“Can I bring my Griffin?”
Imagine you hear this on comms. Odds are, you immediately have an image of the player who’s saying it. I’m willing to bet that image is of a wide-eyed newbro trying to be helpful.
At first glance, you might say this is because of the ship choice. In most new player groups, Griffins are one of the staple force-multiplier ships. They are dirt cheap, flyable from day one, can sit at maximum range and survey the battle, and can sometimes swing the tide. Indeed, ranged electronic warfare is a good way for new players to learn the game.
But I don’t think it is actually the ship choice that conjures such a distinct image of a newbro. Griffins pack an extremely high ratio of power-to-fear factor, and are used all over the game, even by endgame pvp groups like Goryn Clade or Tuskers. But try to picture someone in one of those groups saying “Can I bring my Griffin” and it just doesn’t seem right. No, they’re happy to fly the ship, but they would say “Can I bring a Griffin.” The difference is subtle, but it speaks volumes.
The academic practice of “close-reading,” the basis of literary studies, is based on the idea that we mean what we say; that is, that the difference between my Griffin and a Griffin is also a difference in meaning. I think this is a really cool place where we can stop and close-read some of our language around EVE Online.
We see this same phrasing in the “Can I bring my Drake”[i] meme. That phrase simply is not as funny if it’s “a Drake.” Why? Because, simply put, the use of the word my implies that the pilot only has one of that ship, whereas the use of a implies that they have many. The use of my denotes a new player with regards to a Drake or a Griffin because both of those ships are relatively cheap, and anybody past their first few months would likely 1) understand that ships are ammo in EVE, and 2) have several of their cheaper ships. We imagine that the Tuskers pilot who wants to bring “a Griffin” has a hangar full of them, and happily burns through them like Juul pods. (In my research for this piece, I found that Griffins are also known to cause strokes, but usually in the people they’re used on.) In contrast, the newbro who wants to bring “my Griffin” sounds like they only have one – a level of poverty comparable to having to share a single Solo cup at a dinner party, only really possible in the earliest part of a pilot’s career.
If you’re like me, once you notice this vocal pattern, you’ll start hearing it everywhere. (That is, if you play EVE. If you’re one of my valued non-EVE readers, and you hear someone in real life ask if they can bring their Drake, please immediately pull the nearest fire alarm.) Once you start hearing it, you’ll notice that my and a also overlap, forming a sort of gradient that makes the terms quiet indicators of a pilot’s wealth. For example, if a pilot says “I’ll bring a Deimos,” they sound squarely within EVE’s middle-class: able to expend medium-priced combat cruisers. But if a pilot says “I’ll bring a Redeemer,” they at least sound like they’re quite in-game wealthy: able to consider ships expendable that would take a new player months just to afford. Conversely, the same pilot who says they’ll bring “a Deimos” might also say “my Redeemer,” without seeming inconsistent at all – for most of us, ships like the Deimos are expendable, but Black Ops battleships are prized assets. If a pilot says “my titan,” you imagine that they only have one, but also know that they’re quite wealthy. If someone says “I’ll drop a titan on them,” you should definitely try to get in their will.
This simple wrinkle in the way we talk about our ships also affects how we think about them. One of the key learning moments in EVE is when a player loses a ship early on (maybe their first, maybe not) and comes to conceptualize that ships in EVE are more like shoes than like a house: even if you spend a lot of money on them, you don’t imagine having them forever. In this sense, the word a before a ship also indicates a willingness to lose it, whereas my might indicate more reservation, just like saying “I’ll wear a pair of sneakers because it’s muddy,” versus “I’ll wear my Gucci loafers because it’s muddy.” One of those statements sounds a lot more realistic than the other.
Close-reading tells us that the way we talk and think is a feedback loop: we pack hidden meaning into what we say (as I’ve explained so far) but what we say also imparts meaning back to us. This is the original logic behind political correctness, which suggests that when I call someone something dehumanizing, I am first putting bad out towards them, but I am also reinforcing my own belief in that reality, reinforcing my biases and putting bad into myself. In the case of EVE and our assets, maybe saying “my Griffin” indicates outward that I only have one of this very expendable ship, but it might also reinforce my attachment with the ship, and make me more averse to losing it. If you don’t believe me, try putting “Griffin” into the first line of the US Marine Corps’ Rifleman’s Creed – “This is my Griffin. There are many like it but this one is mine.” Still feel like you can throw that ship away?
Of course, one day the Rifleman will die, and the rifle will no longer be his. The world is funny that way. We use language, not just fancy legalisms but simple words like my and a, to make us feel like we own our car, our land, or even our ideas, while yet knowing that we are mortal and cannot possibly have these things forever. Our assets in EVE are the same way. Everything in New Eden can die and be permanently lost, and even if it isn’t lost in-game, every single EVE player will also die one day and lose their virtual assets just like their real ones. At some point, the servers will shut down too.
