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. 

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

  1. I think you give the blocs more of a pass than they deserve. You say “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.”
    Lying to new players is exactly what they are doing, advertising training and fun pvp but then indoctrinating them into the helldunk or blueballs “strategic” mindset. I’m glad you used Brave as your example because they are the worst offender that comes to mind. They stunt the growth of their new recruits and its a disservice to the community.

    Like

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