I wrote in Post I on this blog about how I think EVE in general is a work of art; and given the huge social movements towards esports, it seems entirely fair to say that EVE is also, if not a form of athletics, a form of competition. Generally, in our culture, we see art and athletics as separate—you might make a movie or a painting about a great athlete but, the way we commonly see it, this is moving across styles, from competition to art. Yet we also have plenty of places where art is entered into a competition, at any level from your local craft fair to awards like the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys that arguably place entire mediums within the competitive sphere. Esports further complicates this, such that, if we consider a videogame a work of art, then people are now competing using a work of art, almost as directly as if they were playing tennis with a painting instead of a racquet. So, clearly, the distinction between art and competition, and more specifically art and athletics, is a sort of cultural illusion.
There are, and have been, many cultures whose view of art and athletics is much more explicitly synergistic. Hula dancing is a good example of an artform that is also often explicitly competitive; the original Greek understanding of the Olympics also was as something blending art, athletics, and sacred ritual. While, as with anything, our almost uniquely secular society does influence how we express these impulses, I have a hunch that our understanding of art and athletics is much more linked than we explicitly let on. October, 2021, and EVE Online are a great time and topic to explore this, because just now, the first Alliance Tournament in years is heating up. In this post I want to explore a simple question: What would it take for our competitive piloting to be, itself, a work of art? How would the community have to view feats of piloting for the pilots themselves to become artists?
The first step to answering this question lies in the connection between storytelling and “storymaking,” something I’ve hinted at before on this blog, and will be writing more about in the future (probably until I’m in the grave). In essence, these terms break down this way:
Storytelling relies on a linear flow from a creator, through a medium, to an audience. In this case, the creator’s role is purely to manipulate the medium (writing, film, etc.) and the audience’s role is purely to receive it. This is the only method recognized as ‘art’ by stuffier, Euro-centric understandings, because it focuses on the isolated genius of the creator.[i]
Storymaking relies on a community reception of events or actions, and is represented through whatever means the community uses to enshrine it. Modern sports is a good example of this, in which first things have to be done on the field and witnessed by the community, and are then reproduced into every medium imaginable.
In essence, each is the opposite of the other, so that storytelling means a thing is produced, then received by an audience, while storymaking means the audience receives an event, then produces things about it.
While in some ways opposites, these two processes can also work together.
In the case of fan fiction, for example, the storytelling and storymaking feed into each other in an impossibly complex series of synapses. Let’s take Harry Potter: first, J.K. Rowling writes the original books, in an act of classical storytelling; then fans produce their own works, which, if they forge out into new territory, are also acts of storytelling, but if they reproduce or reinterpret parts of the original, are closer to storymaking, like someone reinterpreting a famous moment from a football game. (In the latter case, the ‘witnessed event’ is the story itself, not something that happened on a field.) The cycle goes around once more when fans decide to canonize things Rowling didn’t intend, such as certain characters being gay, and these revisions then allow other storytellers in the fan community to forge out on their own again. Any vibrant fan community is an endless web of cyclical storytelling and storymaking.[ii] The only fundamental difference here is that the ‘witnessed event,’ that is, the primary material of the original story, could be produced by one individual, while with something like sports, it almost always requires the actions of several.[iii]
Or, in the simplest terms, we can break this down into three pieces: the event itself (a goal, or a scene in a book); the way it is chronicled; the audience and how they receive it.
While EVE does have elements of storytelling—from the construction of the world and lore, to ongoing storyline events like the Triglavian invasion—it is uniquely famous in the gaming world for the narratives its own players create. This occurs through the creation of a primary event on the server, such as a battle, and then the way this event is catalogued, reproduced, and publicized by the community. No doubt simple game mechanics like permanent asset loss and a single-shard server make these narratives have so much more weight, and that weight makes the narratives themselves proliferate to such an extent that in 18 years there are now countless examples. And many of these stories have more importance—are more canon—to the everyday EVE player than those installed in the game’s lore.
