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.