I – EVE Online is a Work of Art

If you’ve ever hung around a Liberal Arts college long enough for paint to dry, or to catch an experimental art show (maybe it is watching paint dry) then you’ve probably heard some formulation of the question, “What is the difference between Art and Artifice?”  (Yes, capitalizing the word Art does capture he way people tend to ask this.) 

Here, “artifice” is taken to mean anything made by human hands, such as a jacket or a pot, while “art” is generally accepted as common media, such as music, literature, film, and so on.  To put it another way, this question asks, What’s the difference between a toilet and an opera?  Both are made by people, used by people, and enhance our lives.  Both are usually all-white and get shit on by the general public.  But more importantly for artistic professions, what’s the difference between a TED Talk and a play, or a novel and a work of nonfiction? 

I was posed this question on the first day of college, and I spent much of the next few years pursuing a suitable answer to it.  The most common definition I heard was that art “goes beyond itself,” to some deeper experience or understanding, while artifice is simply anything else.  I won’t get into the thorny philosophical issues with this definition: suffice it to say, this would allow a tree or a toilet to be art for one person and not for another—it means art is defined only by its reception.  I wanted a more objective definition that was more useful to my work.  I settled on defining art based on the objective qualities of its medium—the words on the page, the placement of the sculpture—rather than the experience it aimed to curate.

Here’s what I came up with:

Art is something that has to exist in its medium—sound, writing, visuals, as a few examples—in order to create an experience; artifice is either something not designed to create an experience, or something that does not fully make use of its medium.

I’ll explain this more in a moment, but since this is a blog, and an essay, about EVE Online, I first want to point out the most important difference between my definition and all the others I heard in school: in my definition, videogames can be works of art, and as more than just visuals[1].  This is important to me.  It means we don’t have to wait for high society to recognize videogames as a legitimate new form, but can legitimize it ourselves, with our own actions.

Now, let’s unpack this medium-based definition a little bit.

Every medium does something uniquely well.  Prose fiction can move through time, consciousness, and perspective with more freedom than any other form, because language is how we think, and one word can turn everything inside out; music gives us the most immediate emotional response of any medium, probably before we even know we’re feeling it; film gives us the best multimedia input, allowing for sound, visuals, and language, seamlessly and simultaneously; cuisine gives us the best heart disease.

The best works in any medium always use what the medium does best and lean away from what makes it struggle.  A sculpture becomes art when it demands we view it from multiple angles, or from a certain position; theater becomes art when it must be done before a live audience for full effect.  A song becomes artifice when it ignores the emotional directness of music; a book becomes artifice when it ignores its ability to manipulate consciousness.

This understanding lets us do a bunch of different things.  As an artist, it lets you look at mediums not as definitions, but as a toolbox, and it lets you pick which tool for which job.  As a viewer, it lets you appreciate not just the experience something gives you but how it achieves that experience through its very existence in that form.  As a scholar, it lets you dismantle that thorny problem of whether or not art can even be ‘good,’ and why people like art that you deem ‘bad.’  The answer to this last problem, under my framework, is quite simple: something that uses its form innately is not better art, but is more art.  I cannot say this strongly enough—everybody likes what they like, and the terms good and bad are completely useless.  The goal of this framework is to allow us to assess how something does what it does without judgement, hopefully opening up the discussion to include more forms than you’d encounter in a traditional education.  That includes videogames.

So, what does a videogame do best as a medium?  We need to answer this before we can assess whether a game is using that or not, which in turn defines when it becomes a work of art.

Like film, videogames are multimedia projects.  Games use creative writing, sound, acting, coding, and multiple aspects of visual art.  What they do uniquely, however, is engage with the viewer.  While certain aspects of Postmodernism in any medium are built by the viewer[2], videogames are designed around this principle.  From an artist’s perspective, you would pick the videogame out of your toolbox if you wanted your viewer to build the experience with you.  No other form can do that so well.

This means that some videogames are “more art” and others are less.  One of my favorite examples of a videogame that exemplifies the use of viewer interaction is Mass Effect 3.  (SPOILER ALERT – I might be about to ruin one of the greatest games ever made.)

In the ending of Mass Effect 3, you are presented with a 3-way choice: kill the bad guys, control the bad guys, or find a compromise.  In the famous “Indoctrination Theory,”[3] fans proposed that, in fact, the final battle had been taking place in the main character’s mind, with them fighting off mind control from the bad guys, and that if you chose anything other than to kill the bad guys, they had actually won.  The implications of this are utterly profound: because the one making the decision is both Commander Shepherd (in-world) and you the gamer, if you choose anything other than to kill the bad guys, you in real life have been indoctrinated as well.