But these events, and the stories that grow out of them, get recorded and reproduced in lots of different ways. Like sports, much of our gameplay is recorded, either by people making video content or just saving footage to review their own piloting. Similarly, EVE’s tournaments are recorded and commentated live, so that at least any actions the cameraperson and commentators catch gets chronicled. Beyond that, we also have talkshows that review major battles and events,[iv] Andrew Groen’s history books,[v] and what I call “narrative” battle-reports, which often focus on humor and entertainment more than accuracy.[vi] And then, of course, there is the simple and automatic chronicling done by killboards, which though showing an ultimately objective, stripped-down account, do a good job of ‘witnessing’[vii] the primary event, saving it for future storytellers.
But we EVE players are not the first culture to navigate multiple methods of archiving our achievements. Earlier I mentioned the ancient version of the Olympics – one of the key elements in an Ancient Greek understanding of what I’m calling storymaking, and one whose distinctions trickle down into our culture today. While it’s always incredibly treacherous to speak about ‘the Greeks’ as a whole—falsely eliding thousands of years of history and countless cultures and regions—broadly speaking, this was a culture that understood athletics as part of artmaking, and art as part of athletics. Some key examples would be in Pindar’s Olympic poetry, or in the ritual competition of plays in Athens’ Dionysia Festival. Of course, they also had non-competitive prose histories, such as that of Thucydides. Each of these examples has a parallel in modern EVE culture.
Thucydides’ histories might be the simplest comparison, because they are the direct ancestor of Andrew Groen’s work writing EVE’s history. Of course, this could warrant an immense amount of study, but I don’t think it’s irresponsible to say this, at least this broadly.
Athenian tragedy and comedy would fall into the narrative style of mimesis, that is, of imitation, rather than diegesis, or narration. The idea here is that in a diegetic text like Homer’s Iliad, there is a narrator telling the story, whereas in a mimetic play, the actors are embodying the event and representing it.[viii] In my opinion, our version of mimesis would be in the video accounts we take of our gameplay: they effectively reenact what happened, although with key limitations like the point of view.
But the one I want to talk about in this post is the comparison between “narrative” battle reports and Greek lyric poetry – specifically, the Odes written to commemorate great athletic achievements, most notably those by Pindar. These were complex, beautiful works of poetry that worked both to immortalize athletes and their ephemeral achievements, and as a prize themselves. Formally, Pindar’s poetry remains some of the most magnificent literature we have ever produced, to such an extent that, like Horace’s Latin lyric, it doesn’t remotely hold up in most translations. Yet, in my breakdown above, it falls squarely into the realm of storymaking—a response to a primary event. For Pindar’s original readers, this was not nearly the stigma it is for many today.
So, what’s the difference between Pindar’s poetic accounts of an athletic event and Thucydides’ prose history of a war? There are, of course, myriad differences, ranging from aesthetic to function, but I believe most of these differences line up with the difference between a good battle-report and Groen’s books. Essentially, we’re asking what the difference is between enshrining, or memorializing, an event, and retelling it.
A work of history, whether about a war in a videogame, one in real life, or something else entirely, seeks to capture enough objective details to provide a narrative through inductive reasoning. In other words, it is concerned with accuracy (or the appearance of accuracy) to such an extreme that it has no interest for embodying the events at all. It doesn’t attempt to reenact the events, but to deliver them in a reasoned sequence. It can broadly be thought of as focusing on the objective qualities of an event.
Part of the goal of Pindar’s poetry, however, was to be just as transcendent as the athletics that prompted it. That is, the poem works to recreate some of the awe of witnessing the event by putting you in awe of the poem. It has to describe less carefully, because it initiates a feeling, and chronicles that feeling, existing much more in the realm subjectivity. Poetry and athletics become fused in this way, so that the inherently artistic qualities of the sport make their way into the poem, and the poem competes to distinguish and immortalize itself among other poems.
I think we do the same thing.
Let’s use my Reddit post from footnote vi, “Rise of the Crackdaw.” In writing this, I was trying to capture the feeling of the event, with just enough literal details for readers to know what happened. To me, the primary feelings were comedy – all of us laughing hysterically on comms – and the pride in humiliating a massive empire with a few little interdictors. So, I wrote the post to be funny and humiliating. Now, I’m no Pindar, but the idea is the same: reproduce something like the subjective experience of the event, strung around a few objective details. Some of those objective details are provided in the killboard link, and others are attested to by people in the comments, from my fleet and the other.