These latter features, of server apocalypse and players’ own mortality, are shared by every online videogame. But the first part, the permanent death of assets, is intentionally built into EVE and affects every player’s experience of the game even while still… alive.
So, maybe the use of the phrasing my Griffin, my Drake, or even my titan, is fundamentally at odds with the nature of EVE, just like how my property is fundamentally at odds with the nature of reality. That’s not necessarily a problem for us, as long as we can keep our heads straight about the actual value of those assets, and not let the Endowment Effect keep us from actually enjoying the game.
The Endowment Effect[ii] is a psychological and economic principle that suggests that we ascribe more value to things that we own than those we do not. The Rifleman’s Creed is attempting to trigger this reaction with its first line, getting a Marine to think of their weapon as more important that someone else’s identical copy. We’ve all felt it before. For example, I used to hate on iPhones until I got one, and then suddenly wanted to believe that iPhones are great, and moreover that mine was great; I used to sneer at everyone and their cat having a blog and a Youtube channel, and now I’ve lived long enough to become the bad guy. This effect is used in videogame monetization[iii], which is an entire industry devoted to the science of getting people to place value on legally valueless things[iv]. They’ve gotten very good at it. This is the exact tactic behind CCP’s latest scandal, the new player death popup[v].
The idea behind the Death Popup is not just to get the player thinking forward rather than back (arguably good for retention but also priming them for monetization) but also to trigger the Endowment Effect with their ship. Three different times in the popup it refers to “your” ship, clearly reinforcing that that ship was somehow special because it was owned. Just look at that popup and imagine it says “Lost a ship?” and so on, replacing the word “your” with “a”. That is just not as strong of an incentive to spend money.
Yet, as we’ve seen, the Endowment Effect is fundamentally at odds with the nature of EVE’s world. While it might make certain things easier to monetize, such as EVE’s “magic moment” of first death, that is a gimmick that can only occur early on in a player’s career. Imagine the advanced player who just lost “a Drake” getting this popup – the phrasing your ship would seem utterly alien to them. In fact, I would argue that EVE does a fantastic job at blunting the Endowment Effect and letting people learn to take more risks.
I have posted on Reddit[vi] about how the Scarcity Era’s real challenge is in reducing players’ dopamine rewards after years of Pavlovian training towards risk-aversion and asset-hoarding. I have also planned a post on this blog[vii] about how skills-based games are harder to monetize, explaining why CCP pushed for half a decade towards the horizontal skills-growth[viii] that allowed for years of increasing dopamine from cheap sources. Those are two profoundly bad business decisions for CCP long-term, as both made EVE less unique compared to its competition, while also making players’ attachment shallower and more chemical.
I also think that the real issue with the new-player death popup is how it promotes the illusion of ownership in a world of permanent loss. This, too, is a short-sighted mechanism that only trains new players into misconceptions about the game. Let me be clear about this: advanced players learn to refer to their assets with the word “a” as a method of survival. Simply put, that emotional detachment from assets is the only way for this game not to be emotional torture, because you will die. A lot. CCP teaching new players to feel attached to their assets might be a way to snag a quick five dollars, but it is also priming players to be more upset the next time. As players repeatedly die and get monetized, many will quit out of frustration, and a few “whales” will hang around. However, turning the new player pipeline into a few risk-averse, emotionally abused, cash-cows is at once irresponsible and unhealthy for the game.
If CCP changed the popup to say “Lost a ship,” it would not be nearly as bad. That’s how powerful language can be.
It is also incumbent upon existing players to fight back against the language of permanent ownership, and the Endowment Effect that comes with it. Their success in getting new players to ask if they can bring “a Griffin,” even on their first day in EVE, ironically might determine how long all of their assets might live until the servers shut down.
[i] A ubiquitous meme from the 2012 era of EVE, when the flexible and easy-to-fly Drake was by far the most common ship in the pvp metagame. Because just about every group ran Drake fleets, just about every pilot owned one, even if it was the only pvp ship they owned. The nucleus of the meme developed as these pilots would routinely ask “Can I bring my Drake?” on non-Drake fleets, because it was the only pvp ship they had.
[ii] Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/romantically-attached/201608/how-will-the-endowment-effect-affect-you
[iii] Unfair Play? Section 4, “Discussion”
[iv] Unfair Play? Section 3.3, “In-game purchases and consumer protection”
[v] A change in June 2021 that caused massive uproar in the community, the “Death Popup” prompts new players to spend real-world currency to replace their ship after first loss. My favorite take on it is from Ashterothi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f6lp_mYxQA
[vii] Check in next week! Post III in the main blog will be about some other sections of the Unfair Play? article, and how companies want you to solve problems with money, not skill.
[viii] Check out Post II on the main blog for more on vertical versus horizontal skills growth, and why one is good and one is… lucrative.
One thought on “III – Well-Endowed: The Language of Ownership and EVE’s “Death Popup””
I hope the right people at CCP read this text as well. They could likely pull something good out of it.