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.

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

  1. I love that last paragraph. Especially for the explicit distinction between an opponent and an enemy.
    And I share the same point of view. In fact I often had the thought of writing something of the likes after seeing the excesses on r/Eve, but I could not. Partly due to time, my lacking grasp on the English language, not enough brain cells to come up with names for the different play styles, and a bunch of other reasons.
    Now that it has been written down, I thank you for taking this imaginary burden of my imaginary shoulders. ❤

    Cheers. o7

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s