But I was writing within an old tradition of battle-reports.[ix] People have been posting accounts of fights like this for most of EVE’s history. Battle reports are, within EVE’s complex narrative ecosystem, as defined a form as there could be, and a pillar of the game’s PVP culture. Posts in this genre are themselves also competitive—and not just in the way any posts on Reddit are made competitive by the upvote system. The idea is clearly, one way or another, to distinguish yourself as a poster just as you did as a pilot; to mirror the martial achievement with a literary one. Of course, not all writeups fall into this style. When we look at a previous tournament winner’s account of the whole tournament, it is much more historical, emphasizing statistics, reading more like the captain’s notes.[x] But it actually makes perfect sense that an individual fight or battle gets a competitive, narrative report, and a broader campaign gets a drier, more historical one: a single event is a triumph, a string of events becomes a history.
So, can our piloting be a work of art? Quite possibly, but more in the way the subject of a film becomes a part of it, or the paintbrush becomes a part of a painting. This is why the word storymaking is so powerful: it isn’t just a single person’s decision to enshrine an achievement, but the community’s actions in creating the source material and then receiving, accepting the work that enshrines it. That means we all have roles in this process, even just as audience members.
Storymaking is a process that goes on every day in EVE, and will continue to go on as long as we do things worth talking about. In future posts, I’m going to dive deeper into this idea, looking at the different ways fan culture subdivides in the EVE community, as well as what “content” even means. But this month, we’ll be watching EVE’s version of the Olympics, in the Alliance Tournament. We will, at the least, see EVE’s versions of Al Michaels and Bob Kostas, as well as some after-action reports and team narratives. Depending on the nature of those narratives—whether they seek to objectively chronicle or subjectively embody the experience—maybe we’ll see EVE’s version of Pindar, too.
[i] The composer Anton Bruckner, for example, was discredited for taking advice from his colleagues and revising his symphonies, in part due to a cultural assumption that this impugned the individual genius of his work. Meanwhile, in many other musical cultures, you’d have a hard time even explaining to a musician how one person could come up with the piece, because their entire system is collaborative.
[ii] Another great example of storymaking is war reenactments. The original event, let’s say the Battle of Gettysburg, is being recreated and reinterpreted by a fan community that acts around it. There are parameters set by the original event—the Union will always win—but individuals get to use a degree of agency within that.
[iii] Of course, there are solo sports. I would argue, however, that setting a record time is still competing against others, because even if you ran yourself, you still had to beat someone else’s time, even if it was from many years before. The only cases I can think of where sports could possibly be performed by a single individual would be something like free climbing or parkour, which do seem to bend my definitions a good bit. But, as I’ll be arguing later in this article, those also become competitive when they are catalogued and judged by a community.
[iv] One of many, many examples from EVE’s most expensive battle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2NfcicvT0Q
[v] Empires of EVE I & II: https://www.empiresofeve.com/
[vi] Here’s one I wrote! “Rise of the Crackdaw,” from the EVE subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/o8mipf/rise_of_the_crackdaw/
[vii] This is a whole other can of worms, but let’s meditate for a moment on the posthuman ontology implied by the role of ‘witness’ to our achievements now being done by a machine. My brain hurts.
[viii] Again, in broad strokes. People write PhDs about this stuff, though. Technically, a play is diegetic mimesis, because the author of the play narrated a story, then the players enact it. If an actor recounts events from a past war, that don’t happen on stage, then this is an example of diegesis happening within mimesis. To make things even more of a headache, these terms have been used academically for over 2,000 years, and people keep changing and tweaking them, so that they don’t always refer to the same thing! I don’t expect anyone to understand all of this – and I don’t myself – but I wanted to include this footnote just for honesty’s sake.
[ix] “Battle Reports “ (BRs) are used interchangeably with “After Action Reports” (AARs).
[x] “Templis CALSF AT AAR” by Deyze: https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/k0y997/templis_calsf_at_aar/