal favorite is the amazing and very accessible history, Athens: A Portrait of the City in its Golden Age, by Christian Meier – though good translations of Thucydides and Herodotus can be really great too.

[4] Lysistrata endnote 49

[5] Lysistrata 141-144

[6] Introduction, pg. 36

[7] Lysistrata 767

[8] The Female Intruder Reconsidered, page 8

[9] Lysistrata 150-154

[10] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Lucky_flying_phallus.jpg

[11] https://www.eveonline.com/news/view/the-massacre-of-m2-xfe

[12] Lysistrata 654-657

[13] Unless the Milesians have revolted again… Lysistrata 110-113

[14] Lysistrata Prologue

[15] “Pando’s FC Chat” July 17, 2021, timestamp 3:20.  https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/pandos-fc-chat/hy-wanto-destroyer-the-mittani-DAIVP5oR0an/