(END SPOILER)

While novels can write in the second-person (as in Calvino’s famous line, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel…”[4]) they are only fusing the perspective of the reader and character.  In the ending of ME3, the actual volition, the actual consciousness of the character and player become one. 

You could only achieve that in a videogame.  In my opinion, this could be a moment in human art as important as when the first words were set on a page.  It is certainly as theoretically significant; what we do with videogames in the next 3,000 years will determine if its outcome.

So what about EVE?

I promise I’ll get to the actual game you’re here to read about much quicker in future posts.  But if you’re still with me, I’m about to make you feel much better about all those hours you’ve spent in New Eden.

One of the other cool wrinkles in my definition is that it allows us to define the quintessential works in a medium—that is, works whose effect is so interwoven with their medium, they could be called the most novel, or the most song.  (Again, I can’t stress this enough, there is no such thing as a “best” work of art in any form – just some that objectively use their form more than others.)  Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is my example for literature, as it is literally a novel about storymaking, and uses every trick in the book to weave the reader’s consciousness into the story.  Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is my example of a quintessential sculpture, as it has to be appreciated in person, to be walked around—and as one walks around it, the tension and empty space between the characters becomes powerful in a way you could never capture in a photograph. 

In the same way, EVE Online is the quintessential videogame.  It is the most videogame that a videogame could ever be.  The reasoning is pretty simple: if a videogame becomes art by using viewer interaction to the fullest, EVE is the most a videogame could ever be art, because in EVE, viewer actions matter more than in any other game.  Frankly, if you can have literal history books[5] about player actions in your universe, you have maximized the interaction of their agency and the world.

The ways EVE does this are well documented.  Permanent loss of assets, a player-run economy, and a single-shard world are, for most, the calling card for the game.  Go read any other article about EVE if you want to see how these features make it a great, historic, and famously Sisyphean game.  I’m here to tell you, those features, which work together to make every action important, and to preserve the result of those actions, thus allowing for history to be made, also make EVE as a whole—not just its visuals or music, but the whole experience—a work of art.

Finally, the real genius of EVE is how it allows for such player freedom, but also protects itself from moments of immersion-breaking.  The problem a lot of games face is that, even if player actions matter, many of them are world-breaking.  That is, if you name your character after a real-world celebrity, there’s no way to explain it away.  Many roleplaying communities have rules about in-character and out-of-character communication, but if a dwarf named Beyoncé waddles through, you’ve just got to look the other way.  EVE is actually able to account for this.

To paraphrase a really important part of EVE’s worldbuilding – capsuleers are driven to the point of madness by the training they have to go through in order to become immortal; thus, they say lots of kooky things that one can just discount for roleplaying purposes.  When NCdot named their staging Keepstar “Trump’s Wall,” anyone who wanted to be in-world could just say this was a nonsense name dreamed up by a mentally unstable capsuleer.  When Vile Rat was killed[6], his very touching memorials all across New Eden, some of which continued for years[7], still did not break world; he was able to be memorialized as a person and as a capsuleer, and indeed, like all of us, he was both.  That is due to the simple fact that, like in the ending of Mass Effect 3, the consciousness of the human player and the character are fused, and this fusion conversely brings clarity to the differences between them.

So this is not just a blog about EVE Online, its players, its history, and its development.  This is my attempt to document and elevate a quintessential artifact in the brand-new medium of videogames.  In the last two millenia, our species has only invented a handful of fundamentally new mediums – arguably, just film and videogames.  Every other artistic achievement we’ve made in that time has been a new form in older mediums, such as music, dance, theater, and… maybe whatever fireworks are. 

The actions of EVE players therefore, to me, have the potential to be as important in our history as the actions of the scribes who first wrote down Gilgamesh.  Only time will tell.  But for now, we’re making history and art and explosions together – and it’s my honor to write about it.  


[1] EVE Online in MOMA: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/162462

[2] Think of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch.

[3] For a general overview: https://www.ign.com/wikis/mass-effect-3/Indoctrination_Theory

[4] If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, page 1.

[5] Empires of EVE series by Andrew Groen.

[6]Memorial post by his in-game organization, though this story is well-documented across broader gaming media as well: https://imperium.news/rip-vile-rat/

[7] https://kotaku.com/warring-eve-factions-take-a-break-to-remember-a-fallen-1827249191

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